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

For Earnhardt Jr., Martinsville Victory Is Great Personal Achievement

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his fourth race of the season at Martinsville. It was also his first career victory at the historic speedway.

Sometimes disappointment is overcome by achievement.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to be disappointed when he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after six of 10 races.

It wasn’t a big surprise, really. Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports team had not really been on top of its game since the beginning of the 10-race “playoff.”

Earnhardt Jr. had only one top-10 finish in the first five races and it was that fifth event, at Kansas, that did him in.

Tire problems helped send him to a 39th-place finish. That tumbled him to the bottom of the pile of 12 drivers still in the Chase.

He had to win at either Charlotte or Talladega. He finished 20th at Charlotte, which did not help his cause.

And despite a noble effort at Talladega where he led 31 laps and remained at the front of the pack most of the time, he lost position late in the race and couldn’t make it up.

He finished 28th – and was eliminated from championship contention.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic - and very personal.

Earnhardt Jr. was having one of his best seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, but failed to make the Chase. The Martinsville victory was a tonic – and very personal.

It must have been hard for Earnhardt Jr. to take. He was having a particularly good season. Before the Chase he won three races, including the Daytona 500.

He also won at Pocono twice. Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t won three races in a season since he joined Hendrick in 2008.

On top of that, he was third in points after Richmond, the last race before the Chase began. He was comfortably in title contention.

He had reason to be confident, for sure.

The only thing predictable about racing is that it is unpredictable. Given his record and momentum, I doubt there were many who thought Earnhardt Jr. would be out of the hunt after just six races.

Every driver in Earnhardt Jr.’s situation will say the same thing: If a championship can no longer be attained, the goal now is to win as many of the remaining races at possible.

Earnhardt Jr. was no different. One big reason he wanted to win was to prove that the Chase may have been one thing, but the season-long performance by his Hendrick team was quite another.

And there was only one way to prove it.

Earnhardt Jr. did just that in the next race after his disappointment at Talladega.

He won at Martinsville, a speedway steeped in history and tradition. By doing so, Earnhardt Jr. achieved a goal that was more personal that professional.

Simply put, he won at Martinsville – at last.

“You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of like all the pictures on the wall at Martinsville,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.

“I’ve been coming here so many years, I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won and brought home several Grandfather Clocks. 

“I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs.  Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network.”

A combination of a strategic pit stop and Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to gain ground quickly was the reason for the victory at Martinsville.

“We just put tires on it, said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. “Luckily we had a lot of lap-down cars between us and fourth and fifth.  As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position. 

“Then Dale went out and did what he did.  That makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing.”

Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead on lap 497 and led the final four circuits.

Earnhardt Jr. has won bigger, more prestigious races in his career. But he was notably ecstatic over the Martinsville victory.

It was one he had coveted for so long. Add to that it was one that, as far as Earnhardt Jr. was concerned, emphasized his Hendrick team’s solid, season-long performance.

“I think the win reminded the team and the guys what they’re capable of,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Yeah, we’ve had some bad breaks with the tire at Kansas and just some poor runs where we got outrun. 

“Everybody knew it was very disappointing where we were at in the Chase coming into Martinsville.

“But now, we know we can accomplish some really good things and win more races.”

As for Earnhardt Jr., the Martinsville victory is more than just another victory. It’s a personal milestone.

“I couldn’t believe I won,” he said. “I still really can’t believe it.  The clock seems so hard to get, so this is so special. 

“I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win at Martinsville.”

 

Kahne And Team Still Searching For What It Takes

Kasey Kahne has been successful in the past but this year he is winless and has become the weakest member of the Hendrick Motorsports team.

Kasey Kahne has been successful in the past but this year he is winless and has become the weakest member of the Hendrick Motorsports team.

These are not the best of times for Kasey Kahne.

He’s one of four drivers employed by powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, currently the best team in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.

Kahne can avail himself of the best in personnel and equipment.

But that doesn’t seem to do him much good, at least at this point in the season.

Kahne is winless this year with only five finishes among the top 10, two of them, a third at Kansas and a fourth at Michigan, are among the top five.

He languishes at 19th in the point standings.

All of this is no doubt disappointing for Kahne for a couple of reasons. First, he won twice last year with 11 finishes among the top five – six of them in second – and 14 among the top 10. He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Second, and this is probably more disturbing for Kahne, he has become the weakest member of the Hendrick clan.

Teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have six victories among them and are certain to make the Chase.

They occupy the top three positions in points, with Gordon first, Johnson just 15 points behind and Earnhardt Jr. 23 in arrears.

That’s quite a chasm between Kahne and his three teammates.

Kahne believes that for his team to progress it has to be able to run entire races without problems. That has happened a couple of times this year, but more is needed.

Kahne believes that for his team to progress it has to be able to run entire races without problems. That has happened a couple of times this year, but more is needed.

There’s always the question why, and if the answer was easy, it’s certain Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis would have already found it.

It’s only logical that they would gain knowledge from their successful teammates and apply it to their situation – or so you would think.

But what has been proven so many times over the years is that teammates often find they can’t share. What works for one or more simply doesn’t for the other.

Remember that it took Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus 12 races this season to solve their competitive problems. Then they won three of four races.

It could be that, given some changes and better fate, it might be the same for Kahne.

“I think there has been a touch of bad luck and then we just haven’t put together full races,” he said. “We’ve had great practices over the last month, maybe a little more than that. We’ve been really good in practice; great at times during the race, but we haven’t put together the full race.

“And when we have, it’s been one and then we forget how for the next three, and then come back for the fourth one and run pretty well. That side of it’s been tough and we’re all looking at that together to try to make it better.”

Kahne doubtless felt some relief after his fourth-place run at Michigan, his first top-five finish in over a month.

But he’s not ready to proclaim that he and his team have made a turnaround. At Michigan he said one good finish isn’t going to silence the critics – nor should it.

“I look at it as we need to score as many points as we can each week,” Kahne said. “Our stretch of tracks that we run really well at started about three weeks ago. 

It goes for another month, so hopefully we can hit on something over this little span that we have. 

“We haven’t yet, but we are in a good group of tracks for myself and Kenny and our team. 

We just have to do the best we can and hopefully as a group we figure it out and can start putting full races together.

It sounds so simple. But it isn’t. There isn’t one team in the doldrums that will tell you it is.

But there has been plenty of proof that it can be done.

“We just need to put 400-500 miles together,” Kahne said. “If we can do that we will be in a good spot in a hurry because of the points system and the way that it is now. 

“We’re definitely not out until Richmond and I guess that is when you would be out. 

You have a much better shot this way to make the Chase even if you are not running very well throughout the first half of the year.“We are trying.  We are working at it.  We just need to hit on it.

Once we do hopefully we can run with it for a while.”

 

 

 

Earnhardt Jr., Letarte Will Give Their Best In 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a very good 2013 season and hopes to do better in 2014, his last run with crew chief Steve Letarte.

There is no doubt that the pairing of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte has produced Earnhardt Jr.’s most successful seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.

In 2013, Earnhardt Jr. failed to win a race, but, and perhaps more important, he finished fifth in the final point standings. It likely would have been higher had he not suffered engine failure at Chicagoland, the first race in the Chase.

In 2014, Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will have one last chance together to accomplish greater things.

That’s because Letarte will move to the TV booth for NBC, which will begin broadcasting NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races in 2015.

Letarte, 34, will join Rick Allen and Jeff Burton in the booth, yet another union of television personality, driver and crew chief.

As an aside, it has all the makings of a good one.

Letarte has been a Hendrick “family member” since he was a kid. After he graduated from high school in 1996, he began working at Hendrick as a mechanic and tire specialist for Jeff Gordon.

He later became car chief and then Gordon’s crew chief in 2005. Letarte won 13 races with Gordon from 2005-2010.

He joined Earnhardt Jr. in 2011.

In the last three seasons Earnhardt Jr. has one win, 24 top-five and 54 top-10 finishes. He has qualified for the Chase all three seasons.

Letarte served as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief from 2005-2010 and won eight races with the four-time champion.

As said, 2013 was his best season with Letarte.

With so much to look forward to, it begs the question, why would Letarte leave?

Well, he made a good impression on NBC.

“It wasn’t too long into our first meeting about his potential role on our broadcast team when I realized that Steve is going to be ‘must see TV’, said NBC Executive Producer Sam Flood, who was obviously smitten with Letarte.

However, that only partially explains why a young crew chief, who may be part of a championship team, would give up his career.

Earnhardt Jr. said he heard rumblings of Letarte’s possible departure as early as Charlotte in October. By the last race at Homestead, he knew the deal was imminent.

“Yeah, it was a huge shock at first, and just for me personally, it was difficult,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew Steve wanted to spend more time with his family.

“And the more I sat down with him and talked about it, the more it made sense and the more I understood his situation.

“I could put my own selfishness aside and kind of understand what was important to him and how this was good for him.

“You know, he’s a good guy. He deserves these opportunities and he’s earned it.”

Letarte was taken by the enthusiasm and excitement NBC executives displayed over their return to NASCAR in 2015.

“Their excitement and solidarity along with my love for racing fired my decision to move away from the pit box and into the broadcast booth,” Letarte said.

Letarte’s move surprised many, given that crew chiefs and drivers normally move into the broadcast booth when their careers have expired.

Letarte doesn’t appear to be a bit concerned about that. Frankly, if he does a good job – and it’s likely he will – he could remain with NBC through 2024, perhaps longer if the network’s contract with NASCAR is renewed.

But the more pressing question is, how will Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. perform in 2014, which is a season with much promise, but now may be afflicted by a lame duck crew chief.

My response would be, “Junior Nation, fear not.”

I just cannot believe that Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte will not give it their all. I do not believe it is in them to do less.

They may be on the verge of a signature season and I don’t think their desire to reach higher ground will fade a bit.

“I’ve grown a lot as a driver working with Steve, and I feel confident that we can continue to see success,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I want to give Steve a lot of credit for how I’ve changed, and he does have a lot of influence on the performance of the team.

“I’m not really worried about whether we’ll be able to maintain our consistency and keep getting better.

“I really feel like Steve has helped me become much more professional behind the wheel and in handling my responsibilities and communicating and carrying myself as an adult and as a professional.”

Of course a question that may be posed throughout the entire season is, who will replace Letarte?

“You know, I’m not going to make any discussions on who I think we should get in there to replace Steve, but I’m ready to win races,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that the team is getting really close to being able to accomplish that.

“The way we ran last year was an improvement on the past season, and 2012 was an improvement on 2011.

“I want to keep that going because we’re getting really close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Teams Hold Top Spots But Hendrick Motorsports Surges

Jimmie Johnson was one of four Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish among the top six at Kentucky, which emphasized the fact that he is well in contention to win a sixth championship.

The current driver standings in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings are indicative of what is true about today’s competitive environment.

To wit, NASCAR’s “super teams,” those multicar operations that manage to acquire the abundant resources needed to succeed, entirely occupy the top 10.

Some have multiple positions. Some, perhaps, have performed above expectations while others have not. But they are all there.

Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Penske Racing all have drivers in the top 10.

Other multicar teams like Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports are absent from the rankings.

But then they have operated at a lower level and their results have shown that – at least to date.

At Kentucky, many of the drivers who rank in the top 10 displayed why they are there.

Roush’s Matt Kenseth again displayed his strategic style, in which he sometimes seems to “prey” rather than charge to the front, was there at the finish and earned seventh place.

It was his 12th top-10 finish in 17 races and it allowed him to keep his grip on No. 1 in the standings – which he has held for five weeks now.

Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin could not run as hard as he would have liked over the final laps in order to save fuel. He did so to finish third at Kentucky and is entrenched in fifth place in the standings. He’s the only Gibbs driver among the top 10.

He thought his Kentucky outing could – should -have been better.

“I ran the least hard as I could all run,” Hamlin said of the closing laps. “I had to save fuel. I could have run harder, really, the whole run and try to give Brad Keselowski a run for his money, but I needed a good finish coming off two straight DNFs.”

In other words, Hamlin did what he had to do and thus held his spot in the standings.

MWR’s Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t won a race this year but his consistency has rewarded him with eighth place in the standings, one spot behind teammate Clint Bowyer.

Truex Jr. finished eighth at Kentucky, his ninth top-10 run of the year. Given that his car did not drive particularly well, he took it.

“It’s tough,” Truex Jr. said. “We weren’t very good all night. We had a good finish – I guess. It pushed like hell all night and they could never fix it.

“But we came out of here still in the top 10 and that’s where we need to be.”

Indeed as one of only two drivers in the top 10 without a win – RCR’s Kevin Harvick, at No. 6, is the other – Truex Jr. has to think points, because he does not have the “wildcard” insurance victory offers.

Hendrick's Jeff Gordon still has yet to win, which he must do to have any hope of making the Chase this year. However, his recent good, competitive outings have increased his confidence and momentum.

At Kentucky, these drivers served as examples of what they have often done to help put their teams in the top 10.

Kentucky also offered examples of top-tier drivers who didn’t, or couldn’t, sustain good runs – but slips in one race haven’t booted them from the top 10, yet.

There were two other noteworthy accomplishments at Kentucky, one of which has virtually assured a driver a spot in the Chase.
The other, which involved four drivers, showed why two of them are among the top 10 and the other two may have gained, or maintained, enough momentum to ultimately beat the odds and make the Chase.

When Brad Keselowski won the Quaker State 400, it meant two things: The Penske driver held on to his tenuous No. 10 standing in points.

But, more important, it was his season-leading third victory of the season which, given wins are critical to “wildcard” entry, means he almost certainly will be a championship contender.

There is one other thing: Keselowski’s victory indicated strongly he is ready to move to true NASCAR stardom.

Hendrick Motorsports took four of the top six positions at Kentucky. Kasey Kahne battled back from a loose wheel to finish second, a solid rebound from his previous three weeks during which he could finish no higher than 14

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth-place finish was his 13 of what he calls his “best season ever.” He is second in points, has a victory at Michigan that broke a 143-race losing streak and is poised to contend for his first-ever title.

“I’m just proud of the team,” he said. “I hope we can keep it up. I’d like to win another race.”

That he won just two races ago means little to Earnhardt Jr. The time for the next win is now.

“I ain’t going to be as patient this time,” he said.

Jeff Gordon, mired in a season that has seen him suffer team miscues and mechanical maladies, finished fifth. In three races he has now finished fifth and sixth twice.

Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick driver who won an unprecedented five consecutive championships, finished sixth.

Like Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has 13 top-10 finishes for the season but two victories.

There seems to be little doubt Johnson will be challenging for his sixth title.

Presently, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson are the only Hendrick drivers who should make the Chase without difficulty.

It won’t be the same for Kahne. He’s 14 in points but his one victory – earned at Charlotte – has made him he No. 2 “wildcard” candidate.

“Yeah, a top-five here is good but it’s not going to get us into the Chase,” Kahne said after Kentucky. “We need to win another race or two.”

“But to see how great the Hendrick cars are now and to be a part of that, well, it’s just great.

“All of the guys should be happy. They’ve prepared us some nice cars and great engines.”

Gordon, back in 18 place, has no choice but to win if he’s going to make the Chase. He knows this.

But he also knows his last three outings in his Hendrick cars have helped with confidence and momentum.

“This team has been awesome,” Gordon said of Hendrick. “The cars have definitely shown that. We’re getting the results. We can add some momentum to that.”

Overall in Kentucky we saw some drivers do what they have done all season to be among the top 10.

We saw one driver stake his claim to stardom.

We saw a team, Hendrick Motorsports, illustrate why it is perennially ranked as perhaps NASCAR’s best – and why it clearly should have strong momentum going into Daytona.

In 2012 Dale Earnhardt Jr. May Have Best Season With Hendrick Motorsports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed his best season to date with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011. He didn't win, but he made the Chase and finished seventh in points. He now has momentum to do even better in 2012.

Probably no other driver in NASCAR receives more scrutiny than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There’s good reason for that. First, he carries with him a tremendous heritage passed along by his late father Dale, whom many consider to be the best driver in stock car racing history, and his grandfather Ralph.

Second, the family name and the aforementioned heritage have helped make Earnhardt Jr. NASCAR’s most popular driver and most profitable marketing entity.

Even Earnhardt Jr. will tell you that he thinks a big reason for his popularity is his father, what he accomplished and the kind of person and driver he was.

When the elder Earnhardt perished in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, many of his fans passed their loyalty on to his son – who, at the time, was already a two-time Busch Series champion whose career in Cup competition was seemingly on the rise.

His career may have been on the rise then, but it has certainly since leveled off.

After a well-publicized split from Dale Earnhardt Inc. – of which Earnhardt Jr. wanted to wrest control from his stepmother Teresa – young Earnhardt landed at Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season.

This appeared to be a union destined for success. Certainly Earnhardt Jr. thought so, declaring the Hendrick organization the one with which he could win races and championships.

That hasn’t happened. Since ’08 Earnhardt Jr. has won only one race and has made the Chase in only two seasons, 2008 and 2011.

He hasn’t won a Cup race in nearly three and one-half years.

Team owner Rick Hendrick has made crew chief and crew member swaps, along with other changes, to find the formula that will allow Earnhardt Jr. to be successful.

I don’t think there’s any doubt Earnhardt Jr.’s many fans have been disappointed. But they remain intensely loyal. Their man has been voted the National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver for nine consecutive years, including 2011.

Then again, there are those have reached the conclusion that Earnhardt Jr. was never the talented driver many thought he was – and that no matter what Hendrick does, he never will be.

That sentiment exists today and has been expressed more than once in the media’s numerous pre-season reports on the 2012 season.

But it’s also been said that some positive things happened for Earnhardt Jr. in 2011; things which indicate he may be on the threshold of a breakout.

If I may toss in my two cents I tend to agree with the latter.

I’ll be blunt. I think Earnhardt Jr. will win at least one race if not more, and again make the Chase. It will come as a big surprise, though, if he is a championship contender.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Earnhardt Jr.’s career has turned for the better. I believe his overall confidence has increased and his focus is stronger than ever.

One big reason for this is Steve Letarte, who became Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief at the start of the 2011 season.

As much as Letarte has done for the overall performance of Earnhardt Jr.’s Chevrolets, he has done as much with his driver’s outlook, attitude and work ethic.

Letarte has helped make Earnhardt Jr. realize that to be successful he has to work with the team, contribute to its race preparation, be punctual and, above all else, be able to convey the information needed to improve on-track performance.

Earnhardt Jr. has already said he’s learned to give his crew chief the information he needs and always maintain good interaction.

Earnhardt Jr. said his feedback has become more specific and helpful than it once was – generic, trivial and lacking in detail.

Last year, Earnhardt Jr. said, he abandoned his habit of going to his motorhome between practices. He stayed in the hauler and interacted with his team all day.

I think Earnhardt Jr. has adapted to Letarte’s methods and style and approves of both because the results have been decidedly better.

And Earnhardt Jr. has assured us he doesn’t want anything to change – and for good reason.

While he did not win last year, he made the Chase and wound up seventh in points. He earned more top-five and top-10 finishes than he did in either of the prior two seasons.

Earnhardt Jr.’ s detractors will likely say, “So what?” while his supporters will decree that to make the top 10 in points is a worthy accomplishment, no matter the driver.

With that, I will agree.

I think we’ve seen so many positive results from the Earnhardt Jr.-Letarte union they can’t be ignored. I find it difficult to believe that the lessons Earnhardt Jr. learned in 2011 would be forgotten.

I can’t imagine that the interaction and communication between Earnhardt Jr. and Letarte would do nothing but improve in 2012.

And, again, I think Earnhardt Jr. now has more confidence, a better attitude and a stronger focus. For once in quite a while he and his Hendrick team have gained momentum.

As has always been the case at this time of year, we simply don’t know what is going to happen – to Earnhardt Jr., Letarte or anyone else – during the course of a coming season.

We can only predict based upon evidence offered.

I think there is plenty of that to suggest Earnhardt Jr. could, in 2012, enjoy his best season yet with Hendrick Motorsports.

If that happens, the driver who is the most popular in NASCAR will, as he himself said, give his fans what they expect – and deserve.

A New Champ Would Be Nice, But Numbers Favor Johnson


It’s now official. The Chase starts Sunday with the running of the Geico 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway.

The event is the first of 10 that are part of NASCAR’s “playoff” system that will determine the 2011 season champion.

I’m sure you know this, but already the question has been asked, repeatedly, “Who will win the title?”

Attention media, bloggers, fans and all other interested parties: Let the predictions, prognostications and outright guesses begin.

And why shouldn’t they? Motorsports fans and media are just like those in other sports. At the time a championship is on the line, that’s usually when interest reaches its highest level.

So folks have their opinions on which individual or team they think will win – or, let’s face it, on which individual or team they WANT to win.

I suspect there are many NASCAR fans who do not want to see Jimmie Johnson win a sixth consecutive title. They want to see something new. They want to see someone different pose with the championship trophy.

Besides, to see one guy win championship after championship is downright boring. Many fans are tired of it and have said so.

It might be boring but you really can’t blame Johnson. The goal of every driver – and they are all highly competitive – is to win races and championships. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports have used their formidable resources and talents to do just that for five years running.

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that they intend to stop doing so. They will race hard for a sixth title and if they don’t get it this year, there’s always the next … and the next.

That said, I am one of those who also would like to see someone else win the championship. No knock against Johnson, but I think it would be good for NASCAR to have a new winner. I think it would enliven the sport and promote more interest.

But who might it be?

There’s Kyle Busch, for example. He heads into the weekend No. 1 in points with four victories for the season. He’s tied with Kevin Harvick for the highest number of wins this year.

Busch certainly has a penchant for winning races in all three of NASCAR’s national touring series. Now if he can keep that up over the next 10 races, he’s in.

The key word is “if.” Last year Busch didn’t win and finished 13th or worse in six of the 10 races. That ain’t going to cut in. He finished eighth in points in 2010.

Should he win the title, Busch would perhaps be one of the least popular champs ever. I’m thinking he doesn’t care.

A lot of people figured Carl Edwards would be the man to unseat Johnson this year and, eventually, that may well be the case.

I think many folks thought he’d run a little better this season, but the truth is he has as many wins and top-10 finishes as Johnson. He also has one more top-five.

However, Johnson is having something of an off year – for him, anyway – which, to many, means he’s vulnerable in the Chase. He is seeded sixth in the “playoffs” where Edwards is fifth.

Harvick, the lone Richard Childress Racing representative, also has four wins on the year and has earned a reputation, during this season, as a driver who pulls out wins with his proficiency in the closing laps. He’s the No. 2 seed.

Jeff Gordon, ranked third, seems to be a man on a mission. His performances over the last eight races – one win, six top-10 finishes – have put him on a roll that could lead to a fifth career title.

You know, it might be fun to see Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom struggled to make the Chase, win the championship.

It’s the same for Denny Hamlin, who hung on to earn a “wildcard” entry. And you have to admit it would be a real stunner if upstart Brad Keselowski became the champ.

I think I would enjoy any of those scenarios and I suspect you might, as well. But, personally, I think the best shots to upend Johnson are Gordon, Edwards, Harvick and Busch.

However, let’s be real, folks.

It might not sit well with everybody, but everybody has to admit, if grudgingly, that Johnson has the best career Chase numbers.

He’s the only driver to qualify for every Chase since the format made its debut in 2004. He’s finished worse than second only once, in 2005 when he was fifth, since the beginning of the “playoffs.”

Johnson has 21 wins in 70 Chase races. He’s had at least one win in each of seven seasons.

Johnson finished 25th last year in the Chase’s first race at Loudon. He then reeled off nine straight top-10 finishes, including a win at Dover and runnerup finishes at Kansas and Homestead.

It’s obvious no one does it better than Johnson, who, obviously, is greatly assisted by crew chief Chad Knaus and the Hendrick team.

So, again, the odds are with him. If he wins a sixth championship, it might not please everyone. But then, no one should be surprised.

And your prediction is ….?

It Looked Easy As Gordon Firms Up Contender Role

A few observations about the 5-Hour Energy 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway:

 

** It certainly appeared that Jeff Gordon had a relatively easy day of it. He maintained his race lead after the final series of pit stops, which began on lap 174 of 200, and then pulled away to win by a comfortable margin (2.965 seconds) over Kurt and Kyle Busch.

The victory was Gordon’s fifth at Pocono and the 84th of his career, which ties him for third place with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on NASCAR’s all-time list.

You’ll get an argument about that from Allison, who has often declared that he has 85 wins. One was taken away from him, suspiciously, when he won what was then known as a Grand National race in a “non-Grand National” car. According to Allison, his vehicle was competition-approved by NASCAR – and thus the victory should stand.

However, the record book indicates otherwise.

Anyway, Gordon earned his second win of the season, which solidified his position as a championship contender. The Hendrick Motorsports driver stands 11th in points but has a firm grip on an insurance policy.

Under the new system two “wildcard” drivers will be selected for the Chase based upon their number of victories and provided they rank among the top 20 in points.

Gordon is the only driver among positions 11-20 with any victories, thus he’s in an excellent position to claim at least a “wildcard” slot in the Chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya, still looking for his first NASCAR win on an oval track, led after the race restarted on lap 160 from a caution period. Shortly thereafter, Gordon slipped past Montoya to take the lead, which he held after the final restart on lap 182.

Gordon’s victory was accomplished through a seamless performance that saw him easily lead the final 19 laps. It appeared to be as routine as his first victory at Pocono, achieved on June 16, 1996 in the UAW-GM Teamwork 500.

The big difference, however, as that Gordon didn’t overwhelm the field to win 15 years ago. He was virtually handed the victory.

Back then Pocono Raceway had been repaved and speeds were expected to be very high due to the increased grip provided by the new asphalt.

Sure enough, 37 drivers broke Rusty Wallace’s two-year-old track qualifying record. Gordon won the pole with a speed nearly five miles per hour faster than the record.

The race evolved into a tussle among a handful of drivers, among them Gordon, Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine and Wallace.

One by one, Gordon’s challengers began to fall by the wayside. The gearshift knob in Stricklin’s Ford came off in his hand while he was shifting from third to fourth gear and the transmission failed.

Cope ran into the rear of Robert Pressley’s Chevrolet, which knocked the aerodynamics of Cope’s Ford haywire.

Wallace burned out the clutch on his Ford while leaving the pits after a green-flag stop. Bodine suffered from a lug-nut problem during his final pit stop.

By that time only Rudd remained as a Gordon challenger. But he was no match. Gordon came home a very comfortable three seconds ahead to earn his second straight victory of 1996.

As it was then, it wasn’t too difficult for Gordon this time out at Pocono. And, for him, the best result is that, barring a complete breakdown, he’s assured of an opportunity to earn his fifth career championship.

 

** It might have been clear sailing over smooth waters for Gordon, but that can’t be said for a couple of other championship-caliber competitors.

Points leader Carl Edwards came down pit road on lap 58 and then went behind the wall with engine problems two laps later.

“There was no warning at all, it just went,” Edwards said. “Before the race we talked so much about not over revving the engine and not breaking the transmission and all these things. It is just a coincidence, I believe, that we broke something.”

Edwards was relegated to 37th place, which means his points lead has dwindled from 40 points to six over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is bidding to win his sixth consecutive championship.

Edwards is only 10 points in front of third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored yet another top-10 finish at Pocono (sixth) and 11 points in front of Kevin Harvick, who is fourth in points. Kyle Busch rounds out the top five.

 

** Certainly one of the pre-race favorites at Pocono was Denny Hamlin. Although he came into the race without a win in 2001, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a sterling record at the 2.5-mile, triangular track.

Hamlin had four wins in 10 starts at Pocono, including two of the past three races.

Sure enough, he seemed to have the field covered, dominating the early stages of the race, leading 72 of the first 76 laps and thus establishing himself as the man to beat.

But he took a hit on a green-flag stop on lap 76 when he spent 18.9 seconds on pit road and was relegated to second place behind Montoya.

Then he suffered a flat left-rear tire, was forced back down pit road before the lap 160 restart and was caught back in 21st place before he finished a disappointing 19th.

“When we left pit road and had a flat tire – that is just not your day.” Hamlin said. “When it did that, it sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake lines so I had no brakes – it was just a slew of problems there at the end.”

 

Mr. Smith’s Improbable Journey At Darlington Raceway

A couple of points to consider after the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway:

** Sometimes racing rewards us with the unexpected, the unanticipated.

Something happens that is so far beyond the limits of our belief that we really can’t fathom it. We can only can only stand there in amazement, somewhat slack-jawed as we say to ourselves and anyone else who cares to listen, “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

We had such a moment in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington. For years it has been one of NASCAR’s most prominent and venerated races. It’s the oldest held on an asphalt track. It’s conducted on a 1.366-mile layout that is considered the toughest in all of stock car racing.

It is a race that has been won by the likes of David Pearson, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and other giants of the sport. Journeymen and, essentially, nobodies do not win it.

Now, however, it has been done. The Southern 500 will go into lore as one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history and one of the most feel-good finishes of all time.

That’s because it was won by Regan Smith – yes, the same Regan Smith who is part of an underfunded, one-car team, which has 64 employees, uses a pit crew from Stewart-Haas Racing, engines from Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and chassis from Richard Childress Racing.

It’s the same Regan Smith who has routinely began regarded as, at best, an also-ran in any race he’s entered.

And, perhaps, the same Regan Smith many of us regarded as a nobody. Trust me, after Darlington he is somebody special, indeed.

“I’m not supposed to do this,” said the 27-year-old Smith as he choked up with tears in victory lane. “I’ve never even had a top five.”

At Darlington, Smith wasn’t handed anything. He earned it.

He gambled and stayed on track when most of the leaders pitted for tires with 10 laps remaining. He told us later that the strategy was one he hoped crew chief Pete Rondeau would adopt.

Smith appeared to be a sitting duck. Behind him on the restart was Carl Edwards, who had been a strong as nine rows of garlic throughout the trace and, unlike Smith, was on fresh tires.

Smith spun his tires on the restart but held the lead. He caught a bit of a break when Brad Keselowski wedged himself between Smith and Edwards.

He caught another when he bobbled – only to have Edwards do the same thing.

Despite his newer tires, Edwards could never reach Smith, who managed to keep his Chevrolet in the fresh air.

Smith led Edwards, the points leader, over the green-white-checkered finish and in so doing, put his name alongside those of the sport’s greats.

Smith’s accomplishment was not lost on others. Among those who congratulated him afterward were Kurt Busch, Greg Biffile and Edwards, who said that if he couldn’t win it was good that Smith did.

Smith is the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie of the year who has gained some notoriety of late because of excellent qualifying efforts.

But he’s seldom, if ever, been considered a victory contender. Everything seems to have worked against him – a small team based in Denver, Colo., of all places, and one that has never been given any chance against the sport’s powerhouses, like Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing and the like.

Smith, however, came close to victory prior to Darlington. In 2008, he passed Tony Stewart for what appeared to be a win at Talladega until NASCAR took it away because Smith went below the yellow, out-of-bounds, line.

This victory will not be taken away from Smith.

“I’ll be honest with you,” said Smith, who earned his first NASCAR victory and admittedly, first of any kind that he can remember. “When I walked to the car today, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when we walk to the car. The difference was this week, we did.

“I can’t believe his. It’s too cool.”

What Smith has given us, and NASCAR, is yet another unanticipated moment when an underdog proves his mettle.

We saw it in Daytona this year when young Trevor Bayne shocked, and pleased, everyone with his victory in the 500 – which restored immeasurable luster to the tarnished, yet venerated, team known as Wood Brothers Racing.

When you think about it, isn’t to have someone succeed despite odds and adversity a true essence and beauty of sports?

Of course it is.

 

 

** Now we move from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s too bad that with his victory, Smith had to share the limelight, even in the slightest, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Truth is that after the Southern 500, most of the talk and TV highlights will be about these two.

They engaged in some bumping and grinding on the track and that carried over a postrace confrontation in which Harvick took a couple of swings at Busch as the two stopped post-race on the track, just above pit road.

Look, I’ll be the first to tell you fans and media alike enjoy driver dust-ups. If nothing else, they smack of the good ol’ days of NASCAR, when competitors settled issues among themselves with fists, tire irons or maybe even a .38.

And there’s nothing wrong with venting, if for no other reason than that given by Tony Stewart, who said that blowing off steam never fixed a car, but it often made a driver feel better.

Hope Busch and Harvick feel better because they certainly did themselves no service.

When it comes to incidents between drivers, NASCAR has tried extremely hard to let the issues be settled among themselves.

Doesn’t always work, as was made clear in the latest episode of Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Ryan Newman.

However, when NASCAR does decide to act that’s when a team can potentially suffer, especially if the sanctioning body responds with loss of points, probation, etc.

When Montoya seemed to show no signs of perceived over aggressiveness in the Southern 500, reportedly NASCAR conveyed its dislike.

Montoya retreated into a shell and was a non-entity for the remainder of the race. Didn’t serve him well in points.

As for Busch-Harvick, we don’t yet know if NASCAR is going to take the matter into its own hands. But you can bet the farm it will.

That’s because when Harvick decided to take a poke at Busch, Harvick’s unattended car rushed across pit road and slammed into the inside pit wall.

That car could have hit any number of people or, worse, pinned someone against the wall.

NASCAR may be relenting when it comes to driver vs. driver, but anytime their actions threaten the well being of others, the sanctioning body wastes no time in judgment.

They may not have been intentional, but Harvick’s actions posed a serious danger on pit road. This is something NASCAR will not tolerate.

I would be stunned if Harvick does not receive a rather stiff punishment sometime this week – maybe Busch, too, but certainly Harvick.

It’s just one example of how a confrontation can get out of hand and become, in the end, much more than for what a driver bargained.

 

Numbers Tell Us The Competition Ain’t Bad, For Now

As the 2011 season heads into Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the Samsung Mobile 500 tonight it is interesting to note how, competition-wise, the preceding six races have provided excellent storylines.

This is NASCAR’s opinion, you understand, not mine – but I must say that I agree with it.

“Storylines” might be the wrong word here. Let’s just say that what has transpired so far are simply facts that deserve our attention.

Why, you might ask. It’s because some of what we might have expected so far this season has not happened – and some of what we did not, in many ways, has.

I use as evidence of all this information provided by NASCAR; information that puts its competition in a good light. But when it comes to competition, the sanctioning body is all about promoting the quality therein whenever possible – which is its job, after all.

The facts and figures are accurate. They are not manipulated. They are what they are, and, to be honest, they are intriguing.

We’re told that two of last year’s top winners, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, remain winless going into Texas. I’m not sure about you, but I’m one of those who thought either one of them would have been victorious by now. Heck, if nothing else, they were the hands-down favorites at Martinsville.

And you knew that, didn’t you?

Interestingly, lead-change records have fallen in three of the six Sprint Cup races so far, at Daytona, Phoenix and Martinsville.

There has been, NASCAR tells us, an average of 31.5 lead changes per race, the most after six events in series history.

Now I would be one of the first to say this is nothing but the result of racing circumstances. But I would quickly add that races that have produced record lead changes at such a high average are, if not great, certainly compelling.

After all, which race is better – one in which several drivers swap the lead or one in which a driver dominates to the point of boredom? I think you know.

NASCAR tells us that, through six races, there has been an average of 13 leaders per race, the most in series history.

Again I would say this is the result of circumstances. But I would also say that, as far as fan and media appeal, it beats the hell out of anything else.

We know that prior to Kevin Harvick’s win at Martinsville, his second in a row, there were five different winners in the first five races of the season. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2005.

Once more, it’s all about circumstances.

But then, given what has happened so far, consider this: You tell me, if you like real competition, what is more appealing – that one or two drivers dominate or that several win – and in some cases we are ultimately greatly surprised when they do?

Case in point: Face it, when Trevor Bayne and Wood Brothers Racing won the Daytona 500 was that not a big, pleasant surprise that ultimately captured national attention?

Headed into Texas, seven different teams occupied the top seven positions in the point standings. They were Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Hey, I like it. To me it’s a more intriguing scenario than oh, say, for Roush to have four teams among the top seven and Hendrick the other three – unless you’re a big fan of either team, or both.

Finally, NASCAR pointed out that the top four drivers in the point standings all run different manufacturers.

If I had to guess, the sanctioning body revels in this statistic more than any other. It’s proof, somewhat, that its ongoing efforts to create a level playing field for all its participating manufacturers are paying off – for now, anyway.

I know all of this is NASCAR tooting its own horn. But why not? There have been seasons in the past when it didn’t have a horn to toot.

Tooting aside, the numbers do tell us the competition in NASCAR, so far, ain’t been bad at all.

Starting at Texas tonight, we’ll see if stays the same, gets better or gets worse.

 

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