NASCAR: With 2 Wins, Jimmie Johnson Marches towards 7th Title

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he's going to take a 7th title?

Jimmie Johnson has taken to the low downforce cars with a vengeance. Is this a sign he’s going to take a 7th title?

NASCAR may be typecast as a blue collar sport; then again, based on the first five races of the 2016 season, its fans are part of the privileged class, with the latest race at Auto Club Speedway delivering another Hollywood ending. So far, so good.

Once maligned as perhaps the least exciting “cookie-cutter” circuit on the schedule, Auto Club Speedway continued its resurgence of sensational finishes over the past five years, with “superman” Jimmie Johnson, driver of the Lowe’s #48 Chevy, snatching an electrifying overtime victory from Kevin Harvick in the final restart.

At the start of 2016 Auto Club 400, anticipation was sky high that the worn, wide track with multiple grooves and long sweeping corners would deliver compelling theatre, and the race did not disappoint.

Jimmie Johnson soared to the front on the final restart with a power move, but he sowed his victory seeds much earlier in the race. Qualifying 19th, Johnson spent most of the day working up through the field, searching around the race track to uncover incremental speed.

Conversely, I studied Kevin Harvick’s line throughout the race, where he stuck to the high side near the wall, thereby carrying great momentum out of the turns while leading a race-high 142 of 200 laps. Harvick’s car was locked on rails and rock steady on long green flag runs, such that he did not have to vary his line much given the speed he was carrying.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

Wearing the Superman Logo, Johnson is almost taunting his competitors.

On the final restart with the front contenders all sporting fresh rubber, Johnson restarted third — on the inside row — and pushed Kevin Harvick into the lead and then dove low to take the top spot and hold off Harvick in the high line once he completed the pass. Not surprisingly, Johnson last lap time was his fastest of the race.

Aside from the surprising finish, the supreme takeaway is that fans are discussing what happened on the track, rather than being relegated to discussing off-track drama (such as restart rules or post-race UFC sessions in the hauler lot).

Why was the day so good? Because auto racing enthusiasts, including those in the packed grandstands who were on their feet for a majority of the race, got most everything you could ask from a race:

  • 26 lead changes among 8 different drivers. But that was only part of the story. Many cars raced side by side for several laps as drivers who were passed looked for opportunities to return the favor. We had comers and goers throughout the field, and FOX Sports actually put its split screens to use by showing simultaneous races for position during course of the TV broadcast.
  • Despite immense effort, TV doesn’t always do justice to capturing all the action on the track as compared to being in the stands. Early in the race, one sequence I found fascinating was the back and forth battle between Aric Almirola and Kyle Busch for position within the top 10. Over the course of several laps, Busch would pass Almirola by drafting low off the front straight before the entry to Turn 1, while Almirola would return the favor by passing Busch with a sweeping arc out of Turn 4.
  • As another illustration, with 38 laps to go and 3 laps into a restart, we had six top drivers (Harvick, Johnson, Logano, Edwards, Keselowski, and Hamlin) still fanning out with different lines through the middle of Turn 4 and within three car lengths of each other. Listening to the in-car audio, you could hear drivers gingerly feathering the throttle throughout the corners while fighting for grip, showing they had their hands full with the low downforce package.
  • Many cars had a “Darlington” stripe on the right side from scraping the wall, except for the fact that they were running at Fontana. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. delivered a solid 5th place finish (his best finish since Bristol last spring), but his sponsors might request a credit given that he rubbed their logos off the right side of his car from working the fence.
  • Danica Patrick and Kasey Kahne will likely no longer swap pleasantries after their scuffle during the race. Kahne made contact with the rear of Patrick’s car after swerving down from the high side of the front straight, sending her hard into the outside wall. Patrick questioned the authenticity of the move, given she was completing a pass and generally holding her line into the upcoming corner and the fact that Kayne was a lap down by position, while Kahne contended he had no illicit intent. Kayne, for what it’s worth, seems to have lost his way out on the track, and has become the opaque horse in the Hendrick team stable.
  • Joey Logano, driver of the Team Penske #22 Ford, continues to not make any friends in the Toyota camp. Adding to his previous dust-ups with Toyota drivers’ Denny Hamlin at Auto Club Speedway in 2013 as well as the on-track theatrics with Matt Kenseth last year, Logano allegedly took the air off the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. on the rear straight on lap 151 while both were inside the top 10, loosening him up and sending him into the wall. It was unclear whether there was contact between the two, but each driver had their own viewpoint. Regardless, add Truex Jr. to the growing list of drivers stating their intent to race Logano “differently” from now on.
  • Kyle Larson had a violent wreck on the backstretch on Sunday, reminding us of the ever present risk of this sport, with a straight-on impact that crushed the front end and lifted his #42 Chevy off all four wheels after a tire went down. While dramatic, the benefits of recently installed SAFER barriers along entire length of the Speedway’s front stretch & back stretch walls was evident as Larson walked away from the crash.
  • Rookies showcased a bright future. Chase Elliott ran as high as 2nd prior to the final caution flag, while still managing to finish 6th after slipping during the final restart. Ryan Blaney also ran in the top 10 until a blown tire ruined his day.

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1997, Auto Club Speedway has not required a repave, having aged to be one of the gems of NASCAR’s Spring West Coast swing. One can only dream that track owner International Speedway Corporation never needs to repave Auto Club Speedway. With strong momentum, NASCAR now heads to the heart of several short tracks in April, resuming in Martinsville on April 3rd after the Easter break.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

When It Came To Car Prep, Haulin’ And Racin’ Were The Same

One of the traits of being a good moonshine hauler was, of course, how well a man could drive along the small, twisting roads through the hills and mountains of the southern countryside. But, as Junior tells us, as good as any driver was, unless his car was prepared for the punishing nightly ordeals, things were not going to go well. That’s one reason why bootleggers had to become as adept at modifying cars and engines as they were at driving. And that’s a direct link to stock car racing.

Junior’s contributions to motorsportsunplugged.com will appear every other Friday throughout the season.

I think it’s common knowledge that guys like me who hauled moonshine were able to hone our driving skills to the point where racing stock cars wasn’t a big transition for us – hardly.

But bootleggers also were prepared for racing for another reason. They already knew how to make cars go faster. And making cars go faster is what racing is all about.

I started working on cars at a very young age. Actually, I worked on pickup trucks and two-ton trucks daddy used on the farm. I also worked on the vehicles he used to make whisky back in the mountains.

When I started hauling I knew that my car was my most valuable asset. It had to be fast but, more important, it had to be prepared so that it was able to do the job. Remember, it was going to be filled with cases of moonshine and that would greatly increase the weight the car had to bear.

The first thing I did to a car was take off the shocks and springs. Then I looked at the wheels to see if they were stout enough to bear the load. If I didn’t think they were, I’d buy another set of wheels, cut the center out and weld in another. That way I had two centers where there was only one to start with. The wheels would be twice as strong.

I put stiffer springs in the back so they would hold the load when I was on the roads. I put two shocks at each wheel to make the car twice as stable.

Everything I did with a whisky-hauling car was almost exactly what I did when it came to a race car.

I learned to build an engine from scratch. All bootleggers started modifying motors as we moved forward.

You might not believe this, but the best parts and pieces came from California, which was a bit ahead of the South when it came to motors and stuff.

When the war came along California was where most of the ships, wartime vehicles and equipment were made. There were many more machine shops there.

At those shops they worked on engines to make them faster for service vehicles and things like that. They were modifying motors like the bootleggers around home. But in California, because it was done in many more machine shops, they gained more knowledge than we had at the time.

So if you knew someone in California, and you got pieces like camshafts, manifolds, crankshafts and cylinder heads, most of the time you could come up with a faster motor than anyone else had.

But it reached the point where you could come up with a faster engine and not know anyone in California. When overhead valves came out, that’s when engines really began to pick up horsepower.

Earlier, the valves were in the motor rather than in the cylinder heads. That meant you could work on the cylinder heads, but pretty much leave the block alone. When the valves were in the block there was only so much you could do. But when they were in the cylinder heads you could go about as far as you wanted.

The start of all this was the Cadillac engine, which was put into Fords and other cars. Eventually, though, all motors were the same.

Here’s something interesting. For a long time, you could find overhead valves in ambulances. So whenever I heard about an ambulance involved in a crash, I’d take off and buy the engine out of that wrecked ambulance. That motor was great for hauling whisky.

The basic rule of hauling moonshine was to take care of your car. When I came back from a run I’d check over the car. I made sure everything was where it was supposed to be. Then I’d fill it up with gas, check the oil and things like that.

Then I’d put it into the shed, wait until dark and pull it right back out again.

You would think this is just common sense, but you didn’t want to be riding around in the same car you were using to haul moonshine. You didn’t
want folks to recognize you or your car and put things together. You kept your car as much of a secret as you could.

You might not believe this, but some guys would drive around in their hauling cars during the daytime.

If you ask me, they were just advertising. They weren’t very good bootleggers.

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