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

 

IndyCar and NASCAR: Don’t Tamper With Motorsport Traditions

Bristol: “The Last Great Colosseum”

Bristol: “The Last Great Colosseum”

The Holiday season is a wonderful time for celebration and reflection, and traditions are the magical slice of our culture that sustain our most important memories, restore our faith in values, and reconnect our paths with those closest to us.

Looking towards the 2016 NASCAR and IndyCar racing season, I pondered the most memorable 2015 track lessons on how tampering with our Motorsport traditions can alter the foundation of a race track’s folklore and jeopardize its viability, or ensure its future success.

IndyCar’s Vortex in Southern California

As a study in contrast, consider the ocean breezes and desert gusts that the Verizon IndyCar series has experienced in Southern California.

As a cornerstone of the Verizon IndyCar series, The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, running 41 years strong, consists of a pilgrimage of 175,000 fans to downtown Long Beach for this annual seaside festival. Each year, I engage with thoroughly satisfied fans from all over the US, as well as internationally, who often vow to return the following year.

Considered the city’s biggest event, the Long Beach Grand Prix showcases races from multiple series, including the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race for charity and the IndyCar series race. This event is intricately connected to the beach scene of SoCal. Tradition is evident everywhere, yet freshened around the edges with new twists, such as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Trucks being added as a supporting event in 2015. Basically, this race showcases great racing in a fun environment for spectators of all ages.

Yet, as an epic Motorsports failure lacking tradition, we only need to look to Fontana, an hour drive east of Long Beach. For 2016, the Auto Club (California) Speedway will not be on the Verizon IndyCar series schedule, after having hosted 14 IndyCar races since its opening in 1997.

Moving Darlington from Labor Day was 'The Big Mistake".

Moving Darlington from Labor Day was ‘The Big Mistake”.

On paper, Auto Club Speedway should be a stellar track for IndyCar with low banking and long straightaways. Open-wheel cars have set a pair of world records (including fastest qualifying lap by Gil de Ferran at 241.248 mph and fastest average race speed by Sam Hornish Jr. at 207.151 mph) at the two-mile superspeedway.

This year’s Fontana race was one of the best in memory, with 81 lead changes among 14 drivers, along with Graham Rahal winning the hotly contested race in a shootout finish.

Yet, the Fontana IndyCar race failed to establish any sense of tradition, a direct result of the date having been bounced around for four consecutive years. IndyCar offered up no favors, moving the race to August in 2014 and June in 2015, arguably the hottest times of the year in the valley east of Los Angeles. The June race was assuredly the smallest crowd ever in IndyCar’s history at the track.

IndyCar explored several alternatives to retain the Auto Club event as part of its 2016 schedule, including the track’s request to host the season finale. However, the race had lost its identity among the crowded SoCal entertainment scene.

Consequently, the Auto Club Speedway’s solitary major series in 2016 will now be the NASCAR weekend in March. NASCAR, having fine-tuned it schedule with a west coast swing during the more ambient March time frame, has generated three consecutive Auto Club Speedway sell-outs amid a consistent positioning in the series rotation.

Darlington Resurrection

The lesson is not just relevant to IndyCar. NASCAR also has experienced the trauma of messing with traditions, as evidenced by two unforgettable examples.

In 2003, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina was moved from the mainstay Labor Day weekend it had embraced since 1950. For the diehard NASCAR nation, the Southern 500, which had served as a dynamic link to the sport’s rough and hard-hitting early years, virtually died that day. Instead, the Labor Day date was transferred to the Auto Club Speedway, which couldn’t be further from the sport’s southern roots.

After 12 dismal years shifting around the date, the Southern 500 finally returned to Labor Day weekend in 2015, with a retro motif that included 32 race teams running throwback paint schemes, an in-person celebration of 14 NASCAR Hall of Fame legends, and many other classic touches (such as a pre-race concert by Grand Funk Railroad), delighting fans of all ages who were buzzing about the event.

No surprise, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 throwback theme returns in 2016. Chimes track President Chip Wile, “Labor Day weekend has great historical significance for Darlington Raceway. It fits nicely with our Tradition Continues platform as we enter year two of this successful multi-year celebration of the history and heritage of our sport.”

It’s Bristol, Baby

Since hosting its first NASCAR race in 1961, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee holds exceptional lore on the NASCAR schedule because of its distinctive features, including extraordinarily steep banking, an all concrete race surface, and stadium-like seating (affectionately described as “The Last Great Colosseum”).

Back in 2007, Bruton Smith (longtime founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Bristol Motor Speedway), always willing to experiment in a bold way, chose to repave the track by creating progressive banking so that the one-groove race line could be expanded to allow for more side-by-side racing. However, fans, historically drawn to Bristol by its unique short-track tightness of the circuit and continuous contact between cars, stepped away in droves.

After a steady decline in fan turnout and a drop in ratings due to the lack of bumping and close-quarters racing, Smith polled the fans in 2012 on what changes should be made to the track. Fans spoke loud and clear with a demand to “give us the old Bristol back, please”, which led to a diamond regrinding of the track surface.

In the August 2015 night race, Bristol showcased a noticeably improved fan turnout and a nail-biting finish, with Joey Logano’s victory margin of .22 seconds barely holding up, as Kevin Harvick pursued Logano relentlessly over the final 30 laps.

Now on the upswing, the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway has pivoted its formula in order to restore tradition to a race that had lost its luster, by listening to the fans and taking action, exemplifying why Bruton Smith will be enshrined as a 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee on January 22nd.

So heading into 2016, raise your glass and toast your most essential motorsports tradition, whether it is Monaco, Martinsville, or Indianapolis. And remember, tradition is like good health, never to be taken for granted, so get out there and catch a race in 2016.

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

 

 

Busch Overcame ‘Mediocrity,’ Avoided Tire Woes For Clutch Victory

Kyle Busch overcame handling problems and avoided tire woes to win at Fontana for his first victory of the year. He’s now virtually assured a place in the Chase.

It’s very likely Kyle Busch didn’t think he had a chance at victory in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. After all, he said that he had a “mediocre car all day.”

But sometime things can change for the better – and at the last moment.

Busch avoided the tire problems that plagued the field, overcame his handling problems and won the race on the last lap of a green-white-checkered restart.

Perhaps no one was more surprised than he was.

“I came off the fourth turn in disbelief that we won this thing, because we were mediocre all day,” said Busch, who has now won at Fontana for two years straight. “It was really weird, not a race we’re typically used to.”

That may be, but Busch will take the results any way he can get them. He is the fifth different winner in 2014 and his victory all but assures him a position in this year’s 16-man Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He’s got his shot at a championship. And despite his achievements – 29 career victories – he’s never won one.

“This was a ‘Days of Thunder’ thing,” Busch said. “Holy cow, what do you expect with a green-white-checkered finish where most everyone has to come down for four tires?

“But with this win, there’s a load off my shoulders and I can now go out the rest of the season and race the way I want to.”

Busch battled handling problems in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota throughout the race. The car was loose and had no grip on the rough Auto Club surface.

Rookie Kyle Larson finished second at Fontana on the heels of his Nationwide Series victory at the track a day earlier.

Crew chief Dave Rogers called for numerous track bar and air pressure changes to cure the problems.

During a 26-lap green flag run, Busch’s car was mired in eighth place and seemingly going nowhere. But he began to pick off rivals one by one and was in third place by lap 194 of 200 and second on lap 196.

On lap 197 a caution came out after Clint Bowyer’s Toyota spun. For Rogers, there was nothing else to do but give his driver four fresh tires.

Busch came out fifth in the running but more important, he was the first driver with fresh rubber all around.

On the restart, it was all Busch.

He split the cars of brother Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, teammates at Stewart Haas Racing, and then effectively blocked rookie Kyle Larson to earn his third career win at the two-mile Auto Club track.“I knew four tires was going to win the race, so I’m glad Dave called that,” said Busch, who led only five laps in the race.

“There was some great racing up front between Tony and Kurt – it was really interesting to watch that. “I went into turn one thinking ‘I’m going to run the middle,’ and then Tony started sliding off the bottom and I’m like, ‘Nope, not having it.’

I had to get some brake and cut my car to the left and drove underneath him and got him cleared off turn two.“I was able to keep Kyle Larson behind me.

Man, what a shoe that boy is.”Indeed, Larson, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, had a very impressive weekend.

He won the Nationwide Series on the day prior to the Auto Club 400, giving him a one-two sweep in two events.“Yeah, it’s been a really good weekend,” said Larson.

“I guess you couldn’t ask for more, but I was surprised to get up there late in the race.  We were probably a 12thplace car for most of the day.

“We struggled with our Chevy being too loose on exit but still too tight in the center.  We tightened the exit up and got way too tight in the center.

“My guys worked really hard all day long to find that right balance, and right there on the last pit stop we were able to make good enough adjustments where we could go hard for a couple laps.”“Good adjustments” by other teams might have saved them from the tire problems that struck many.Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among the drivers who had problems with their tires – specifically, left-side blowouts in most cases.

Some drivers suggested the cause was the Goodyear tire. Others maintained it was the abrasiveness of the track surface.Goodyear maintained it was aggressive setups and air pressure that cause the problems.

The Gen 6 car has more down force with a larger rear spoiler.Many teams ran as little as 11 psi in the tires. Goodyear recommended 22 psi.

Also, many teams utilized increased camber.Not surprisingly blown tires were anticipated and began as early as practice.

“Goodyear is doing a good job,” said Kurt Busch, who finished third.

“We have faster cars, more down force and NASCAR allows us to put in whatever camber we want.

“Therefore, it’s up to the team’s discretion if you are going to have a problem or not.

”Not so, said Keselowski.“If air pressure was the issue, then we would have blown as many tires last year, because it’s all the same air pressure settings as last season,” he said.

“You just can’t add 500-600 pounds of down force to a car along with a track that has bumps like you are on a Michigan freeway.

“The tires had no margin from last year and I expect similar issues throughout the season.”

While tire problems sent Edwards to 10th place and Earnhardt Jr. to 12th, they are now one-two in the point standings, with Edwards leading by a single point. Keselowski, who tumbled to 26th at Fontana, fell from first to fourth in the standings.

Only seven points separate No. 1 from No. 5.

Unlike Last Year’s Start, The Numbers Improve For Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a lot of positive media attention prior to the Auto Club 400 and for a very good reason.
As the Sprint Cup season moved to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Earnhardt Jr. was ninth in points with finishes of 11th, eighth and 10th in three of four races.

It was abundantly clear that Earnhardt Jr. was off to a good start, although, to be frank, it wasn’t much better than in the one in 2010 – and more on that later.

However, whenever Earnhardt Jr. gives at least a hint of restoring his lost competitiveness, it’s always duly noticed.

And it’s understood why. His last victory came on June 15, 2008. He missed the Chase that year and again in 2009. The past two seasons have been the worst of his career.

This year Earnhardt Jr.’s start cooled a bit after he finished12th in the Auto Club 400 and fell to 12th in points. And he’s now gone 98 races without a victory.

However, before the green flag fell for the Auto Club 400 many speculated that Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence was on the upswing and that, perhaps, he might believe again that good things could happen at long last.

Asked if his Rick Hendrick-owned team was capable of top-10 finishes every week, Earnhardt answered in the affirmative.

“We’re capable of that,” he said. “We’re good enough for that. You should come to the race track and expect to run around the guys who are in that position.

“I feel like we’re legitimate, yes sir.”

What has been most often credited for Earnhardt’s competitive turnaround, this early in the season, is the team-wide personnel swap Hendrick made at the end of last season.

That brought Steve Letarte, formerly Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, to Earnhardt Jr.

It appears the chemistry between Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. is brewing nicely.

Hendrick noted that every driver feels a loss of confidence at some point, but, very often, it’s restored with the support of the crew chief.

Hendrick added he thought the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte combination was the best in the garage area.

That’s certainly up for debate. But Earnhardt Jr. apparently feels the arrangement is working.

“Steve and I have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it’s easy for us to have a conversation,” he said.

Earnhardt Jr. added he hangs around the hauler much more because he enjoys talking with Letarte.

“Just sitting around long enough, eventually something is going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation,” he said. “I don’t want him texting me on the phone while I’m on the bus going, ‘Hey, I think I know what we can do.’

“I want to be there so that I can understand it and talk about it.”

Now, I could be very wrong, but last year I don’t recall Earnhardt Jr. offering any quote that remotely suggested he wanted to hang around the hauler and talk to his crew chief.

While Earnhardt Jr. has had a good start, it must be said that it is much the same as it was in 2010.

After the first five races of that year Earnhardt Jr. also had two top-10 runs, including a second at Daytona, and was an even higher eighth in points.

He has two top-10s through five events this year – again – and is 12th in points, obviously lower than a season ago.

The numbers tell us that after five races, he’s worse off now than he was a year ago – really.

But there’s a very big difference. It’s one that should not be ignored.

Last season Earnhardt Jr., with his Daytona run, found himself second in points after one race. He steadily slipped from there and fell out of the top 10 after race No. 8. Thereafter, as a contender, he was merely an afterthought.

This year he was 24th in points after Daytona, where he was involved in an accident. But, unlike 2010, he has steadily risen in points from the first race of the season until the slip at Fontana.

In other words, Earnhardt Jr.’s season began to fade from the start in 2010. It has done quite the opposite, for the most part, in 2011. It’s a much different trend.

Credit Letarte, the resulting boost in Earnhardt Jr.’s confidence, or anything else you wish.

Earnhardt Jr.’s season, so far, is obviously headed in a different direction. It’s something with which he, and his Hendrick team, has been unaccustomed in past years.

We will see where it goes from here.

 

Print This Post Print This Post