A year into his role as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief and facing another challenge to make the playoffs, Cliff Daniels has a simple request.
“I’m not even asking for things to exceptionally go our way,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m just asking for them to exceptionally stop going against us. When that happens, we’ll be OK.”
This has been a dizzying season of disappointment for Johnson and his team since the season resumed in May. The result is that the seven-time Cup champion is outside a playoff spot heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway and in danger of missing the playoffs for a second year in a row.
Since May, there have been few highlights for Johnson and the No. 48 team.
# Johnson finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 but his car failed inspection for what Daniels said was a part failure and was disqualified. The penalty cost Johnson 45 points.
# Clint Bowyer gained five spots in the last 11 laps at Atlanta to remain 12th in the owner standings and ahead of Johnson. That was critical because cars 1-12 in owner points are eligible to start in those spots via the random draw. Cars 13-24 in owner points, drew for those spots. Johnson’s luck in the random draw would prove to be terrible in the summer, costing him points in the first stage. Johnson has scored Stage 1 points in three of the 10 races since Atlanta.
# Johnson missed the July 5 race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.
# He returned the following week at Kentucky and was third on a late restart when contact with Brad Keselowski spun Johnson. Instead of a chance to win, Johnson finished 18th.
# Johnson started 20th at Texas and finished the opening stage seventh. He hit the wall in the second stage and that ruined his race, finishing 26th.
# While running 13th at Kansas, Johnson was collected in a multi-car crash and finished 32nd, again losing points.
# Last weekend at New Hampshire, contact with Clint Bowyer’s car spun Johnson as they raced for fifth place late in the opening stage. Johnson went on to finish 12th — his best finish in his last eight starts.
All this has put Johnson 25 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron for what would be the final playoff spot with six races left in the regular season.
The challenge is that with Johnson only eligible for starting spots 13-24, it is not easy to score points in the first stage of any race. It won’t be easy this weekend at Michigan. The first stage in both races is at Lap 40 — a quarter of the way through the 156-lap race. Last year, the first stage ended about a third of the way into the race. With fewer laps, it makes it more challenging to gain points early. NASCAR will change how the starting lineup is determined beginning next weekend and that could help Johnson.
Johnson will start 17th on Saturday. That also impacts how Daniels will set the car.
“We really have to slide our scale more toward the traffic balance potential, and you’ve got to be aggressive on the restarts, get all we can for positions there, and then make sure we’ve got a car that is able to pass,” Daniels said. “If you look at Kentucky, if you look at Texas, if you look at Kansas, that kind of paid off for us in making sure that we could pass and we did. We were able to pass and get up into the top 10 or better at all three of those tracks pretty quickly. … I do expect us to get our shot out front at some point during the day (at Michigan), at least that’s the plan.
“We’re going to keep marching forward in what we have built into the car in terms of being able to pass, have good pit stops and good restarts and a good strategy. The tough part is when we get up to the front we may not have quite the raw potential built into the car, so we’ll have to duke it out with them and that puts even more emphasis on executing those restarts and pit stops to keep our track position.”
2. Now what does Toyota do?
With the sale of Leavine Family Racing and expectation that the new team will not be aligned with Toyota, it leaves the question of what does Toyota Racing Development do?
If TRD can’t find another organization to align with, that would leave Joe Gibbs Racing’s four-car operation and Gaunt Brothers Racing’s new one-car effort in TRD’s fold.
With what Toyota invests in driver development, it will need more seats to avoid losing drivers as it will do with Erik Jones not returning to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season.
The statement from Ed Laukes of Toyota Motor North America seemed clear that Toyota would not have a place for Jones in 2021.
“Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint,” Laukes said in his statement.
With Jones’ departure, it leaves Toyota with Christopher Bell and Daniel Suarez, who came up through its development program. Through the years, Toyota has lost Kyle Larson, William Byron, Noah Gragson and Hailie Deegan to other manufacturers.
Toyota’s pipeline remains stocked with Harrison Burton, Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones in the JGR Xfinity program. Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Truck team runs Chandler Smith, Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard. Other Toyota drivers in the Truck Series include Derek Kraus with McAnally Hilgermann Racing and Austin Hill with Hattori Racing Enterprises.
David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, explained in 2018 the manufacturer’s interest in developing talent:
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that manufacturer’s don’t have any business developing drivers. You know you look at Kasey Kahne being brought up as a Ford driver and getting poached by Chevy or Jeff Gordon, kind of all of these examples – what we came to realize is one, why shouldn’t manufacturers have a role in driver development? From the competitive perspective you have two options, develop your own or steal them and you know Rick Hendrick and I have had a friendly you know jab about that because he’ll say ‘I’ll just steal them from you.’
“Arguably, he did already, but that’s okay because the second part of it is more altruistic I’d say and that’s that I think as a stakeholder in this sport, we have a responsibility to give back and we recognize – and the troubling part about it is Toyota doesn’t own racing teams. That’s not our role. The tough part about it is we’ll lose as many of these young kids as we’ll be able to keep just because you know the higher you climb the ladder, the fewer seats are available. That’s what keeps me up at night, frankly.”
3. A catwalk unlike any other
Among the many events postponed by the pandemic was the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Catwalk for a Cause. The charity event held in May has raised more than $600,000 each of the past two years and highlighted pediatric cancer patients and survivors — heroes as they are called — in the fashion show.
Last year’s event raised money for the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Children’s Emergency Department at Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center and the Sherry Strong Integrative Medicine Oncology Clinic at Novant Health Presbyterian Main.
Sherry Pollex, partner of Martin Truex Jr., told NBC Sports that COVID-19 and the economy are forcing foundations to examine how they raise funds.
“I think we’re going to have to come up with some ideas that are outside of the box, that we’ve probably never seen before because we need to honor these commitments to these hospitals and these children that we were going to fight for,” Pollex said.
An example is what the foundation looks to do with Catwalk for a Cause.
“We’re hoping that we can still do something special,” Pollex said. “We’re trying to put all the pieces together right now. We’re not really sure what it’s going to look like. We want to obviously protect the kids and their health and their families and everybody that is going to come in, but we’re hoping it’s going to be kind of like a drive-in movie theater type atmosphere where you drive your car in and are tailgating from the back of it. We’ve got some great ideas for that and we’re hoping that goes off in September so we can get funding from that.”
Fundraising continues for the foundation, which has been selling a variety of T-shirts this summer. Truex said the key is to keep the “word out on what we’re doing. Simple things like selling T-shirts. Our fans and supporters have been excited about little things like that and that keeps the fire burning.”
Truex’s sponsor Auto-Owners Insurance combined with his foundation to sell 500 limited edition mini helmets signed by Truex and Pollex. The helmets sold out this week in less than three hours. Auto-Owners also matched employee donations to the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation. That and the sale of the helmets raised more than $80,000. To celebrate, the hood of Truex’s car this weekend at Michigan will have the names of 1,900-plus Auto-Owners associates who made donations to the MTJ Foundation.
4. Knows the feeling
Brad Keselowski, who got a one-year contract extension this week, can relate to the despair Bob Leavine felt in selling his Cup team. Keselowski shut down his Truck series team after the 2017 season. Keselowski said previously how his organization lost $1 million a season.
“Racing is tough,” Keselowski said in a media conference Thursday. “It’ll make you bitter. There ain’t no way around it. It’s competition in all forms. It’s competition from the driver level, the owner level, the crew chief level and it’s tough.There’s no way around it.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the ownership model being broken. I’m not so sure I believe that. Sometimes I think it is. Sometimes I think it isn’t. There’s a lot to be said for the very pure and true competitive and capitalist model that NASCAR team ownership has, so it’s got its positives and its negatives.
“I don’t enjoy seeing guys like Bob Leavine or anyone else for that matter leave the sport in ownership. I take no pleasure in their pain, but then on the other side I do recognize that in competition there must always be winners and losers, and maybe some people lose that don’t deserve to lose. That probably happens from time to time, but it’s part of the story of our sport is that there are winners and losers.
“We don’t have to like who the winner is, and we certainly don’t have to wish for someone to lose. We might not like who it is that loses. I think in this case, Bob seemed like a really great gentleman who has brought a lot to this sport in a very short period of time, but it’s a tough sport. It really is, and this is part of that unfortunate cycle of life for our sport as well.”
5. Kyle Larson’s future
Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports, met with the media this week. One of the questions he was asked was if there had been any conversations about whether Kyle Larson could be in a Ford next year.
Larson is interested in returning to NASCAR. Chip Ganassi Racing fired him in April after he uttered a racial slug during an online race. He’s since returned to dirt track racing with tremendous success.
So, could Larson drive for Ford in NASCAR next year?
“We’re in the midst of silly season and what I can say is we’re looking at all of our options,” Rushbrook said. “A lot of our seats have long-term contracts and are solid. You saw the extension announced (Monday) for Brad (Keselowski). We certainly have some seats in play, so looking to see what the best options are.
“We’re here to win races in the right way. We want to be competitive on track. We want to have our innovation and tech transfer, and we want the marketing out of it, so looking to see what we can do with any open seats for next year to fill them with the best driver.”