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Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs to be more active about policing drivers

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PLANO, Texas — Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs to tell drivers that there will be a “huge penalty” for intentionally causing a caution after spins the past two weeks in Cup playoff races raised questions about such tactics.

Kyle Larson and his team were upset with Bubba Wallace on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway after Wallace had a flat tire and spun. Larson said “Helen Keller could have seen” that Wallace’s spin was intentional and that such actions will continue until NASCAR penalizes drivers. Richard Petty Motorsports tweeted a picture of the flat left rear tire.

Wallace’s spin came during the middle of a green-flag pit cycle. Larson’s team was among those that had pitted and caught a lap down. While Larson took the wave around, he could not make up the lost track position in the final 90 laps and finished 12th. He trails Joey Logano by 23 points for the final transfer spot to the championship race heading into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Hamlin has no doubt that Wallace’s act was intentional but doesn’t blame the driver for doing so.

“Bubba’s (spin) this weekend was pretty obvious and obviously it hurt some people and helped others,” Hamlin said Monday morning at Toyota Motor North America Headquarters. “He’s just following in everyone else’s footsteps. It’s been going on for a long time. Especially this time of the season, it can potentially change a lot of things in the playoffs that it shouldn’t.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Sunday that series officials reviewed Wallace’s spin and determined that it did not warrant a penalty.

Hamlin said officials should make it clear to competitors how significant the penalty for intentionally causing a caution could be.

“At least they need to set out if you do it, then there is going to be a huge penalty,” said Hamlin, who was penalized two laps for stopping on the track to cause a caution in the May 2008 Cup race at Richmond. “At least that will deter you. It won’t stop it, but it will deter you if you know you’re going to get a two-lap, three-lap penalty for intentionally causing a caution. It’s tough for them to police it, but they police a lot of things.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials may have to react.

“Well it’s going be a judgment call, for sure,” O’Donnell said. “I think that’s something, you know, as momentum builds or you see a trend and you’ve got to react, you do.

“We tend to trust the teams out there and the drivers maybe too much at times. But we’ll certainly take a look at that. Obviously, didn’t make a call during the race Sunday. If it’s something we’ve got to address, we’ll talk to the drivers and race teams over the week. If we need to address it, we will in the drivers meeting ahead of Sunday’s race (at ISM Raceway) and make sure we’re staying on top of that.”

In a rules card given to each crew chief, it states: “Any driver who, in the judgment of NASCAR Officials, intentionally causes or attempts to cause a caution period by stopping or spinning out or any other action will be penalized at NASCAR’s discretion.”

Hamlin also called out Logano’s spin last weekend at Martinsville. Hamlin and Logano had contact and it cut one of Logano’s tires. He spun, bringing out the caution.

“The 22 spun on purpose at Martinsville,” Hamlin said of Logano. “Everyone knows that.”

That spin was cited on Larson’s radio as he and his team vented after Wallace’s spin Sunday.

Logano defended his actions in the Martinsville race.

“I had a flat tire last week,” Logano said Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. “What do you want me to do? I’ll try not to spin out. I’m not that good. I wish I was that good. That would be really good. I was good enough to spin out and not hit anything so that was good.”

Kyle Busch noted that Logano’s spin at Martinsville impacted his race.

“There’s countless times that you could look at guys that cause cautions and brought out cautions purposely,” Busch said Monday at Toyota Motor North America Headquarters. “It’s frustrating for sure, especially for us at Martinsville, I think, actually the Logano one ruined our day.

“Either (NASCAR is) going to get involved and fix it or it is going to continue on. If guys get flats or whatever, they’re going to spin themselves out to try to draw a caution so they don’t go laps down. I’ve tried not to do that.

“I can look back at Kansas earlier this year, we got a bad tire rub and I knew I had to come to pit road otherwise it was going to go flat and cost ourselves two laps and finish 30th. Could have spun myself out and stayed on the lead lap and probably finished 10th or eighth or ninth or whatever. It’s NASCAR’s job to figure it out.”

NASCAR hints at penalty for crew member who tossed Denny Hamlin to ground

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A NASCAR official hinted Monday that a penalty could be coming as early as today to the crew member who yanked Denny Hamlin to the ground during a confrontation between Hamlin and Joey Logano after Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

NASCAR met after the race with Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, and the unnamed Team Penske crew member who threw down Hamlin.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, addressed the issue on “The Morning Drive” on Monday.

“As we always say, we know emotions are going to run high, especially at this time of the season,” O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The drivers, we don’t encourage it, but we know that they’re going to address each other after the race when they have an incident and you saw that happen.

“Then, unfortunately, instead of kind of breaking up a fight, I think what we saw was an aggressive move by a crew member, so we called the team into the hauler, including Todd Gordon. … I think in this case, you’ve got a crew member who was maybe trying to break it up but certainly an aggressive move that we viewed on our part and unfortunately we’ll probably have to take some action to address that later today or tomorrow.”

Gordon discussed what happened after the race Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and took some responsibility for the incident.

“I probably take some of the ownership myself to start with,” Gordon said. “Stopped Joey when he got out of the car and he’s frustrated. He got run up in the wall with 50 to go and was frustrated about it and justifiably so. I went back and rewatched it. He pretty much got put in the wall on a straightaway. There’s frustration with that.

“Stopped Joey at the car and said we just don’t need to handle that right now and let his emotions get down, and I thought they were at a point where he could go talk. Unfortunately, in the conversation there got to be a push (from Logano).

“The direction that our organization has is separate drivers. We don’t want to have drivers beating on each other. We’ve had the conversation internally, we want situations diffused and separated. Unfortunately, in this situation that happened there, the separation was with too much power afterwards and I don’t think the crew member … he was trying to separate the drivers and did so with probably more force than he anticipated and he’s regretful of that.

“See what NASCAR does that and where it goes. There weren’t any punches or anything pulled. Denny got pulled out there and got pulled down pretty hard. Apologized to Denny for that and how that was handled. Ultimately, I’ll put that one back on me to start with. I shouldn’t have let Joey down there to start with. I probably made a poor decision in letting him go down and talk. A little bit of that is on me and we’ll work forward from that. Understand Joey’s frustration. I think it’s genuine. What started the whole situation was what happened on the race track.  We can talk about what happens in short track racing and all, 50 to go to get pushed up into the wall side-by-side it’s going to frustrate you. I think if the roles were revered it’s probably frustrating as much the other way. … We’ll see what NASCAR does and we’ll adapt to whatever comes forward.”

This is the second consecutive weekend where drivers scuffled on pit road and crew members were involved. It happened after the Kansas Xfinity race the week before. Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick scuffled and crew members converged. NASCAR issued no penalties.

“I think if you go back to Kansas, we spent a lot of time reviewing that video and in our mind, always a judgment call but different incident,” O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We didn’t see anybody really trying to escalate the situation.

“I think in this case (at Martinsville), you had a crew member who, honestly, I don’t think realized the force with which he made that move. We have some light drivers and some big crew members and unfortunately that’s what happens when those situations take place. I think they understand what’s coming. It’s not something we want to see or encourage but we’ll have to address.”

Asked what kind of message NASCAR can send to crews about jumping into confrontations between drivers, O’Donnell said:

“I think we have. I think we’ve been consistent in our reaction and will be consistent here. This is a team sport and with any team sport, I think you’re going to take care of your quarterback so to speak and you see that.

“What we can do is when we need to do address this with a penalty we will. When we see drivers, or in this case, crew members in Kansas trying to break something up, we won’t react. It’s case-by-case, but it’s a passionate sport and there’s a lot on the line and sometimes emotions go a little too far and we’ve got to react.”

Chase Briscoe looks to move on after Kansas incident with lapped car

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Chase Briscoe admits he “kind of felt bad” for Garrett Smithley upon seeing the comments directed toward Smithley after he caused Briscoe and Christopher Bell to crash as they raced for the lead late in last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway, but Briscoe said that “it doesn’t take away from the fact that we should be locked into Homestead right now.”

Briscoe made the comments Tuesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Briscoe and Bell were racing for the lead with 16 laps left when Smithley, who was running five laps behind the leaders, drifted up the track and into their lane. Bell and Briscoe made contact. Briscoe recovered to finish third. Bell finished 12th. Brandon Jones scored his first Xfinity win.

The race was the opener in the Round of 8, meaning a win would have locked a playoff driver into next month’s championship race in Miami. Jones was eliminated in the previous round. At least two of the final four spots in Miami will be based on points. Instead of winning to guarantee a spot in the title event, Briscoe is fifth in the points heading to the Nov. 2 race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe was asked on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio what the etiquette should be for cars laps down when the leaders approach:

“I think it’s so tough,” he said. “Those guys, they’re racing their own race, too. They’re trying to prove they deserve to be there. Obviously they aren’t racing for a championship, but they are racing for their lives. They have every right to use whatever lane they want to use.

“There is a certain etiquette, I think, that comes, especially when two guys are clearly batting for the chance to make it to Homestead. That was what kind of frustrated me. There were a couple of guys even before we got to (Smithley) that ran right on the fence right in front of us. It just made it tough for us to race it out.

“It’s one of those deals that you can’t change it now. You’ve just got to have general awareness of what is going on. It is tough to see out of these cars but we have spotters too. I heard that there was a little bit of a misunderstanding there. Just go on. Hopefully they’ve learned from it and we’ve learned from it and go on and just do better next time.”

Smithley said after the incident that he didn’t know the leaders were approaching.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what.”

Kraft resigned as Smithley’s spotter after the incident, according to spotter Brett Griffin on the “Door Bumper Clear” podcast.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials talked with Smithley about his role in causing Briscoe and Bell to crash.

Smithley stated in a tweet after Saturday’s race that he took “full responsibility” for the incident with Briscoe and Bell.

Briscoe said that as of Tuesday morning he had yet to talk to Smithley.

“He texted me I saw (Monday) and I was so busy (Monday) I didn’t even have the opportunity to talk to him,” Briscoe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “ I’m sure this week I’ll reach out to him and tell him to call me. I understand where he’s coming from, it’s a situation he certainly doesn’t want to be.

“I kind of felt bad honestly for him because he tagged us in that tweet and I saw a lot of people kind of ridiculing him. The fans can definitely be brutal. It was just a mistake. It’s obvious he didn’t do it on purpose. I understand that.

“It doesn’t take away from the fact that we should be locked into Homestead right now, but if we go do our job these next two weeks we can still do that and hopefully it doesn’t come back to bite us.”

NASCAR will not penalize Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer for altercation

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Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer will not be penalized for their altercation after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, a NASCAR executive said Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” that series officials will look at the role of crew members in the altercation.

“In those situations, the key for us is to make sure that the crew members are not coming in and escalating things,” O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “If anything, we’ve just got to go back and look and make sure that’s not the case from our perspective.

“There’s a lot on the line there for the drivers and we certainly don’t want to encourage that but understand that it gets heated at times. Our thing is to make sure crew members are not getting in there and piling on a driver so to speak vs. trying to deescalate the situation.”

Reddick and Custer approached each other after the race on pit road to discuss an incident between them late in the race. Cuter made a comment and put his hand on Reddick’s shoulder. Reddick responded by grabbing Custer with both hands. Crew members swarmed.

O’Donnell also addressed other topics on his appearance:

He said that series officials talked with Garrett Smithley after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. Smithley was five laps down when the leaders approached but ran in their lane and caused Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to crash late in the race.

“We talked to the driver afterwards,” O’Donnell said. “Spotter communication was not where it should have been. I think you look at the history of what’s happened on the track with each particular driver and address it from there. We do have mechanisms we can pull if it’s something we see a pattern with. This one was certainly unfortunate with the leaders out there and created an entirely different race. We communicate from the tower as well as we’re coming down the closing laps to let it play out and give the leaders room. That one was not how we wanted it to play out for sure.”

Smithley had been in the center of an incident with Kyle Busch in the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas when Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s slower car.

O’Donnell also addressed the caution that came out that led to the second overtime restart in the Cup race. An NBC Sports replay (see below) showed the caution light on as Denny Hamlin was within about a car length of the start/finish line. Had Hamlin reached the line before the caution, the field would have been frozen and the race would have ended under caution.

“If you look at the language, it’s when the leader takes the white at the line,” O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The white flag was certainly out but there is a human element to the sport in terms of timing. It’s not an automatic where a light goes on and flag waves. In this case, the light actually came on, I think it was .125 (seconds) before (Hamlin’s) car hit the start/finish line. It was a caution at that point. Certainly very close.”