NASCAR Playoffs: Harvick Takes Down Truex at Texas Speedway

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Mobil 1 Ford, poses with the winner’s decal in Victory Lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Kevin Harvick claimed the playoff prize with his victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup AAA Texas 500 (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

When it’s playoff time, Kevin Harvick knows how to lock-in.  On Sunday, Harvick stampeded past Martin Truex Jr to win the AAA Texas 500, clinching his position in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks.  Harvick also checked another track off the list where he had not previously won.

More importantly, Ford (and explicitly Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing Team) fired a salvo at Toyota’s dominance, whose teams had won all the playoff races so far (except for the Talladega wildcard).

At the outset, Kurt Busch, a Stewart-Haas teammate, secured the AAA Texas 500 pole with not only a track record qualifying speed approaching 201 MPH, but also the fastest lap at any 1.5-mile intermediate speedway ever, validating that the team’s development work with the switch from Chevrolet to Ford at the beginning of the season is now paying dividends.

During the race, Harvick tracked down Toyota driver Truex Jr with a power move around the outside with just nine laps to go, after loosening Truex up with air at the bumper, extremely impressive given Truex has already won six races at intermediate tracks this year.  Also noteworthy was Harvick completed the pass without spinning Truex out or ramming him from behind.

Harvick explained in victory lane, “I knew I had a really good car.  I knew I had to do something different.  I started driving a whole lot deeper in Turn 1—a whole lot deeper.  I started doing that earlier in the race, but I was afraid I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day.  So, I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin and got him loose and brushed across the back of him and was able to get by on the outside down there.”

Truex, despite his second-place finish, also clinched his berth in the Championship 4 race based on his playoff points total.  Kyle Busch, last week’s Martinsville winner, is also locked into the Championship 4, leaving only one spot up for grabs at Phoenix among five remaining playoff eligible drivers.  Expect the Zoomtown USA desert race to be blazing, as drivers gamble to secure the final spot.

With Texas hosting playoff races for all three of NASCAR’s main series, several other takeaways stood out.

Downforce Leads to Sizzling Speed

Remember all the aero package rules changes that took downforce out of NASCAR Cup cars at the start of the season? It’s back.

The engineering teams have regained the majority of downforce that was removed, given the blistering qualifying speeds.  Five NASCAR drivers exceeded 200MPH in the final round of qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway.  That’s crazy fast for a 1.5-mile oval, especially since the track was reconfigured with a repave last year that lowered the banking through Turns 1 and 2 so that drivers would have to lift off the throttle.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, qualifying 2nd on the front row, summarizes tersely, “The biggest thing is just the development, and trust me, I don’t know of any driver that was comfortable running the speeds that we’re running right now.”

Critically, aero push was obvious at the Texas race.  For some fans in the stands, the most entertaining activity was watching lead cars try to pass lapped cars without wadding everybody up, given the absence of on-track passes at the front.  Todd Gordon, crew chief for Penske driver Joey Logano, observed that Logano would drive up through the field to 10th to 15th place and then his car would simply stall out.

during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas.

With record speeds at Texas, drivers often experienced aero constraints when trying to pass other cars in the pack (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Our mid-race Twitter poll of fan reaction reinforced this snooze fest, with almost 60% suggesting the race was a “couch nap”, while only 7% agreeing that the race lived up to the “No Limits” credo of excitement for Texas Motor Speedway.

Undoubtedly, NASCAR needs to reexamine the 2018 rules configuration, or the momentum the sport has shown this year in terms of fan interest may regress just like the number of on-track passes for the lead.

XFINITY Playoffs Sputter

The quandary of Monster Energy Cup drivers dropping down to XFINITY Series races to steal the show is still a thorn in the side of NASCAR’s playoff system expansion to all three series, with the “win and advance” setup.  Despite rule changes curbing some participation, NASCAR Cup drivers continue to claim the checkered flags in the XFINITY playoff races, to the detriment of XFINITY playoff contenders.

Saturday night, the craze continued, just as it has through all five XFINITY playoff races, as the top three finishers were all Cup regulars, with Erik Jones leading 137 of 200 laps in claiming the top spot.  Ryan Blaney finished 2nd, and Kyle Larson claimed the final podium spot in 3rd.

XFINITY races have become two separate competitions within the main event, which chills the excitement when XFINITY playoff contenders can’t get to victory lane.  Surely, this is not what NBC envisioned when the network introduced its novel interview of the race winner right on the front straightaway after crossing the finish line to capture the winner’s excitement.  Instead, these interviews lack passion, with the XFINITY playoff contenders relegated to pit lane commentary on point standings.

The XFINITY Championship 4 for the Homestead-Miami title race is determined next week in Phoenix; right now, there likely will be no magic Cinderella contender that advances based on claiming race victory, so the Champion contenders would instead be set by points, with Elliott Sadler, William Bryon, Justin Allgaier, and Brennan Poole currently holding the four magic slots.  Sadler, the point leader, has yet to win a race this season.

Chevrolet Fading Fast from Championship Spotlight

For the first time under NASCAR’s elimination playoff format, Chevrolet may not have a contending driver in the mix for the Monster Energy Cup Championship.

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 Hooters Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Despite three 2nd place finishes in the playoffs, Chase Elliott heads to Phoenix in a must-win situation (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson below the cut line by 49 and 51 points, respectively, these two remaining Hendrick Motorsport playoff contenders are in the basement of the standings.  Either of these Chevy drivers must win at Phoenix to advance to Homestead-Miami, with wild strategy gambles necessary, given the general speed malaise that seems to be afflicting this team.

For Johnson, he finished 27th at Texas and was 3 laps down at one point, at a track where he has won seven times, including the April race earlier this season.  More striking, Johnson, usually the calm and collected seven-time Champion, expressed displeasure:

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said.  “I’m definitely disappointed.  And, I honestly just feel bad for my team.  These guys are working so hard.  And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results as the last three weeks have been is pretty disappointing.”

For Chevy, having unveiled the 2018 Camaro ZL1 race car to replace the aging Chevy SS platform after this season, the testing that has shown improved aerodynamic performance cannot come soon enough when the actual cars hit the track next year at Daytona.  We will likely have to wait until then to potentially see a Chevrolet in victory lane.

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano.

NASCAR Playoffs: Larson Blows Up While Blaney Blasts Off

KANSAS CITY, KS - OCTOBER 22: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media after having engine trouble during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 22, 2017 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Kyle Larson experiences the media crush after engine troubles eliminated him from the NASCAR playoffs. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway was a tumultuous contest, with favorite Kyle Larson, driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing #42 Chevy, eliminated from Championship contention, while Ryan Blaney, driver of Wood Brothers #21 Ford, delivering a storybook finish to advance to next round of NASCAR’s playoffs.

An engine detonation relegated Larson to the garage on lap 73 of the Hollywood Casino 400, extinguishing his Championship quest.  As one of the leading favorites to make the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Larson’s fortunes going up in smoke caused fans on social media to melt down and lose their collective minds.

Conversely, Ryan Blaney started from the rear at Kansas Speedway but drove a stellar race and dodged several bullets to finish 3rd and remain alive in the playoff picture.

Surely, these contrasting challenges encompass the Game 7 drama that NASCAR sought when they introduced this multi-stage playoff elimination format.  No doubt playoff outcomes can be influenced by fortuitous luck or haphazard chance, but mechanical equipment has always been part of the equation in racing success.

Such mechanical misfortune could befall Martin Truex Jr. at the Homestead-Miami final, should he advance that far.  Truex, Sunday’s winner at Kansas and the perennial favorite to win the Championship, has a series-leading seven wins this season, and anything less than a Championship will seem unjust to the fans of the Furniture Row racing team, regarded as the “little team that could”.

Certainly, this Championship format is demanding.  Larson undeniably didn’t have a dazzling 2nd playoff round.  With previous finishes of 10th at Charlotte and 13th at Talladega, Larson had a narrow point cushion to rely on for advancement beyond Kansas.

 Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Wood Brothers Ford, raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney raced through the field to a 3rd place finish in the Hollywood Casino 400 (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Conversely, Blaney and his Wood Brothers Racing Team are alive in their quest to win this year’s championship. Blaney explained, “I would say this is probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing with anybody, no matter what car.  They just make it a fun year.  Just to be competitive, still be in this thing, that’s just a bonus, to be honest with you.”

And, naturally, seven-time Champion Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Racing Chevy, persevered to advance in a less than stellar season for him, showing composure when confronted by desperate unscheduled pit stops that would have derailed a lesser team.  Johnson again revealed the golden horseshoe often attributed to him, spinning out not once but twice, including a critical journey into the infield grass that could have torn up his car and destroyed his quest for a record setting 8th Championship, but didn’t.

The abrupt nature of playoff elimination for those drivers and their fans always will generate an empty and hollow void at the end of each playoff round.  It’s the game we now have in NASCAR, and as each round concludes, the playoff cuts only get stiffer as worthy drivers are eliminated.

Still, the remaining eight contenders provide a perfect balance for the Championship chase.  We have a compelling mix of drivers, with four former champions (Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski), two young guns (Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney), and two experienced vets who have just fallen short of the title chase before and are as hungry as ever (Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin).

We also have manufacturer diversity in the title chase, with three Toyotas, three Fords, and two Chevrolets among the eight remaining contenders, despite the perceived dominance of Toyota during NASCAR’s regular season.

Vegas odds now favor Truex, Busch, Harvick, and Keselowski to make the Ford Championship Weekend in Homestead-Miami.

Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr displays his 7 victory decals in a stellar season (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Truex will likely waltz to the Finals given the playoff point buffer he has already accumulated with seven race wins this season.  And Harvick can surely get the job done at Phoenix, the penultimate race, with 8 previous wins at his home track.  Meanwhile, Kyle Busch is just on fire, with raw speed, talent, and conviction all converging at the right time.

Yet, I’m calling an audible on Keselowski, with the anticipation that either Hamlin or Johnson will rip a win at next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.  Johnson and Hamlin are the preeminent active drivers at the oddly-shaped paperclip short track, having netted 9 and 5 wins, respectively, which would guarantee either’s advancement to the Homestead Final.

Then again, that’s just my reasonable conjecture.  In the congruence of man vs. machine, NASCAR’s playoff format requires that teams and drivers bring their best stuff to EVERY race.  Isn’t that why we should be tuning in, for the both the triumph as well as the agony that this playoff system delivers?

By Ron Bottano

Let’s connect on Twitter at @rbottano and share your final four contenders. 

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

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Swipes 7th Sprint Cup Championship

during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2013 in Daytona Beach, Florida

7 Time Sprint Cup Champion, Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson had never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway, despite having amassed 80 Sprint Cup career race wins. But then again, Johnson had never needed to win at Homestead in his past quest for Sprint Cup titles.

On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

Seven titles in the past 11 seasons is surely a stellar triumph across any sport. For a true barometer of Johnson’s greatness, look towards next year’s Daytona 500 when race cars will roll on the grid.

Johnson will be NASCAR’s only multi-Championship driver when the green flag flies to open the 2017 season. No other active driver will even have two Championships, with the recent retirements of both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Truly, this surreal, fairy-tale ending sprung from the shared Chase elimination playoff format that now applies to all three of NASCAR’s top racing series: Sprint Cup, XFINITY, and Camping World Trucks.

NASCAR’s Chase playoff can be simply exhausting and exasperating. When this Chase playoff was first introduced at the Sprint Cup level in 2014, I didn’t care for it.

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On Sunday, Johnson forever linked his legacy to both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time Sprint Cup champions by capturing the checkered flag in the Ford EcoBoost 400.

However, seeing the Chase play out once again this year, I have been painstakingly assimilated as a convert, like the invasive Borg from the Star Trek television serial.

Watching an entire season of the Sprint Cup Championship come down to a final race restart for the Championship 4 drivers, instead of tracking “points racing” tallies, was truthfully just like reveling in a playoff game where anything can happen and the outcome was hazy until the very last lap. Drama delivered, for sure!

Maybe NASCAR has nailed it here after all, in the era of short attention spans. For the third year in a row, the Championship 4 “winner take all” finale delivered strategy, amusement, drama, and controversy, after Joey Logano dropped low on the track and Carl Edwards threw the block, wrecking both drivers and effectively parting the seas for Johnson’s quest for a “come from behind” victory.

Consider that the cream rose to the top in all three Championship series finales:

  • In the Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200, Johnny Sauter secured his first Championship over his 13-year racing career with a gritty third-place finish at Homestead-Miami, with the other three Championship contenders finishing 7th, 8th, and 9th.
  • In the XFINITY Series, Daniel Suarez took the checkered flag in Ford EcoBoost 300 to capture the XFINITY Series championship. With the win, Suarez became the first International NASCAR champion of any touring series once the Mexican-born driver nabbed the title. The remaining three Championship contenders finished 3rd, 6th, and 9th, but were running in the top 5 throughout the day.
  • In the Sprint Cup Series, with 60 laps remaining in the Ford EcoBoost 400, the Championship 4 contenders were clustered together with Logano 2nd, Edwards 3rd, Busch 4th, and Johnson 6th. With 10 laps to go, the Championship 4 were still tightly packed among the top six running positions on the track. When the final race results were racked, Johnson was crowned both the Homestead race winner, as well as Sprint Cup Champion, for the third year in a row under the revitalized Chase format.

But while purists may continue to whine about the playoff format, maybe these fans just require a little more time to “soak in”.

For an unknown, inexplicable reason, the Chase elimination playoff elevates the Championship racers to showcase their cadre of talents in a “winner takes all” battle that compels drivers to take big risks for big rewards, and not rest on their point cushions.

Whether you’re a proponent or not of the Chase playoff format, greatness was delivered by Johnson. Revel in it during the short offseason!

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

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

 

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Awakens ‘The Downforce’ with Atlanta Win

Johnson's victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Johnson’s victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Jimmie Johnson is back, prevailing in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, even though he never truly left. Johnson’s win is his 76th career Sprint Cup Series victory, placing him in rarified air by tying with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time win list.

In 2015, Johnson also won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, albeit with a different downforce package.

On Sunday, NASCAR debuted this season’s lower aerodynamic downforce package at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the goal of making the racing better. And this race appeared to showcase the drivers’ talents, in spite of a “racers’ race”, with lengthy green flag runs and only one caution flag, prior to Ryan Newman’s tire detonation with three laps to go, which set up the overtime finish.

With 200 plus laps of green flag racing, cars naturally are going to get spread out on the track. With such clean racing, there is virtually no package that NASCAR could develop that could make this type of race much better. For the majority of the race, the lower downforce pack created an atypical kind of racing than previously seen on most intermediate speedways like Atlanta. Managing tire wear triggered drivers to wrestle their cars throughout the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. evidently endorsed the low downforce package, along with Atlanta’s worn track surface. After the race, Earnhardt proclaimed “these cars are fun to drive, sliding around…Driving the hell out of the cars, I had a blast!”

But surely, the story is the reemergence of Jimmie Johnson, who in spite of amassing five wins last season, was the first big name eliminated from the Chase, when he suffered a rear axle seal failure at Dover Speedway. As a result, we were relegated to not debating whether Johnson would achieve his record-setting quest for seven championships, showcasing that there is no such thing as a lock since NASCAR created its elimination-style playoff format.

28 Apr 2000:  A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey  /Allsport

28 Apr 2000: A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport

“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt Sr.’s career win total. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”

Then again, Johnson defines greatness. After the race, ESPN reporter Marty Smith tweeted out a testimonial from Johnson’s Hendrick teammate Earnhardt Jr., “He went 3-wide in the middle of 3&4 & turned sideways & never lifted. Amazing the car control he has.” – Jr., when he knew (Jimmie Johnson) was special.

If the low downforce races proceed like what we saw in Atlanta on Sunday, expect Johnson to definitely be a key favorite in this year’s Sprint Cup Chase. These intermediate races play right into the hands of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus: Long green flag runs to wear out the car and the driver – check. Strategy-based calls on a 1.5-mile speedway by Knaus – check. More importantly, when does Johnson not win such races?

In victory lane, Johnson comes across as polished, corporate, and gracious in thanking all of his team and sponsors. Perhaps a driver becomes comfortable after winning as many championships and career races as Johnson has, including five trips to Atlanta’s victory lane during his career.

However, just once, I would love to see Johnson stand up and acknowledge the greatness that we are all seeing. He exudes excellence and should not be embarrassed to tell the world. Johnson works so hard to stay physically fit, mentally prepared, and knows when to take the right calculated risks on the track for the win.

Then again, should Johnson accomplish his quest for seven championships, his greatness will be undisputed.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now begins its West Coast swing to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon, where Johnson has won four times in the last eleven races. Look for him to be running up front again.

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

 

NASCAR Pursuit of 2017 Title Sponsor To Ring In New Year

Jimmie Johnson has proven great value to the Lowes brands.

Jimmie Johnson has proven great value to the Lowes brands.

Impossible to ignore, NASCAR has continually tinkered with every aspect of the product over the last several years, using the sport as a real-time innovation laboratory. With an eye toward enhancing competition, improving safety, reducing costs, and increasing product relevance, NASCAR has enacted countless changes, including the upcoming 2016 low-downforce aero package and the digital dashboard to bring fans more directly into the cockpit experience.

As fans, we’ve found enlightenment in the modern-day Chase playoff, the PRO camera officiating technology that offers expanded content for followers to consume, the ultimate Trackside Souvenir Superstore now managed by Fanatics, and the Drive for Diversity development program to attract minority and female athletes to the sport, just to name a few prominent NASCAR-backed initiatives.

Change has become an imperative. Your entertainment choices are everywhere, and audiences are fragmenting as the avenues for content consumption expand. Pandora, SiriusXM, NetFlix, Amazon PrimeVideo, Hulu, and a growing array of traditional television channels (HGTV, anyone?). All prime-time sports are competing for eyeballs, and standing still on your laurels is no longer acceptable.

Yet through all the noise, NASCAR remains a compelling sports platform for investment with broad appeal to reach a dedicated mainstream audience. Right now, NASCAR’s experiments are yielding some early payoffs, showcased by the ability of fans to directly connect with drivers (both virtual and real) at the just-concluded NASCAR’s Champions Weeks in Las Vegas, where many events were sold out and available via simulcast.

Sprints sponsorship of NASCAR's Cup Series ends after the 2016 season.

Sprints sponsorship of NASCAR’s Cup Series ends after the 2016 season.

During its Vegas entourage, NASCAR publicized that a record number of fans consumed NASCAR through digital and social media during the 2015 season. NASCAR amassed 4.1 billion (that billions with a “B”) social media impressions, 1.1 billion page views (up more than 20 percent from 2014), and a 34 percent annual increase in its mobile audience. In addition, driver merchandise sales at tracks increased more than 20 percent since the Fanatics Trackside Superstore launched in July.

Perhaps that staggering television package for NASCAR broadcast rights, the jaw-dropping $8.2 billion, 10-year deal with NBC and Fox, is not such a bad investment by those two networks after all.

Brands are much more than just sponsors in NASCAR. They become partners. Often, the brand becomes the mascot of the team (Smithfield’s Fueled by Bacon campaign, anyone?). That can be a lot of page views and media impressions for companies savvy enough to invest wisely in winning teams.

Take Lowe’s Companies, the home improvement chain of almost 1,800 stores, which announced in September that it had extended its current 15-year relationship with Hendricks Motorsports through the end of 2017, to run concurrently alongside the contract extension of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson as driver of the #48 Chevrolet.

So should we really be surprised that Lowe’s would renew with Jimmie Johnson? This is a driver who is currently 8th on the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup win tally, on a quest to win seven championships, placing him alongside two of the sport’s largest icons in Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

If Johnson were to achieve that pinnacle, the value for Lowe’s would live on indefinitely, even after Johnson retires from racing. Imagine the value for an iconic Corporate brand that is able to write themselves alongside Johnson into the history books. Certainly, Lowe’s already has a compelling long-term investment with Johnson and is “In It to Win It”.

Accordingly, the second half of 2015 provided a decent bounty of partner renewals and new commitments; the most notable including:

  • M&Ms’ partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing and 2016 Sprint Cup Champion Kyle Busch was extended to a tenth season, with a three year contract renewal.
  • Quicken Loans teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) driver Kasey Kahne as a primary sponsor for three races, and as an associate sponsor for the remainder. Moreover, Farmers Insurance already committed to keep sponsoring Kahne for an additional three years.
  • Monster Energy will step up to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) driver Kurt Busch.
  • Kroger Company’s renewal of its relationship for multiple years with JTG Daugherty Racing, thereby affording the team the ability to extend driver AJ Allmendinger’s contract through 2020.
  • Nature’s Bakery joined SHR to become the primary multi-year sponsor of driver Danica Patrick.
  • NAPA AUTO PARTS stepping up as the majority sponsor of HMS rookie driver Chase Elliott and his #24 Chevrolet team through 2018.

Will the streaming services become part of NASCAR's future?

Will the streaming services become part of NASCAR’s future?

Accelerating rekindled interest in NASCAR sponsorship is the tighter glue that connects fans with drivers on digital platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and streaming apps such as NBC Live Extra and Fox Sports Go.

Social media extends the brands of these driver celebrities and their sponsors, as fans can scratch their innate curiosity regarding their heroes’ hobbies, families, and personal interests beyond the sport.

Collaboration between NASCAR, team owners, drivers, and the broadcast partners is helping ensure that the sport and its stakeholders are generally rowing in the same direction, allowing the teams to better serve sponsors and do a better job of marketing the entire sport.

These fundamental changes and ability to leverage social media may just be the magic elixir in NASCAR’s search for a new title sponsor for its premier Cup series.

“If you haven’t been around NASCAR in the last two or three years, you really haven’t been around NASCAR,” proclaims Brent Dewar, NASCAR’s chief operating officer. “It’s really allowing us an opportunity to talk to a wide group, whether it’s blue-chip domestic companies, to internationals, to regional companies – and we have a great story to tell. We hope to find a partner that will deliver equally the strength that we’ve gotten from Sprint.”

Let’s see what NASCAR can continue to ring in for the New Year, as the lifeblood of American motorsports is depending on NASCAR to forge a path forward for other road-racing series to follow.

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

Johnson Lassos Keselowski Possibly Crushing Chase Hopes

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

During Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, we were treated to a superb showdown between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, two former NASCAR Sprint Cup Champions putting on a relentless driving clinic over the final 18 laps.

Johnson, driver of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet No. 48, took the lead with four laps remaining from Team Penske’s Keselowski, who started from the pole and dominated throughout on his way to leading 312 of 334 laps.

For Keselowski, a victory would have punched his ticket to the Championship 4 final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks. Before the pass by Johnson, Keselowski seemed to do everything right, having punished the rest of the field on dominating restarts as well as long green flag runs.

But Johnson had other plans in chasing down Keselowski, keeping his Chase playoff record perfect, by ensuring he has now won at least one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the 12th consecutive season. His fifth victory of the season was also his record career sixth at Texas.

Both Johnson and Keselowski demonstrated how to race hard but clean, with Johnson patiently stalking Keselowski over the final 18 laps after a restart, smoothly moving around his line at the end to get a big run off the corner and make a slide job in front of Keselowski to take the lead.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Johnson commended Keselowski for their “mean yet clean” racing.

“Honestly, I race people how they race me,” Johnson explained. “Brad’s always raced me clean and hard. He did that again today. We both showed each other that same respect. What’s gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation. How people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today.”

More astonishing was the grandstand reaction from the fans, with many more cheers than jeers for the six-time Champion as Johnson burned it down on the front straight for his post-race celebration. In prior Championship seasons, when Johnson was routinely closing out competitors under the old Chase playoff format, the chant was often “anybody but the No. 48.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at Monday, November 9, 2015  10.05.13 AM (2)Even Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, having a little extra time on his hands due to his suspension last week, jumped in on Twitter to reinforce the point. 

From a Chase perspective, the net impact of Johnson’s victory is that both of the Team Penske drivers sit substantially below the cut line with Keselowski in sixth and Joey Logano in eighth position with only three remaining spots heading to the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend.

This modernized Chase playoff format was altered last season to reward winning, as proven by Jeff Gordon punching his ticket to the Homestead Championship final as a result of last weekend’s victory at Martinsville Speedway. Yet, we are still left to speculate if something is missing from this Chase playoff system, given that several of the most dominant drivers this season have already been eliminated or are on the verge of elimination heading to Phoenix:

  • Texas winner Johnson has now won five races this season, but was already eliminated in the first Chase Challenger round at Dover due to a failure of a $15 rear axle seal that forced Johnson to take his No. 48 to the garage and resulted in a 41st place finish
  • Matt Kenseth, also a five-time winner this season, was eliminated two weeks ago, after an accident at Charlotte in the second Chase Contender round put Kenseth in a must-win situation at either Talladega or Kansas, a race where he mounted a feisty battle that fell just short
  • And then there is Joey Logano, Team Penske driver of the No. 22 Ford, having collected six wins this season, the most of any other driver. After experiencing a massive tire failure only eight laps into the Texas race, Logano now finds himself at the bottom of the remaining eight drivers in the Chase Eliminator round and in a must-win situation heading to Phoenix International Raceway, given that he is 63 points outside of the top four cut-off

So the three most prominent winners this season, assuming that Logano fails to win at Phoenix, are destined to miss the Homestead Championship final and are left to wonder what might have been.

With the extinguishing of each driver’s Championship quest, this new Chase format has validated just how critical all ten races are in the Chase – particularly in this contemporary round by round elimination format.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

 

NASCAR: The Chase Will Only Get Crazier After Chicagoland

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

Emotions grow to extreme levels with the pressure of the Chase looming.

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship got off to a wacky start at Chicagoland Speedway, where Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin came back from an early spin on lap 2, and subsequently going a lap down, to end up winning the race on a final restart with five laps to go. If the regular season was lacking in intensity, the first Race of the Chase was filled with unique storylines. Now heading to New Hampshire with nine races remaining, five crucial takeaways will continue to impact the action both on and off the track.

1) Restarts will be the key to victory (or defeat) in the Chase

Under the current aero package, track position means everything. As a result, drivers will seek out every advantage during the double file restarts after a caution flag has flown. At Chicagoland, with only six race cautions, three restarts stood out as the most dramatic moments of MyAFibRisk.com 400:

  • On a mid-race restart, Jimmie Johnson got shoved from behind by Joey Logano and ended up in no-man’s land on the non-banked apron, stuck in a three-wide situation with the leader Kevin Harvick. As Johnson slid up the race track, contact with Harvick ended up cutting his tire, resulting in Harvick’s #4 Chevy SS hitting the wall and finishing 42nd. As a result, the 2014 Sprint Cup Champion finds himself in a must-win situation in the next two upcoming races in order to advance to the Contender round
  • On the lap 145 restart, Jeff Gordon took the lead from Kyle Busch under a controversial restart. Both Gordon and Busch played mind games with each other on the restart, with Busch slowing down approaching the restart zone, while Gordon appeared to speed up. NASCAR reviewed, found no violation, and provided no further explanation, leaving a lot of wiggle room that will continue over the remaining nine races
  • The final restart with five laps to go shuffled up much of the field, with both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon starting on the front row but choosing to not come in for fresh rubber. Gordon appeared to spin the tires and bobble on the restart, dropping anchor all the way back to 14th, while Kurt Busch ended up finishing 3rd and was disappointed with NASCAR’s decision to throw the final caution for debris. Conversely, Denny Hamlin was able to execute his “spin and win” victory on the final restart by getting out front early
    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

    Hamlin masterfully got the jump on the final Chicagoland restart. They will be crucial.

Make no mistake, the restart rules will continue to have a big influence on the Championship, particularly given the ambiguous interpretation by the NASCAR officials. And if you desire chaos, look out if NASCAR chooses to “black flag” a Chase driver for jumping a restart. After the race, Jeff Gordon expressed his frustration that “the whole thing is just a mess because the (restart) box is just too small.”

2) Regardless of the on-track action, mainstream media will glamorize the feuds

When Johnson approached Harvick in the motorcoach lot after the race to share his take regarding the on-track contact, Harvick was having none of it, almost immediately striking Johnson in the chest and the two had to be separated. Only one race into the Chase, and the mainstream media is already toting this “punch” as a lights-out brawl. Fox News described the encounter as a violent attack (http://tinyurl.com/p2bvyap), while neglecting the proper spelling of Johnson’s first name. The vise-grip pressure of the Chase will continue to tighten moving forward, and all the contenders will be circling the fishbowl as the media watches intently. We saw similar behavior last year with Harvick, who blamed Matt Kenseth for wrecking him at Bristol and vowed that Kenseth would not win the Championship after taking him out. Don’t be surprised to see NBC use the highlight clips from the Harvick/Johnson feud as key promos for the upcoming Chase rounds.

3) Despite the premium for race victories, point consistency will remain critical for advancement

Only one race into the Chase, and Ryan Newman is running his points playbook to perfection that ensured his advancement last year to the Championship final at Homestead. The outcry from NASCAR Nation if the sport ends up with a winless Champion would be deafening, likely sending NASCAR back to the drawing board to redesign the Chase playoff system. Yet Newman, who managed to run most of the Chicagoland race in stealth mode (an average running position of 10th while leading no laps), took advantage of the final restart to finish 4th and is now solidly positioned 8th in the points for probable advancement to the next round.

In regular season everybody's a friend. After the knockout scenario starts....not so much.

In regular season everybody’s a friend. After the knockout scenario starts….not so much.

4) The Chase Challengers will take no prisoners

With everything at stake in each Chase race, the drivers will have no friends and memories are short. Last year, Harvick won his first Championship, and acknowledged that one of his closest mentors in that title hunt was the six-time Champion, Jimmie Johnson. The two have a long friendship going back to their California roots, with their NASCAR racing careers intersecting early on in Charlotte as house guests of Ron Hornaday, the four-time Truck series Champion.

After the race, Johnson, rather than taking to Twitter, chose to seek out Harvick for a private discussion regarding what happened on the track, beyond the reach of media microphones. Given Harvick had earlier sat on pit road for 51 laps while his car was being repaired, he clearly had the opportunity to calm down and review the replay of the racing incident. Instead, Harvick gave Johnson no “benefit of the doubt”, showing no willingness to hear out the six-time Champion.

5) NBC’s Perfect Grid payday of $16 million is likely safe for another year

Harvick, who statistically was the best driver this season with the most laps led and odds-on Vegas favorite to make the Championship final, may end up being eliminated in the first round. No telling how many Chase fantasy grids likely had Harvick at least moving past the first round, given some of the weaker teams. Already 22 points behind the 12th place driver cut-off, Harvick is now on the brink of elimination unless he wins one of the next two races.

The potential shock of a leading driver being upset echoes the adage that anything can and will happen in racing. With the reigning 2014 Champion on the ropes, the only certainty is that we will surely encounter more driver surprises under NASCAR’s unique playoff system. I, for one, know that I did not anticipate that in filling out my fantasy grid.

By Ron Bottano. Follow on Twitter: @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged

NASCAR: Expect Jimmie Johnson To Come Alive In The Chase

Lowes extends Johnson's contract through 2017.

Lowes extends Johnson’s contract through 2017.

It’s a difficult thing to watch what was once a powerhouse NASCAR team slowly and painfully slip into obscurity. That team is Roush Racing. Many have started to forecast, with great vitriol at times, the same fate for Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson. Don’t make that mistake.

Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have 6 Championships because NASCAR engineered it. They didn’t throw false cautions to benefit Johnson or anyone else, Johnson and Chad Knaus took the same equipment and tools as his teammates and earned 6 Championships.

Sitting at the top of the charts for the 16 drivers who made it into the Chase is Johnson. Has he been the meteor of late like Kyle Busch? No. But the Hendrick organization knows where they stand, knows who is going to create the right strategy for the Chase and let them run with it.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

After missing four months due to injury, Kyle Busch may now be in the right position to win his first title.

It may not be such a coincidence that Johnson re-signed an extension on his contract through 2017 and just announced it, right after the Chase was set. Knaus’ extension runs through 2018. Check off the box that has ‘pressure on contract’.

Tom Lamb, the Chief Marketing Officer for Lowes said:

“Lowe’s has a longstanding history with NASCAR and knows its fans are some of the most loyal in all of sports,” said Tom Lamb, chief marketing officer of Lowe’s. “Our partnership with Jimmie and Hendrick Motorsports has been an amazing ride as we chase history, and more than 265,000 Lowe’s employees are proud to be part of such a legacy.”

That sounds like corporate word-speak, but having met, at length, with the CEO of Lowes prior to their NASCAR involvement, it’s genuine. This company want’s to win. They have and will again.

On the other side of the street, Jeff Gordon’s woes are regrettable, but time marches on and he may very well leave the sport with perhaps one win in 2015. His overall team just hasn’t been able to convert qualifying speeds into a start to finish racing strategy that has worked for him. He’s a deserving Champion but his run in the sport may be over.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are fully aware of what they face, having run a season under these rules. They won’t make the same mistakes they did last year. That’s not good news for Kevin Harvick, but no news to Kyle Busch. He could care less. Joe Gibbs and company will keep him in mission and on course to defeat all comers.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

Harvick will be a contender from the first race in Chicagoland.

The real fight, in my opinion will be between Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. It’s possible that Joey Logano may mix it up as well as Keselowski, but I don’t see the strength at Penske that I do with Hendrick and JGR.

Joe Gibbs Racing miraculously came to life, seemingly when Kyle Busch returned to his seat after missing four months of racing. Let that soak in: Four months. He now sits second and has four wins.

These teams have different strategies that they employ during the Chase format and each of the drivers I believe will be fighting for that Championship all have top teams backing them on creating that strategy, which is always unfolding and evolving as the Chase narrows down it’s competitors.

The one thing that the fans can be sure of is that Hendrick want’s the mojo that JGR has found and Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing will have an appropriate strategy for each and every one of the remaining races complete with every scenario and response they can think of, it’s a ‘War Room’ mentality.

Will Johnson take another title? Who knows, this is auto racing where anything can and usually does happen.

One can only hope that the 16 drivers that are going for that Cup give us, the fans, the show we want to see and that NASCAR needs us to see.

It’s a dog eat dog world and these are the big dogs, no one is going to run away with this one.

 

 

 

 

 

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