NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

The Numbers Give Chevrolet The Edge At Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson is a six-time winner at Charlotte Motor Speedway and comes into this weekend’s race just three points out of the lead in the standings.

CONCORD, N.C. – Chevrolet is a 36-time NASCAR Manufacturers’ Champion on the Sprint Cup circuit and the odds are it will earn its 37th title this season.With six races remaining, Chevy holds a 10-point lead over Toyota (206-196).

That’s not insurmountable but it is formidable.If Chevy does win another title, it will mean that it has won it 37 times since its full-time return to NASCAR in 1972, 41 years ago.

Return?

Oh, yes.

While Chevrolet competed regularly in NASCAR’s formative years, during most of the 1960s – the decade in which NASCAR raced into its superspeedway era – Chevy was out of racing.

As far as NASCAR was concerned, General Motors was a non-entity. Chrysler and Ford held sway with such dominant teams as Petty Enterprises (Chrysler) and Holman-Moody (Ford).

Thing was, Chevrolet was far and away the most popular car in America.

As the oft-told story goes, one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers and team owners realized this and thought something could be done about it.

Junior Johnson was a Ford man during the ‘60s but when the 1970s began, he found it difficult to acquire the necessary funds and technical assistance he needed from the manufacturer.

At the time, Ford was backing several successful teams and it is safe to say its pockets were only so deep.

In 1972, Bobby Allison drove a Chevrolet built by Junior Johnson to 10 wins, which cemented Chevy’s return to racing.

Johnson’s last hurrah with Ford came in 1969, when Lee Roy Yarbrough won NASCAR’s “Triple Crown” with victories at Daytona, Charlotte and   Darlington.

After a couple of seasons running a part-time schedule Johnson was approached by millionaire Richard Howard, the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, prior to the 1971 season.

Like Johnson, Howard knew that Chevy was out of racing. Being the keen promoter he was, he figured fans would turn out in droves at CMS to see a competitive Chevy on the track.

So he approached Johnson and said if the team owner from Ronda, N.C., would build a Chevy Howard would pay for it.

The deal was struck and Howard was listed as the owner of the Chevrolets Johnson built. “Chargin’ ” Charlie Glotzbach was hired as the driver.

Howard’s hopes were realized at the World 600 at CMS. Glotzbach won the pole and, in front of a huge crowd, led the most laps until a blown engine forced him to a 28th place finish.

Soon after, Glotzbach won at Bristol. That made it official – after many years, Chevy was a winner again.

Knowing full well Chevy’s impact, Howard and Johnson required promoters to pay a fee of thousands of dollars if they wanted the car in their races.

Some refused to pay. Many others did not.

In 1972 Howard and Johnson decided to run for the Winston Cup championship. They wanted to keep Glotzbach but had to accept a better offer.

Looking for work, Bobby Allison came to Johnson and Howard with a Coca-Cola sponsorship of $80,000 – a significant sum for the day.

In a red-and-gold Chevrolet Allison helped make NASCAR history. He won 10 races but, in a season-long war with Richard Petty, lost the championship by 128 points to his rival.

No matter. Chevrolet had a firm foothold in NASCAR. Success continued with Johnson, who became the team owner again after Howard’s departure following the 1974 season.

With Cale Yarborough aboard Johnson’s Chevy won three consecutive championships in 1976-1978.

That stood as the NASCAR record until Jimmie Johnson – yep, in a Chevrolet – won five in a row from 2006-2010.

Johnson is in a fight for a sixth championship. There are five drivers who have a shot at the title as the season moves to the Bank of America 500 at CMS, but the most intense battle may be waged between Johnson and points leader Matt Kenseth, who has had a superb season in Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas.

Kenseth leads Johnson by a mere three points.

“The track has been really good to us,” said Johnson, who has six career wins at Charlotte. “I certainly need another strong outing the way things are going in the Chase right now.

“I know our setup will be different here than it was in the spring. I feel we’re better off now.

“Of course, the whole field is better, too.”

For Chevrolet, the numbers are strong at CMS. Chevy drivers have won 41 of 109 races at the 1.5-mile track.

That includes three of the last five – Kevin Harvick (Coca-Cola 600, 2011-2013) and Kasey Kahne (600, 2012).

“It was good pit strategy that we hit on the last race here,” said Harvick, the winner at Kansas last week who is currently third in points, 25 behind Kenseth. “Gil Martin (crew chief) made the right call at the end to put us in position to have a good restart.

“Once we were in the right spot we were able to hold the lead.”

While it appears the numbers and the odds favor Chevrolet at Charlotte, there are certainly no guarantees – hardly.

Heck, even Chevy drivers will tell you that.

 

 

The Story Of The ‘79 Daytona 500? I Still Don’t Like The Ending

After Junior and Cale Yarborough won a third consecutive Winston Cup championship in 1978, they started the ’79 season with a great deal of optimism and a new sponsor.

The odds of achieving a fourth-straight title were long, but Junior Johnson & Associates had already bucked the odds with a trio of championships.

Many NASCAR observers felt the team, long established as perhaps the best in stock car racing, certainly had what it took – driver, equipment, and personnel – to win another title.

Things started out well enough as Yarborough finished third on the road course in Riverside, Calif., the first race of the season.

Then it was on to the Daytona 500.

No one could have predicted what would happen in that race, considered one of the greatest in NASCAR’s history and credited – because it was broadcast nationally on TV by CBS – as the force that propelled stock car racing into the national consciousness.

To be honest, in 1979, Junior could not have cared less about any of that.

 

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

 

 

 

For me, when it comes to the 1979 Winston Cup season, believe me, I know the story everyone wants to hear.

I’ve heard it, told it and even seen it about a million times and, to this day, I still don’t like the ending.

Before we get to the 1979 Daytona 500 – reckon you knew that’s what I was talking about, right? – I’d like to tell you about a major change at Junior Johnson & Associates that took place before the season began.

We would continue to race Oldsmobiles and roll out a Chevrolet at selected races, but they would have new colors – mostly blue and white, since we landed the sponsorship of Anheuser-Busch and its product, Busch Beer.

It was quite a coup for us and it was, for me, the beginning of a relationship with Anheuser-Busch that would last for many years. The company also became a big player in NASCAR itself.

On to Daytona …

Everyone was aware that the Daytona 500 was going to be broadcast nationally by CBS. It was going to be flag-to-flag coverage, a first for NASCAR.

On the morning of Feb. 18, the day of the race, we learned that a massive snowstorm had struck most of the country. People stayed home and to pass the time, millions of them decided to tune in the race and see what this NASCAR stuff was all about.

We were about to race in front of the largest audience in NASCAR’s history.

If there’s not enough motivation to win the Daytona 500 simply because it’s NASCAR’s most prestigious race, believe me, there’s more than enough when that many folks are watching.

We figured we could win. Why not? We were coming off three straight championships and Cale was the 500 winner in 1977.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Buddy Baker, who loved the superspeedways, was the pole winner in an Olds with a record speed of 196.049 mph.

Donnie Allison, in Hoss Ellington’s Olds, was also on the front row. Then there was old nemesis Darrell Waltrip, who had already won earlier at Riverside, along with a 125-miler and the Sportsman 300 at Daytona.

As optimistic as we were, I thought it was all over not long after the race started. On just the 32nd of 200 laps, Cale, Donnie and his brother Bobby crashed along the backstretch.

Donnie lost a lap. Cale got stuck in the mud and lost three laps. I figured we were finished and so did just about everyone else.

But, fortunately, some timely caution periods allowed Cale to return to the lead lap. Donnie got there, too.

With 50 laps to go Cale and Donnie hooked up in the draft and they were gone. They left the field behind. It was obvious they were going to determine the outcome.

Remember, this was in the day of the “slingshot” pass, which the guy running second could utilize to quickly take the lead.

I had figured that out myself nearly two decades earlier.

Sure enough, on the last lap the two drivers came out of the second turn and headed down the backstretch. Cale was exactly where I wanted him to be – right behind Donnie.

He moved to the low side of the track to make the pass. Then, well, I could hardly believe what I saw – Donnie moved down to make the block. But he did a lot more than that. He forced Cale into the grass.

Being the type of driver he was, Cale did not back off – and I darn sure didn’t want him go.

But he did call me on the radio earlier and told me that he thought Bobby had been waiting on him and was going to wreck him – stuff like that.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Cale was talking about but I think he thought Bobby was going to wreck him to keep him from catching Donnie.

I told Cale, “Just win the race. Catch Donnie and do your job.”

The next thing I knew, those two Oldsmobiles were bouncing off each other. They would split and then hit again. Then they locked together, hit the wall in the third turn and slid into the grass, where they stopped.

Richard Petty was running a distant third and with Cale and Donnie out of the way, all he had to do was keep Waltrip at bay to win the Daytona 500 – which is exactly what he did.

Of course, I didn’t hear Ken Squier’s call on CBS about a fistfight in the infield. I didn’t know, at first, that Bobby had stopped in the third turn – for reasons I can’t imagine – and that he, Cale and Donnie had gotten into it.

I didn’t know any of this until somebody came running up to me in the garage after the wreck and said all three of ‘em where over there fighting.

Naturally, I was very upset. Here my driver had made up three lost laps and had put himself in position to win the race – and he didn’t.

The person that told me about the fight asked me if I was going to do something about it. Dumb question.

“Hell no,” I said. “Let ‘em kill each other as far as I’m concerned. This day is over for me.”

A day after the race, NASCAR put the blame on Donnie – and in my opinion, that’s exactly where it belonged. And as for Bobby, he didn’t have any business stopping and instigating the fight, as far as I was concerned.

Bobby, Cale and Donnie were all fined $6,000. Donnie was given a severe probation. Then he and Bobby filed an appeal and NASCAR changed everything.

The fines stood at $6,000 but $1,000 would be given back per race over the next five events. The remainder of the money would be put into the point fund.

Huh?

The facts spoke for themselves. Donnie ran Cale plumb into the grass. Then Bobby steps in and it ain’t none of his business. He should have let Cale and Donnie settle it between themselves. Some people stick their noses in places where they ain’t got no damn business.

I knew some of the people who made the judgment and their first call was the right call. Fines all around and, at the least, probation for Donnie.

This business of returning money just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially where the Allisons were concerned.

They say because of the race’s conclusion – and all that was involved – and the massive audience that had seen it, NASCAR became more popular than it could have imagined.

You know, I believe that.

But at the time I really didn’t care. All I knew was that we had lost a race we shouldn’t have.

And that’s not a good way to start any season.

Another Title Year, But Along Came “Jaws”

After the successful 1976 season, in which he won his first NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Junior felt his team had finally reached its stride. He had no doubt 1977 would be another banner year.

There was reason for Junior to be optimistic. His team and driver remained intact and would campaign a new car approved by NASCAR.

It was the slope-nosed Chevrolet Laguna S-3, judged by nearly everyone to be the car to beat on the superspeedways.

Of course, Junior Johnson & Associates wasn’t the only team that would race the car in 1977. Another was the fledgling DiGard Racing Co., which had Darrell Waltrip as its driver.

Waltrip won two short-track races for DiGard in 1975 and 1976. But he was far from happy. His team failed to finish 16 of 30 races in 1976.

That did not sit well with the ambitious, brash Waltrip, a Kentucky native who had never shied away from expressing his opinions.

Crew chief Mario Rossi was gone before the season started. Replacement David Ifft lasted a month and the job was handed to Buddy Parrott.

As much turmoil as there was at DiGard, all went smoothly for Junior’s team – for the most part, anyway.

For the first time there was discord between Junior and Cale. Also, despite its internal problems, DiGard became a NASCAR force.

It and Junior Johnson & Associates won the most races.

It was just a matter of time before the teams, and their drivers, were at loggerheads.

 

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

 

My faith in Cale and the team was rewarded just as the season began.

We won the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race and followed that with a victory at Richmond one week later.

Then we went on our usual short-track blitz, winning at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Martinsville. To be honest, everyone thought our team was the one to beat on half-milers, but that didn’t happen often.

Then we went on to win at Dover and Michigan. Cale led the point standings for the first 17 races of the season and, to tell you the truth, I was feeling pretty cocky.

But at Daytona on July 4, we suffered a broken transmission and finished 23rd, 14 laps down, to winner Richard Petty, who had been dogging us in the points all season long. Cale’s lead shrank to 17 points over Petty.

Twelve days later at Nashville, Cale finished a respectable fourth as Darrell Waltrip won. Waltrip, by the way, had been steadily improving – and piling up victories – with DiGard.

We came out of that race with a 12-point lead over Petty.

Then we lost our advantage at Pocono. Cale finished sixth and Petty was the runnerup to Benny Parsons. We lost the points lead for the first time that season as Petty swept into an eight-point lead.

As disappointing as that was I knew it was a lead of little substance. We could get it back in the very next race.

Which we did at Talladega after Cale finished second to Donnie Allison, who had to get out of Hoss Ellington’s Chevrolet after the heat got to him

His relief driver? Waltrip. A bit ironic don’t you think?

Everyone on our team was happy that we had retaken the points lead by 32 over Petty. That is, everyone but a single individual – and that was Cale.

For some reason he thought our Chevrolet was junk. He sounded off about it afterward. He said he had the sorriest Chevrolet in the race and that if he had won, “I’d be in court Monday morning for stealing.”

I thought to myself, “What the hell?” Here we finish second, retake the points lead and Cale has the audacity to criticize our Chevrolet? I admit I was pretty steamed.

I told the media, “Here we are in the middle of a championship battle and if Cale starts to running his mouth, he’ll be looking for another car.

“We don’t have to listen to a bunch of lip from him.”

And I meant it. I wasn’t going to tolerate any of Cale’s guff. I know for a fact he was never one not to speak up when things bothered him. But he knew I meant what I said.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Cale would lead the points standings for the remainder of the year and win a second consecutive Winston Cup title.

For us, that was the end of the verbal confrontations, but not those on the track.

In the Southern 500 at Darlington, Cale and Waltrip went head-to-head, and lip-to-lip, for the first time.

They staged a terrific battle for position until, on lap 277 of 367, they finally crashed. Waltrip tapped the rear of D.K. Ulrich’s car, sending him into our Chevrolet. Terry Bivins became involved in the four-car melee. Everyone suffered extensive damage.

Afterward, Ulrich went up to Cale and asked, “You knocked the hell out of me. Why did you hit me?”

Cale told him the truth. He said he wasn’t the culprit, Waltrip was. “I didn’t touch you. Ol’ Jaws hit you.”

“Who?” Ulrich asked.

“Jaws,” Cale heatedly said. “It was ol’ Jaws Waltrip.”

Cale had given Waltrip his lasting nickname – that of the famous movie shark.

I thought that was pretty funny. But I knew Waltrip well enough to know he wasn’t going to take it. He would, somehow, retaliate.

At Martinsville in intense, searing heat, Cale won. But he was completely physically spent. He was red-faced, drenched in sweat and, to be honest, looked like a prisoner of war.

He told the media the length of Martinsville’s races should be cut from 500 laps. It had gotten to the point where driver fatigue was more dangerous than actual racing.

He added that, as far as physical punishment, Martinsville was the absolute worst.

If Cale had asked my opinion, I would have told him to shut up. I knew that the track’s bulldog president, Clay Earles, wasn’t going to stand for his remarks.

He didn’t. He said he would not reduce the length of his races and if drivers didn’t like it, they could stay away.

A week later at North Wilkesboro, Waltrip got his chance. He outran Cale to win and promptly fired the next shot in the verbal war.

“I’d have to say this was a one-and-a-half or two on the ‘Cale Scale’,” he said. Everyone knew what he meant.

“I think Cale’s problem could be his years. I know I’m finding out I can’t do the things I did 10 years ago.”

They weren’t that far apart in years. Cale was 38 years old, Waltrip 30.

Me? I thought the whole thing was funny. I could see where Waltrip was coming from. Cale was on top of the heap and Waltrip did everything he could to knock him off, one way or another.

I got a few chuckles but I stayed out of it. I could easily afford to. After North Wilkesboro we had a 293-point lead over Petty. We won the championship three weeks later at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season. Cale won nine races that year.

Waltrip finished fourth in points with six victories, his best season with DiGard. I knew he was going to be a force in the future.

What I didn’t know is that within a short time, I would become more involved with him than ever I could imagine.

Daytona 1960: I Won, But Only With The Discovery Of The Draft

Few expected Junior Johnson to be competitive in the 1960 Daytona 500. He had picked up a ride at the last minute and his Chevrolet was woefully underpowered.

Junior tried every way he could to get more speed out of the car but to no avail. He thought about pulling out of the race but his team owner, Ray Fox, asked him to stay. Fox said he’d work on the car to get more power.

Junior went back on the track and decided to follow one of the faster cars. To his surprise, he discovered that he could keep up, unlike earlier.
Junior had uncovered the secret of the draft.

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

I can understand why we saw all of that two-car drafting in this year’s Daytona 500.

With the way the cars are configured today one car can easily latch on to the rear bumper of another, which creates the draft. But when there’s a third car it just doesn’t work.

The third car gets the wind off the first two cars but the wind can’t stay over the third car. It just comes down on the windshield. That creates so much drag the third car can’t stay in there.

So two cars work better than three – and we saw plenty of evidence of that in the Daytona 500.
The draft has been a big part of racing at Daytona almost from the start.

The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and everybody thought it was all about horsepower at that big place. Nobody wanted to follow anyone else. They wouldn’t stay behind anybody.

They never really hooked up. They’d always pull out and try to pass. That’s the main reason no one had any idea about the draft in that first race.

But it was different in the second race in 1960. And I had a lot to do with that.
At the start of the season I didn’t have a ride since Paul Spaulding, my team owner in 1959, had gotten out of racing.

Then I got a call from Ray Fox, a car builder and crew chief in Daytona Beach, Fla. He had gotten what was a spur-of-the-moment sponsorship deal from a guy named John Masoni, who owned the dog track in Daytona.

Ray asked me if I would drive his Chevrolet. I’ve always liked him so I told him I’d come down and see what we could do.

At that time Pontiac had the fastest cars and several good drivers, among them Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith. Since Ray had a Chevrolet, I knew we were going to have our hands full.

That might be an understatement. We were 30 miles per hour slower than the Pontiacs.
I was ready to come home. I didn’t want to stay down there and watch the Pontiacs lap me every 10 or 11 laps.

Ray asked me to stay. He made some adjustments to that Chevrolet and I went back on the track. This time I decided to run along with Pontiac. Maybe I could learn something.

Cotton Owens came by and I got behind him; I got right on his rear bumper. I thought he might pull away, but to my surprise, I stayed right there.

When we got off the track Cotton told me that I really had that Chevrolet hummin’. What he didn’t know was that I had discovered the draft – quite by accident, I might add.

Just to be certain, I went back on the track and, sure enough, the car was very slow. I came to pit road and waited for some Pontiacs to come by. I got in with them when I took to the track and I stayed with them.

I knew then that what was happening. We were creating a slipstream type of thing in which a slower car could keep up with a faster one.

I started ninth in the Daytona 500 and once the race started I got to the Pontiacs ahead of me as fast as I could. I stayed with them and did everything they did. When they pitted, I pitted.

In the closing laps of the race Bobby Johns had the only competitive Pontiac. The others had experienced various problems.

Bobby was getting a push from Jack Smith’s Pontiac – Jack was down and had no chance to win – and got around me. But then, with 10 laps to go, something happened that I had never seen before.

The back glass popped out of Bobby’s car and flew into the air. With the speed and traffic situation I reckon we had created a vacuum that sucked that glass right out.

The change in the airflow around Bobby’s car caused him to spin into the grass along the backstretch. By the time he got himself back on the track I was long gone.

I won the race by a good distance over Bobby. And I know for a fact I never would have if I hadn’t figured out the draft.
And, as you know, the draft has been a part of Daytona ever since.

Cope Admits 500 Victory Gives Him Some Clout

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Because NASCAR dramatically changed eligibility requirements for the Budweiser Shootout, old-line driver Derrike Cope, and some others, were afforded what Cope called “a golden opportunity.”

The special event used to be reserved only for pole winners from the previous season. But in 2011, NASCAR expanded the eligibility requirements. One of them declared that past Daytona 500 winners could compete in the Shootout.

Cope is one of them. He raced in the Shootout in Larry Gunselman’s Toyota and finished 14th of the 14 cars remaining in the race.

Cope was eligible for the Shootout because he was the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 in one of the most improbable finishes in the race’s history.

Dale Earnhardt, at that time winless in the 500 although he had earned victories in every other race at Daytona International Speedway, was leading the last lap in Richard Childress’ Chevrolet.

Everyone believed he was at last destined for victory.
Cope, driving for the fledgling Bob Whitcomb Racing team, also in a Chevrolet, ran second. It was going to be a good day for him.
It got better.

As the two cars sped down the backstretch, Earnhardt suddenly slowed and drifted low on the track – allowing Cope to pass. Something was wrong.

Cope, as stunned as everyone in attendance, had only to keep all four wheels on the track to secure the victory.
Earnhardt suffered a cut tire after he ran over a piece of bell housing. Cruel fate had denied him again.

Dutifully, the media reported Cope’s victory. But not one of them thought it was anything less than a fluke – even though Cope, in second place, had run very well.

Earnhardt probably received more attention than Cope simply because the man known as “The Intimidator” had failed to win the Daytona 500 – again.

Cope was in only his third full year of Sprint Cup competition when he won the 500. Later in the year he won at Dover, which was not a fluke.

Those are the only two victories of Cope’s career.
He hasn’t raced full-time, or something close to it, on the Cup circuit since 1998.

But he still races now and then. And, except for a three-year period from 2006-2008 during which he didn’t compete, he’s always shown up for the Daytona 500.

However, the last time he actually drove in the race was in 2004. It’s been rough going since. He failed to qualify three times, in 2005, 2009 and last season.
He’ll try again this year, again in Gunselman’s Toyota.

The fact that he’s continued to simply find rides, much less race, amazes some. They reason he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his Daytona 500 victory.

Cope heartily agrees. He believes that any driver with a 500 victory has some power – bargaining and otherwise – that can produce benefits.

“Well, it got me to this dance (the Shootout) didn’t it?” Cope said. “You bring a lot to the table when you put ‘Daytona 500 winner’ next to your name.

“It indicates competitiveness and the ability to perform at racing’s highest level. So when you are in a boardroom, applying for some money, it’s the kind of thing that can put you right back at Daytona, so that’s a good thing.

“And you can keep racing here and there.”

Over the years Cope has established a successful shock absorber shop and has been a television commentator. He’s also run some Nationwide Series races.

Starting at Daytona, he’s scheduled to do so again in Jay Robinson’s cars.
So he keeps on racing.

Since Cope is now 52 years old, that he keeps on truckin’ begs the question, why?

“I physically love to drive a race car,” Cope said. “At places like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Atlanta and Charlotte – the fast places – the speed is just the draw for me.

“You get challenges like the one here at Daytona with the new pavement. That’s just another aspect you want to experience. You want to absorb everything you can while you can.”

So when does Cope cease the absorption process? It’s not likely to be soon.

“Mark Martin and I talked last night,” Cope said. “And we agreed we aren’t going to let anyone else dictate to us when we should retire.
“We are going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep doing it. We are going to absorb it for as long as we can.

“And, when it comes time to make that conscious decision, then that’s when we’ll do it.”
Looks like Cope is going to put a few more miles on that 1990 Daytona 500 victory.

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