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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.”

Entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Texas

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The pressure builds for Xfinity and Cup playoff drivers as they each enter the middle race of the Round of 8 this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

Martin Truex Jr.‘s win last weekend at Martinsville moved him into the Championship 4 race in Miami, leaving three spots left for the Cup title battle.

Since a playoff driver didn’t win at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago in the Xfinity Series, two of the Championship 4 spots will be based on points.

Here are the preliminary entry list for both series:

Cup – AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Forty cars are entered.

John Hunter Nemechek makes his Cup debut, driving the No. 36 Ford for Front Row Motorsports with Matt Tifft out the rest of the season after suffering a seizure last weekend at Martinsville.

He will get the chance to compete against his father, Joe Nemechek, who is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman is in the No. 96 Toyota for Gaunt Brothers Racing for his 14th start of the season.

Quin Houff is back in the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports for the first time since Richmond in September. This will be his 17th start of the season.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – O’Reilly Auto Pats 300 (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Harrison Burton, who will drive full time in the Xfinity Series in 2020, will make his eighth start of the season in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.

Bobby Earnhardt will make his second start of the season. He’ll be in the No. 66 Toyota for the Motorsports Business Management team.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Friday 5: Manufacturer teamwork at ‘Dega fraught with questions

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Toyota devised the blueprint. Ford enhanced it. And Chevrolet took lessons from both to win the past two races at Talladega and Daytona by having its teams work together.

I feel like Chevy has kind of taken that to the next level recently to where we all have to figure out a way to beat that,” Joey Logano said.

For fans who long for the good ol’ days of manufacturer battles, Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) will provide that type of action. But it does create some thorny issues with this being a playoff race. Such as:

  • How long should drivers within the same manufacturer work together?
  • What if a non-playoff driver is racing a playoff driver from the same manufacturer for the win?
  • How can Toyota, which has fewer cars than Chevrolet and Ford, compete?

There’s much at stake this weekend, particularly for Chevrolet, which has not had a driver race for the championship in Miami since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title. Kyle Larson is set for the next round via last week’s win at Dover, but Chevy’s other three remaining playoff drivers are not in a secure spot.

Alex Bowman is seventh in the standings 17 points ahead of Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot. William Byron holds that final transfer spot via a tiebreaker with Logano. Chase Elliott, who won at Talladega in May, is seven points behind Byron.

Toyota started the trend of teams within a manufacturer working together in 2016, leading to Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 win and a 1-2-3 Toyota finish. Ford used its strengths in numbers and won seven consecutive races at Daytona and Talladega before Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win in 2018. 

The more cars working together, the more that group can dictate the race.

It wasn’t until after Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Hendrick Motorsports (Chevrolet) worked together in this year’s Daytona 500 to counter the Fords that Chevrolet executives ordered their teams to work together starting at Talladega in late April.

“The benefit of working together is too great versus the penalty of not working together,” Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, told NBC Sports in April.

Chevrolet drivers followed orders, running nose-to-tail with near-military precision throughout the Talladega race this season. It didn’t matter if it was the bottom lane or top lane, many Chevrolets ran together. When it came time to pit, many stopped together.

The results were impressive.

Chevrolet drivers won both stages, the race and took five of the top six spots at Talladega. Chevrolet drivers won the second stage, the race and took the top four spots at Daytona in July.

Elliott said that Sunday’s race is “going to look real similar to what it did at Talladega in the spring and Daytona in the summer. We made a pretty conscious effort with our manufacturer of Chevrolet to try and do a better job of working together. It worked at Talladega. A lot of us crashed, but at least a Chevrolet still won the summer race at Daytona. Hopefully it works out.

“That’s the thing, we can put as much effort as we want or as little effort as we want, but it’s never going to guarantee that you aren’t going to crash or have a bad day there. I expect we’ll do our part on our end to try and make as good of a day as we can out of it, but no guarantees.”

2. How long should drivers work together?

This is the one of the biggest issues. When can a driver make a move that is best for them even if it hurts a teammate in the same manufacturer camp?

Joey Logano was not pleased that fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell chose to push Kyle Busch’s Toyota on the last lap of this year’s Daytona 500 instead of Logano’s Ford.

“Typically you kind of expect manufacturers to work together,” Logano said after the race.

McDowell’s reply?

“Fords weren’t that friendly to me this weekend.”

It’s an issue all drivers running at the finish will have to ponder.

You are kind of almost in a box because sometimes what is good for the group is not the best for yourself and you feel like you are compromising sometimes,” said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. “It might not help you out. That part makes it a little bit tough. At the end of the day, Chevy made it work at the first Talladega so hopefully we can make it work. It is hard to plan and orchestrate stuff like that when everything in the race is going. It has turned into that though.

“You can’t blame the manufacturer for wanting to do that. They put a lot of support behind the teams and they find those spots to say that if we have strength in numbers that we should be able to win the race.”

Until strategies change.

“I feel like we see that a lot at the plate tracks,” Brad Keselowski said of changing strategies. “It goes through evolutions every three or four years, and this is the next evolution.”

3. What if a non-playoff driver is racing for the win?

With all the teamwork within a manufacturer, there could be an issue if non-playoff drivers are among those racing at the front late.

Six of the top 10 finishers at Talladega in May were drivers who are not in the playoffs entering this weekend. Ryan Preece finished third in that race, placing behind Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

So how does a non-playoff driver handle racing playoff drivers?

Ty Dillon‘s best Cup career finish came at Daytona in July when he placed fourth. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I think early on in the race, it’s still the same racing that we’ve done all year,” Ty Dillon said. “I think when you get to the end of the race, you have  … to be aware that it’s hard to help someone that’s fighting for a championship. Sometimes at places like Talladega and Daytona, if you try to help somebody, you might end up causing the crash letting somebody in or something like that. I think that’s truly known throughout the series as drivers.

“Everywhere else, I race with the mentality that during the first half of the race, we’re all racing together. If you get down to the end of the race and one of those guys is on your tail and you’re holding them up, I would expect to give those guys a little bit of a leeway. They are racing for something bigger right now and it’s with the hopes that the respect will be returned one day in your favor.

“I expect to be racing for championships at some point in my career. I would like that kind of respect back. For me, I’m racing for 22nd or 23rd in points. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but those guys have a lot more on the line for one position. … I think you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to be the guy that screws up the guy going for the (championship) because you want to be in that position where somebody gives you the benefit of a doubt when you need it.”

4. What about Toyota teams?

Toyotas are at a disadvantage with having the fewest cars in the field. It’s why Joe Gibbs Racing partnered with Hendrick Motorsports for the Daytona 500. Seven of the 40 cars entered this weekend are Toyotas. Ford has 15 entries and Chevrolet has 18.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Denny Hamlin said. “We are outnumbered, We know that. Ultimately they can’t decide what line you choose to run in. So, from my standpoint … if I’m around a bunch of Fords and they’re staying in line, I’m staying in line. It doesn’t matter what manufacturer I’m with, I’m just going to do whatever is best for me. I think that has been the thing that has made us successful over the years is having that mentality.

“You look at the teamwork from the Fords and Chevys at the last few years. In the end, you still have a bunch of guys in there that haven’t won a race. They still have to be selfish even with their own teammates. That’s when you try to take advantage.”

Another key issue with the Toyotas having fewer entries is if Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin, Kyle Busch – the top three in points – would be better off running at the back for at least part of the race. Truex can’t fall out of the top eight in points regardless of how poor he finishes Sunday. Hamlin and Busch are each 48 points ahead of Logano in the standings.

Asked on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America MotorMouths if his strategy would be to run up front, run at the back or just go for the win. Busch said: “Yes. All three.

“I’m sure at some point we’re going to be running at the back at somewhere or another, we might even qualify there. Past that … you want to get up within the top 10 to get those stage points.”

Busch ultimately said: “I think you just have to go out there and race and race as hard as you can.”

5. Kevin Harvick pit crew member returns

Daniel Smith. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Daniel Smith returns this weekend as the rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team after missing the past eight races because of a surgery needed as part of his treatment for testicular cancer.

Smith missed the final 13 races of last season after the cancer was discovered. He returned at Daytona in February.

He had not missed a race this season until the surgery, which was originally planned for in the spring but moved to August.

Smith joined Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way on to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 postseason and helped Harvick win the title.

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Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota doing more with less as it goes for ‘Crown Jewel’ sweep

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBC) presents a big opportunity for Joe Gibbs Racing as NASCAR heads to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The four-car team has the chance to become the first team to complete a sweep of the Cup Series’ four “Crown Jewel” races – which includes the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 — in the same year.

And should Kyle Busch come out on top with his third Brickyard win, it will have completed the sweep with all four of its drivers.

Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 for his second victory in the race in February, Martin Truex Jr. then claimed his second Coke 600 title in May and Erik Jones finally broke through with his first win of the year in the Southern 500.

“That’s just insane, it truly is,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “To do it with one organization, to do with so far with three different drivers, again it kind of comes back to having the balance that we have across that organization.”

Jones’ win gave JGR 13 wins through 25 races and JGR is the only team to have every driver win this season. The 13 wins is the second-most all-time through 25 races. Carl Kiekhafer Racing had 20 wins at this point in the 1956 season.

Before this year, the most recent examples of a team scoring at least 11 wins through 25 races was Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 and 1998.

“We certainly didn’t expect to win this many races this early in the season,” Wilson said. “Candidly, this year our target was to win no less than 12 races. We’ve checked that box. Our target was to get four Toyota drivers into the playoffs. We checked that box. My gosh, we darn near had five drivers in the playoffs with the way (Matt DiBenedetto‘s) been driving and what he almost did at Bristol.”

Compared to Toyota, Ford has seven wins and Chevrolet has five.

Those are remarkable totals given that Toyota Racing Development only has five full-time entries in the Cup Series, which includes Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 car. In the Southern 500, there were 16 Ford entries and 17 Chevrolet entries, plus Joey Gase, who also raced a Toyota.

Wilson discussed how Toyota, with JGR as its flagship organization, has found success in the Cup Series despite its low car count.

“This has been a very deliberate strategy,” Wilson said. “It’s contrary to our initial strategy when we came in the sport (Toyota entered the Cup Series in 2007). … At the time Dodge was still participating so we were one of four manufacturers. I simply divided by four and said ultimately our target is to have a proportionate representation on the race track. But circumstantially that just never worked out and what we came to realize and came to appreciate is that having a disproportionate of a few number of cars allowed us to concentrate our resources.

“Because don’t think as we add teams I get more budget, that just doesn’t happen. So again, by having fewer, yet higher quality teams, that’s proven quite successful. It bites us on the speedways (Daytona and Talladega) in the way we’ve come to race on the speedway, just because it does become a numbers game. But by and large you look at the last five years and that served us very well.”

Toyota has two Cup championship since 2015 and has won 72 Cup races in that time

What would it take for Toyota to invest in more entries? Simply, lower costs to compete.

“We as a manufacturer could expand our footprint without necessarily expanding our budget,” Wilson said. “Again, if we can do that in a manner that doesn’t compromise our overall effort as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer), then we’re certainly open to that. The other thread to that common denominator is that it’s not just numbers, it is the quality of the teams and organizations. The industry has been talking a lot about this recently and Matt DiBenedetto and his situation at Leavine Family Racing is kind of an example of this. But it’s not just good enough to have a great driver, you have to have a business plan that will support that driver, partners and sponsors and all of those pieces coming together.

“Again, our success is founded upon the strength of our teams and every piece of that team, the driver, the crew chief, the engineer, the manufacturing, all that comes together. If there are opportunities that present themselves to us with quality organizations, quality people and tied to, again, a model, a participation model that allows us to more with the same, then why wouldn’t we consider adding to our fold?”