Bugs Bunny Tirade Yields Safer Vegas Barriers

Looking like the "Little Martian" Character from the Bigs Bunny Cartoons, Jeff Gordon makes his point to NASCAR

Looking like the “Little Martian” Character from the Bugs Bunny Cartoons, Jeff Gordon makes his point to NASCAR

I can’t think of many things worse than a cold and rainy Atlanta, Georgia. In the Summer, a dynamic city, but when it’s cold and as inclement as it was for last weekend’s NASCAR race, you might as well be in Juneau, Alaska. I can only imagine how tough it was being a crew member standing in the pits. Truly, it’s the pits.

Several great things came out of Atlanta. The racing was close and very active. No one was injured, although Gordon’s crash could have been much worse. Fernando Alonso’s Formula One testing accident looked relatively benign, but it wasn’t. He’ll sit out the first Grand Prix in Australia due to a concussion.

That could easily have been Gordon’s fate or much worse. Las Vegas will have more safety barriers in place as a result of Gordon’s Bugs Bunny ‘Little Martian’ tirade. Always a crowd pleaser.

The racing, for me, was better than I’ve seen in a long time from the Sprint Cup series. The cars were a handful, the drivers had to work the wheel and try to create their own strategy as the race unfolded. My hat’s off to NASCAR for these particular sets of rule changes. You won’t hear me compliment NASCAR very often.

As new as these cars were to drive at Atlanta, they at least had the benefit of a track with unusual weather induced grip, although tires were getting eaten, causing more pit stops for rubber than fuel. That shouldn’t be the case at Las Vegas.

If everyone makes it through the qualifying technical inspection in due time, though that proved to not hamper anyone at Atlanta, the drivers will face a very different set of circumstances. A hot and slippery surface that should provide a much greater challenge to their chassis setups and to the drivers as they move through the cycle of stops.

Jimmie Johnson showed his skill in Atlanta. Las Vegas should be different, as in slicker.

Jimmie Johnson showed his skill in Atlanta. Las Vegas should be different, as in slicker.

Goodyear has a selected a tire mix that hasn’t been used at Las Vegas before, so how they will react to less down-force remains to be seen in terms of degradation. It doesn’t appear as if tire wear will be the big issue this weekend, but rather who can wheel a very loose car around the desert track the best.

This compound has more grip than last years and is obviously an attempt by Goodyear to keep the cars on the track, with the heat and it’s inherent slickness, it seems Goodyear is trying to get out in front of the issue.

We all know how Johnson fared in Atlanta and going into Las Vegas as the favorite doesn’t hurt his chances, this is how he likes to drive. But it may be that we’ll see an even harder car to drive in Vegas than we did in Atlanta. One can only hope.

From the moment NASCAR introduced the Checker, AKA, the Car of Tomorrow, the talent of the driver had grown from pure hatred to a ride along of setup and grip that was the first iteration of the Gen 6. It appeared as if the COT was a challenge, but more to the drivers psyche than anything else. In other words, “Is this really the form of motorsport I chose?”.

Why it took so many years for NASCAR to develop a car that actually works is beyond me.

Many people weren’t thrilled with Johnson winning the Atlanta race, but the fact is he earned it and didn’t run away from anyone. If you aren’t in the racing business or have never driven competitively you would be lulled into thinking it was dull and that Las Vegas may be more of the same. Don’t.

When drivers tell you the track or the car has a lot of grip, it’s relative. ALL racing cars slide around, it’s trying not to slide and drift that’s the trick. A sliding race car is a slow car, however when it’s loose you can, at least, rotate into the corners.

This weekend’s Las Vegas race should be the true test of what to expect from these new rules throughout the remainder of the season and no better place than Vegas to roll the dice.

 

 

 

NASCAR Atlanta: The Phoenix Finally Rises From The Ashes

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney and young Jacob Green

Atlanta is one of those tracks that if I never have to see the inside of the facility again as long as I live, I’ll die a happy man. It never sold out, even in the halcyon days of NASCAR and the weather was always unpredictable. It was fast, but not particularly engaging racing. This weekend was different.

This year, the weather was unpredictable and so was the racing. The Folds of Honor/Quik Trip 500 turned out to be quite the follow up to the race in Daytona. It had the distinction of having a fantastic sponsor/co-sponsor arrangement and one hell of a great spokesman in retired Air Force Major Dan Rooney. One of the best ‘Start Your Engine’ commands yet.

It’s a shame that in a country as great as America that it takes the efforts of charity to support those families who were killed in action. Frankly it’s inexcusable, but for the honor and sense of duty by warriors such as Major Rooney.

What made this Atlanta race so unusual is that it wasn’t a complete snoozer.

NASCAR seems to have moved into that realm of getting it mostly right, mostly right being the race itself. Some of the controversy’s occurred prior to the race with many cars not making it through qualifying inspection. That is not all to be laid at NASCAR’s feet despite the howling by many of the top teams who didn’t make the qualifying round.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The chain reaction crashes were more reminiscent of restrictor palate races than 1.5 mile tracks.

The teams know what the rules are and if they can’t build the cars to make it through inspection, then the bitching should be checked at the door.

The news rules took effect at Atlanta and the played right into the hands of the usual suspects. Jimmy Johnson looks to have found the perfect combination of a loose car and the appropriate horsepower to make it interesting.

He didn’t, however, run away with the race but rather showed his actual driving prowess as did Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt was a threat all day and should quiet down some of the double wide, white lacquer furniture crowd that seems so intent on destroying all things Junior.

It was evident at the start of the race that the cars were harder to handle, particularly after the tires had a few laps on them. No one looked comfortable as the cars moved around more than Asian massage parlors in Kansas City. It was a pleasure to finally see the ability of the drivers on display.

It was an impressive run by the young driver, Brett Moffitt, subbing for Brian Vickers. The kid finished 8th at Atlanta with wicked handling Sprint Cup cars. Very impressive.

It could very well be that Atlanta Motor Speedways surface itself caused the phenomenon of having to pit for tires before fuel, as the track hasn’t been surfaced in years, but it added to the evolving dynamics of the race and the ever changing strategies that had to be employed.

It was no surprise that the last half of the race showed the most caution periods, that is, after all, the nature of Sprint Cup. What was unusual was the way those cautions came about. It was more about the cars and the drivers learning the new formula rather than the divers egregious errors. It was obvious that certain moves took air off of these cars in ways that simply sent them spinning.

It won’t take these drivers long to figure out how to use this to their advantage, another arrow in their dirty little bag of tricks quiver. From this race forward, It will all depend on the track, temperature and tire compounds.

One thing things for sure, they will have to drive these cars, no cruising.

Several of the accidents were reminiscent of plate track racing collecting cars like a Godzilla film. It was slick, hard to predict when a car was going to lose grip and took all the skills that Jimmie Johnson had to hold off Harvick and Earnhardt.

Perhaps Johnson and Knaus have figured it out and are “Back” and perhaps not. One thing is for certain, it was a better show than Atlanta’s seen since Carl Edwards took his first Cup series win in 2005.

 

At Texas, Johnson Returned To Familiar Form

Jimmie Johnson won at Texas to earn his first victory in the Chase, his third straight in a Texas fall race and the 70th of his career.

Jimmie Johnson won at Texas to earn his first victory in the Chase, his third straight in a Texas fall race and the 70th of his career.

Given that there was a great deal of attention paid to the Jeff Gordon-Brad Keselowski fracas after the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, some folks might have overlooked the fact that Jimmie Johnson won the race.

Let’s face it, Gordon and Keselowski got a lot more ink than Johnson.

But it should be noted that Johnson’s victory was significant for a few reasons: It was his third consecutive win in the fall Texas race. It was his first in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and it was the 70th of his career.

He’s eighth on NACAR’s all-time list.

As mentioned, Johnson won in the Chase for the first time, as hard as that might be to believe. Truth is he was mediocre in NASCAR’s “playoff,” and that’s the reason he was eliminated from championship contention after the second round.

Before Texas, Johnson’s best Chase finish was third at Dover, the second of the three opening races.

At Kansas, the opening race of the second round, Johnson finished 40th after being involved in a multicar accident.

He was 12th in points and on the bubble. He almost had to win to advance.

He didn’t come close. He was 17th at Charlotte – where he normally runs very strong – and 24th at Talladega, after which he stood 10th in points and out of contention.

Johnson’s struggles led to speculation that he was at odds with long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, acknowledged as one of the best in the business.

To some, tense radio transmissions between the two at Charlotte offered evidence things were not going smoothly.

Once out of championship contention, the only thing left for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team to do was to perhaps prepare for 2015 – and to definitely win as many races as possible.

Victory seemed as distant as ever after Johnson finished 32nd at Martinsville, but it was at Texas that everything was set right.

Johnson returned to dominating form at Texas. He led 191 of 341 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season.

Johnson returned to dominating form at Texas. He led 191 of 341 laps en route to his fourth victory of the season.

Johnson looked like the six-time champion he is. He led 191 of 341 laps, the most he’s led since his victory at Dover in June.

He survived two green-white-checkered restarts, pulling away from Keselowski and runnerup Kevin Harvick on the last one.

Now, for Johnson, this was more like it.“We wanted to close out the year by having fun, and winning races helps you do that,” Johnson said. “But I have to give a lot of credit to our test session in Homestead earlier this week. 

We went down there and Chad and the guys started making me happy.  I guess I’ve been unhappy for a while. 

“These guys put some great speed in the race car, got me really comfortable with the car. 

We were able to bring a lot of that here and get the car off the truck right away, it was quick, qualified third, and then dominated and won the race.”

Johnson acknowledged he would like to be in the hunt for the championship.

But he said that to be able to run as well as he did at Texas takes away some of the sting.He also emphasized that his relationship with Knaus is as it always was.“It’s tough when you’re going through watching, you know, a championship opportunity slip away from you,” Johnson said. “People ask me questions about us raising hell with one another on the radio.  But that’s part of the process.  “That’s one thing that has been good about us. 

We’ve always been able to be honest with one another and say tough things. 

“Sure, you might not want to hear it, it might sting a little bit.  But it’s what has kept us together for all these years and provided the 70 wins and six championships.”

Knaus said that not winning created a lack of confidence for him and Johnson, a situation that has been removed with victory.

“It was difficult,” he said. “My confidence was definitely low.  I know Jimmie’s was definitely low. 

“You know, look, winning cures a lot of things, but the proof is in how we react beyond this point, how we go to Phoenix, how we produce there, how we go to Homestead, how we race there.  “Those will be the true tales of where we’re at.”

 

 

 

 

 

Talladega: Every Lap Could Be Heaven Or Hell

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

By virtue of the storied Alabama mega-track´s existence as the sole restrictor plate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Talladega’s fall date has been circled twice on many fans and teams calendars this year-and for good reason. Talladega is, after all, a track where fortune and dismal fate consistently collide with regularity at over 200 miles per hour, taking hopes and dreams of glory and leaving twisted sheet metal and bent emotions. After last weekend’s shenanigans following the closing laps of Charlotte, the inherent drama Talladega provides will only be exponentially multiplied. Heaven or Hell.

Adding to the normal blood pressure spike, four drivers are going to be eliminated from Championship contention following the 500 miler this weekend and, absent a miracle, those four are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. It almost seems heretical.

In a way, racing at Talladega has always been a race of nail biting decisions. Talladega’s wide racing surface makes handling and tire wear less an issue than at the high banks of Daytona and the use of horsepower-robbing restrictor plates virtually levels the field putting the race in the drivers’ hands. Or their minds.

Glorious victory or smoky demise depends on making the correct decisions at the correct time. Imagine a 200 mile an hour chess match against 42 other hungry opponents with the same goal: Victory Lane. Chase or not.

The "Big One" always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The “Big One” always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The first, and truly only, decision a driver can make before strapping into the race-car is strategy during the first half to 3/4 of the race. More specifically, the car must have some vital components intact to complete the event, so keeping the fenders intact and the toe (alignment) correct means avoiding the big one (unlike years past, the question now isn’t ‘when’ the big one occurs, but ‘how soon’). So the possibility of some teams ‘laying back’ towards the rear of the field is a distinct possibility, although a strategy that will be employed by very few, if at all.

In fact, the savvy and experienced drivers who can and need to win at Talladega know that most wrecks occur in the middle of the field, and will attempt to stay up front for the duration of the race.

Racing up front means clean air and fewer obstacles, so a vital decision is choosing who your dance partner is going to be. Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have proven to work well together at this track, and both have the same amount to gain or lose, so they will no doubt find each other early and attempt to stay together towards the front. They will both be early and strong contenders for this event, and they are two of the most capable and experienced drivers at this monster track.

Another pair of drivers whose decisions could impact the Chase field on every lap of this event, are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, both of whom are locked into the Eliminator round of the Chase by way of victory in the Contender round. Much like the popular girls at a middle school dance, they are being and will be courted frequently by the rest of the Chase field.

"Roller Girl"

“Roller Girl”

Case in point: Logano may be Keselowski’s sole hope to consistently run up front, as Brad may find trouble keeping a partner with him to maneuver through the field after last week´s dust-up. The 22 doesn’t have to win, he just has to start to advance, so they will almost surely team up and stick together through the entirety of the event. Roger Penske, legendary team owner, might have “suggested” that already.

Harvick has the luxury of going with who he chooses and when he chooses. Harvick´s #4 has arguably been the best team week in and week out this season, and “Happy” has both the equipment and experience to find himself with more suitors than he can please. More like “Boogie Nights” than “Talladega Nights”. Whatever decisions these two drivers make have Chase implications on every level, on every lap.

However, just because the bottom four are carrying the most pressure heading into the Geico 500, that doesn’t mean that rest of the Chase field shouldn’t be concerned. Jeff Gordon has competed in, and won, many of these restrictor plate races. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch know what it takes to get it done, as well. Those drivers, along with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman know that each lap, each decision they make – and when they make them — could keep them in the Chase for the next 3 races, or suddenly place them on the outside looking in.

Think about, for a moment, the Talladega races we had in NASCAR before the Chase, where even a casual fan could tune into the race and know within a half a lap of watching how early or late in the race was. What fan, and even TV announcer has watched a particularly daring move and not said ‘No,no,no, that was way too soon’!!

Those days are long past. With every position important, every lap, the type of racing that was saved for the final laps of the race will now be the standard. The trick is to be aggressive, but not aggressively stupid. A fine line, which many drivers will either ignore or completely forget.

Decide well, and be rewarded.

Decide poorly, and Talladega will allow someone else to make the decision for you.

 

 

Despite Chase Start, It’s Too Early To Count Johnson Out

Jimmie Johnson hasn't had a particularly good start in the Chase, but he's fourth in points and eight races remain.

Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a particularly good start in the Chase, but he’s fourth in points and eight races remain.

After only a couple of races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup the notion has arisen that defending champion Jimmie Johnson has, so far, been anything but a championship contender.

This would normally be only conjecture – not to mention a surprise. After all Johnson is the defending champ. He’s won six career titles including five in a row from 2005-2010.

He’s second in career championships only to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who have seven each.

But the facts are these: Yes, Johnson has three wins this season. He’s won at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – a clear indication he got hotter as the weather warmed up.

At the 26th race of the season, at Richmond before the Chase began, Johnson finished eighth and moved into fourth place in the Chase after re-seeding. He was one of four drivers to win three races.

So far, so good – I mean, nothing much different there for the veteran title contender.

But Johnson started sluggish out of the Chase. He finished 12th at Chicagoland, which isn’t all that bad of itself, but when compared to No. 1 seed Brad Keselowski, who won and earned his way into the second round of eliminations, well, it wasn’t all that good.

Johnson won three races earlier this year to easily make the Chase field of 16. One of his victories came at Michigan in June.

Johnson won three races earlier this year to easily make the Chase field of 16. One of his victories came at Michigan in June.

Johnson came back strong with a fifth-place finish at Loudon, but, again, it was Team Penske that held sway as Joey Logano won the race.

As it now stands Johnson is fourth in points behind Keselowski and Logano, the Penske drivers in first and second place, and the steady Kevin Harvick.

Let’s be honest. It doesn’t really matter that Johnson compiled four straight top-10 finishes before the Chase began or that he tripped a bit when it started.

It really doesn’t matter that he returned to form with a top-five at Loudon.

We’re talking about Johnson. We’re talking about a guy who is expected to contend for a championship. After all, given his record, could we anticipate anything else?

That he has not roared to the top of the point standings with at least one victory in hand seems something of an anomaly.

Johnson understands this scenario. He’s been there. And he knows that it will take a change in performance to establish what is expected of him and his team.

“To be honest about it, we hold ourselves to a higher level and expect to operate at a higher level,” he said. “But it’s the same that we’ve probably had through the majority of the year, where we’ve been good. We had a small window of being great.

“But in any competitive sport, if you’re not great, it’s hard to have a ray of sunshine shining through in certain areas. So we’re realists.

“As the No. 48 and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be. And we’re not where we want to be.”

For the moment being not where he wants to be means that Johnson wants to attempt to drop no lower than fourth in points and, of course, rise from there with continued improved performance and even victories.

“I’m trying to get my head around how do I drive a tighter race car?” Johnson said. “And then, how do we get speed? We had it right for three races this year, so it’s in there.

“But, you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying in the race. You’re not looking for a ton, just a half a tenth to a tenth will completely turn things around.

“So, we’re looking for just that little sliver of speed to get back to a dominant position.”

Truth be told, Johnson can do it.

Last year he won two races in the Chase. He won four in 2009, the season of his fourth title. He won three in 2008 and a remarkable four in a row in 2007.

So, with eight races remaining in the Chase how can we honestly say he won’t go on a similar hot streak that brings him another title – even though the odds seem to be against him?

“Believe me, we’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car,” Johnson said. “But, truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car.

“We still have eight weeks to get our act together. If we continue to get the most out of our good car and have a great car at Homestead, if we’re in that position, then we can get a seventh championship.”

 

 

 

 

 

It Took 12 Races, But Johnson’s Team Found What Was Needed

Jimmie Johnson got off to a slow start in 2014, but that has changed with two straight wins. Much of the credit is given to crew chief Chad Knaus and team.

Jimmie Johnson got off to a slow start in 2014, but that has changed with two straight wins. Much of the credit is given to crew chief Chad Knaus and team.

After suffering through the first 12 races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, during which he didn’t win a race, Jimmie Johnson rebounded nicely with two victories in successive weeks.

That effectively ended the widespread speculation that something was wrong with Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports team, or both.

There’s a reason why Johnson was in something of a funk through the first dozen races of the season.

There’s also a reason why he broke out of it so spectacularly.

Johnson will tell you there was never a thing wrong with him. It was with his Chevrolet – or more specifically, how he was unable to get comfortable with it and produce more much-needed speed.

“Those are two completely different things,” Johnson said.

So the cure for what ailed Johnson and his team had to be found within the car.

Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, explained that the problems began as early as last season.

“What happens, and I’ve said this before, when you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship,” he said. “So as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. 

“But that’s just inherent.  That’s what happens because you have to focus on the goal that’s directly in front of you.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Portraits

Together, Johnson and Knaus have won six championships. They hope to earn a seventh, but Knaus says there are still some improvements to make.

So when the 2014 season began, Johnson’s team found itself a bit behind in preparation. That can cause immediate problems, especially when dealing with what is effectively a “new” car.

“With the new ride height changes and rules that they’ve got out there, the car is a different animal,” Knaus said. “I know it’s difficult to understand and it’s not easy for everybody to understand, but it does change the way you approach a race car. 

“The advantages that we had last year were minimized with these new rules, so we had to try to find some new advantages and new ways to get the car set up to where Jimmie is happy with it.”

Searching for new advantages was what the Hendrick team was doing through the first 12 weeks of racing.

Performance-wise, Johnson was far from spectacular. He did finish second at Martinsville – and six more times among the top 10 – but he also had very uncharacteristic finishes of 19th, 23rd, 24th, 25th and 32nd. He was seventh in points coming into Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.

In that event everything changed. Johnson won the pole and the race. Before the green flag dropped, he was the hands-down favorite

“Actually going into the 600 I told Jimmie we were taking his favorite car to the track for the race,” Knaus said. “And I told him that his new favorite car was going to be going to Dover the following week.

“And then I told him his next favorite car was going to be going to Indianapolis.  So far I’m doing pretty good, and hopefully we can keep it true.”

Obviously promising Johnson his “favorite” race car was not enough to turn things around. Knaus won’t say specifically what did it, but he acknowledges the work that went into it.

“The one thing I’m really impressed with at Hendrick Motorsports is when we do get behind, which we feel like we’ve been just a pinch behind this year, everybody digs down really, really deep and they work hard,” he said. “From the pit crew, from the guys that hang the bodies to the guys that build the chassis to the guys that build the engines – they try to find an advantage.”

Johnson won at Dover for the ninth time in his career, which makes him the track’s all-time winner. He has led more than 50 percent of the laps he’s run at the one-mile track, including the 272 he led in the FedEx 400 last weekend.

Knaus admits Charlotte and Dover are two of Johnson’s favorite tracks and that he’s always expected to do well on both of them.

“We came to Dover with high expectations, obviously, after winning the 600,” Knaus said. “We came here with a brand new race car and things went really well for us straight out of the gate.

“But I feel like we’ve still got to room to grow.  I’m looking forward to the next series of race cars that we build at Hendrick Motorsports.  I’m excited about that. 

“We’re close. We had good race cars at Charlotte and Dover. But it needs to be a bit better. 

“So I think if we can start digging in a little bit deeper we’ll finally have what we want when we get to about September time.”

Which does not bode well for the competition.

 

 

 

 

 

Johnson Wants To Win All-Star For More Than One Reason

Jimmie Johnson has won the Sprint All-Star Race in each of the last two seasons and will be seeking his third straight victory this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson has won the Sprint All-Star Race in each of the last two seasons and will be seeking his third straight victory this weekend.

The Sprint All-Star race is not like any other –which goes without saying – and, I think, is one of the most highly anticipated NASCAR events of the year.

That’s because it is designed to challenge the drivers and teams. Its ultimate goal is to make competitors do things on the track they normally would not.

And why would they do that? Well, there’s the prestige earned with victory, of course. But there’s also money – and a lot of it. The winner gets a cool $1 million.

But to the competitors the event is also fun and free of a fair amount of stress. It isn’t a point race so it won’t have any effect of the standings.

That has a way of putting a driver – and his crew chief – at ease.

And it’s at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which means the majority of competitors can be with family and friends. They can also sleep in their own beds.

If all this sounds like a marketing pitch for the Sprint All-Star race, yes, in a way it is.

But it’s all the truth. No need to gloss over anything.

Don’t take my word for it.

“Charlotte had never been a track that we’d run very well at, up until 2006,” said Kevin Harvick, a two-time winner this year who won the All-Star Race in 2007. “So, to go and win the race gave us a lot of confidence, for sure.

“Obviously, a win in the All-Star Race makes you $1 million richer and puts you on a unique list of winners that have won that race before.

“So, it definitely makes you want to experience all of that again as we go back every year.”

Fellow Chevrolet driver Jimmie Johnson has won the All-Star Race four times, including twice consecutively in 2012-13. He’ll be the prohibitive favorite to win this weekend and earn his record fifth victory.

Sprint All-Star Race

Johnson won the All-Star Race in 2012 and hopes a win this year will provide his team with confidence and momentum.

His view of the All-Star Race fits perfectly with the hype.

“It’s usually such a fun weekend for us,” Johnson said. “There are always a lot of family and friends in town for the race and there is a lot of money on the line. We just go out there to try and win it.”

While it’s true the All-Star Race doesn’t pay off in points, I would think that matters little to Johnson.

He’d like to win for the record and the money, naturally, but I also believe he’d like to gain some momentum.

Johnson has not won a race this year. He has six top-10 finishes in 11 races, including a second at Martinsville and a third at Darlington.

But to assure himself a position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson has to win. A victory in the All-Star Race won’t help his cause, but I think, it will boost his team’s confidence and provide it with a momentum jolt.

And that is important.

“Yeah, for sure it is,” Johnson said. “That’s the one thing that I learned maybe year two or three in Cup, is that every weekend’s a new weekend. It’s a new track.  

“The momentum that you do carry is, I think, noticeable maybe on Friday, opening practice, qualifying.

“By the time you get to the race, you’re dealing with that weekend’s circumstances.  Just because you won the previous race, doesn’t change things on that given race day.

“Believe me, it’s a nice week.” 

And that means that, going into the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team are going to feel at the top of their game if they win the All-Star Race.

By no means is that a certainty. But Johnson feels confident. And, given his record in the race, for good reason.

“The race definitely changes things,” Johnson said. “I think people are willing to take more risks and opportunities if they’re there. I think second place, if he’s in reaching distance of the leader, will certainly do what he can for $1 million and no implications in points.

“Why are you going to risk making the guy in fourth mad?  He’s going to come after you the following week. Given the race format, I think it certainly can make things exciting.

“But Charlotte has been so good to us.  Even though our dominance was a while ago, we’ve been able to win the All‑Star a few times since.  

“We’ve definitely been in the money and have had a shot to win.  

I’m carrying good confidence in there.”

 

 

 

 

For Any Darlington Winner, Favorite Or Not, Victory Is Singular Achievement

Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, has won more races at
Darlington that any other active driver and will be favored to win
again.

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Most likely a bookmaker – assuming you might have any interest in what he had to say – would declare that for the Bojangle’s Southern 500, you would do well to put your money on either Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson- or both.

Boy, he’s really sticking his neck out, isn’t he? I mean, you would do well to put your money on those guys for any race.

But there is substance to this. In 33 races Gordon has seven wins – tops among active drivers – and 22 top-10 finishes, 19 of them in the top five.

Johnson, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, has competed at Darlington 15 times with three wins and 11 finishes among the top 10, eight of them among the top five.

Such numbers clearly indicate that both drivers know how to get around the tricky 1.366-mile track.

Neither Gordon nor Johnson has won this year – a season in which a victory is critical for entry into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

There have been times when fate wasn’t kind. For example, Johnson was involved in a bizarre accident early in the race at Texas and limped to a 25th-place finish.

Gordon could have won that race but was bested by Joey Logano in a green-white-checker restart. Gordon wound up second.
However, Gordon is the current points led by virtue of his consistency – five top-10 finishes in seven races.

Johnson is seventh in points, 31 behind.

But now they are at Darlington and I’m pretty certain each thinks he can earn a first victory this season at a track where they’ve been pretty darn good.

Both Denny Hamlin (left) and Jimmie Johnson have excellent records at
Darlington and loom as contenders for the win in the Bojangles
Southern 500.

After all, it’s only logical.

“I’m excited to be back at the track, one that is a favorite of so many, including myself,” Johnson said. “The sensation of speed is greater than almost any other track we go to.

“And the line and racing surface is so narrow and unique and challenging. It’s real accomplishment to run 500 miles here.

“To qualify well and then ultimately to win the race, well, to look forward to that is what makes it so exciting.”

Johnson added that incidents such as the one he endured at Texas happen inevitably. The key is to focus on the next race.

“We hate to see opportunities slip away but it doesn’t hurt our confidence,” he added. “When you have fast cars and don’t pull into victory lane, well, that’s still a confidence booster.

“The result isn’t what you want or like but you know your cars are fast and your pit stops are good.

“You have all the pieces. It’s just about getting the job done.”

Johnson said that what he looks for ultimately are top five finishes. He believes that if he, or any other driver, runs among the top five, there is going to be a good shot at winning.

Which, he added, is exactly what Gordon is doing.

“Jeff is rock solid,” Johnson said. “During the week when the teams debrief he knows what he is looking for. If he’s able to get what he needs he’s off and you can’t catch him.

“There are times when things don’t pan out and you’re wondering whey he isn’t up front. That’s because he’s set such a high bar through the years of success he’s had.”

While it’s logical to assume the Hendrick teammates are virtually pre-race favorites at any event, at Darlington there are several others to consider. Some of them might be a bit surprising.

Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman, for example, has a victory and 10 finishes among the top-10 in only 15 races.

Consider Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing’s solid Darlington record. He’s got a victory and seven top-10 finishes in just eight races.

Wonder how a bookmaker would rate him?

And Matt Kenseth, winner of this race last year, deserves consideration, which he will get.

“I always feel the Southern 500 is one of the biggest races of the year,” Kenseth said. “I always wanted to win here, and to do it last year was really big.

“But to win again – and for anyone to win – you have to adapt to changes. The changes from daylight to night can be significant. You have to keep up with them. That’s the challenge.”

Observers say Kenseth is absolutely right. While the track surface is unforgiving and narrow, which makes passing difficult, adaptations to changes will be absolutely necessary.

Which means that the Bojangle’s Southern 500 winner, pre-race favorite or not, will leave Darlington knowing he has achieved something significant, indeed.

This Is Martinsville, So The Odds Favor Hendrick, Johnson and Gordon

Jimmie Johnson is currently tied with the most wins at Martinsville – eight – tops among active drivers.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Let’s say you came up to me to ask which driver, or drivers, would be a solid pick for victory in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

My first question to you would be, “Why the heck are you asking me?”But if you insisted on an answer, I would say, “Pick Hendrick.

The odds are in your favor.”

Boy, that’s sticking my neck out, isn’t it?

I mean, Hendrick Motorsports is perhaps the strongest team in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition today. But there’s more to it than that.

Two of its drivers, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, share the record for most victories at Martinsville by active drivers.

They have eight apiece, twice as many as Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Gordon has led the most laps at Martinsville with 3,593 over 33 races. That’s considerably more than second-place Johnson, who has led 2,450 laps – but in just 16 races.

The two Hendrick drivers have dominated Martinsville almost as completely as Richard Petty – the all-time Martinsville leader with 15 victories – and Darrell Waltrip, who won 11 times, mostly with team owner Junior Johnson.

Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, also has eight wins at Martinsville.

Fact is, Gordon and Johnson are tied for third place behind the two Hall of Fame drivers.

Due credit must be given to the Hendrick organization, which has been able to provide all its drivers with top equipment and support.

But the driving skills of Gordon and Johnson certainly play a role in their success at Martinsville, a tight, demanding 0.056-mile track that came into existence at the birth of NASCAR 66 years ago.

Gordon, who has finished among the top 10 in four of five races this season, downplays his role.

“Great race cars, great race teams,” he said. “I think just the approach that we have had and that is built from having some success over the years.  “Hendrick has always given us great cars even from when I started coming here.  I found something that worked for me and I have been able to go back to when I come here and not a lot has changed.

“It’s nice to have something that you have learned that has worked and can be a constant that you can come back with and make it work over and over again.

“It’s probably similar for Jimmie since he has started having success here as well.”

Johnson admits that for him, to master Martinsville required some lessons. When he was a Hendrick newcomer he got many from Gordon during repeated test sessions.

But he learned much from an unexpected source.

“I think our second trip here, in the fall of my rookie year, I got lapped by Tony Stewart,” Johnson said. “It all came together when I followed Tony and could pick up the rhythm.

“This is a track where a half-tenth per each end of the race track is huge. And it’s so hard to even quantify that or see that.

“It took me following Tony and getting into that rhythm where I picked it up. I was fortunate enough to get my lap back and then I think we ran a top-15 or top-10, and from that point on I’m like ‘OK. I see it. I get it.’ I feel it and understand that rhythm.”

Johnson understood it so well that he, along with Gordon, has become a Martinsville master.

This is not the case for all of the Hendrick teams. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win at Martinsville after growing up in a house “full of grandfather clocks” won by his father. Instead of trophies Martinsville winners get handsome clocks.

“Yeah, this is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time,” said Earnhardt Jr., who has finished second twice at Martinsville. “We have had some good cars in the past here that I’ve felt like could have won races and we just weren’t able to get the job done for whatever reason, somebody was faster or whatever.

“I’m looking forward to having another opportunity. I love short-track racing. I love this track.  I love the history of this place, what it represents.”

Kasey Kahne, the fourth Hendrick driver, has also yet to win at Martinsville. But, like Earnhardt Jr., he has two runnerup finishes.

Many drivers recognize that if they want to win at Martinsville, they are going to have to beat at least two Hendrick drivers.

They admit they would like to know how to do that.

Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards, who won at Bristol this year and is the current points leader, admits he feels confident he can get his first Martinsville victory.

But he adds he’d feel more confident if he could race the track the way Gordon and Johnson do.

“I’ve talked to Jimmie a little bit about it and he just says, ‘You’ll figure it out.’  He’s really nice about it and then changes the subject,” Edwards said. “Those guys are very spectacular here.  They’ve very good.

“My first few years I would get out of the car and go down and stand and watch Jeff.  The way he drives around here is just so smooth and precise.

“They’re able to do things that I’m not able to do, so I’ve just got to keep working on it.”

Seems it’s the same for several other drivers.

Except, perhaps, Hamlin, who boldly said, “I am going to win this race. I promise you.”

OK, so place your bet.

 

 

 

 

 

Las Vegas First Big Test For Updated Gen 6 Sprint Cup Car

Jimmie Johnson, a four-time winner at Las Vegas, said the pre-race testing there should help the teams, but they won’t know how much until they race.

Every NASCAR Sprint Cup race has its appeal – admittedly, fans look forward to some of them more than others – and the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is no different.

For example, many fans might be interested to see if Jimmie Johnson can continue his mastery of Las Vegas and win his fifth career race on the 1.5-mile track – and in so doing, take that solid first step toward a seventh championship.

Of course there are those who would just as soon see him fall flat on his face.

The Las Vegas race is unique because it will serve as the first test of the many changes NASCAR has made to the Gen 6 car.

These alterations were specifically made to target competition on the 1.5-mile tracks. These speedways, and their races, have been routinely criticized for producing mediocre competition.

There has been little side-by-side racing and passing has been almost non-existent.

In order to change this, NASCAR came up with a new intermediate track rules package, based in part on two lengthy test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October and December.

Chassis and aerodynamic changes included statically setting the race car ride height, a square leading edge on the splitter, side skirt and rear fascia adjustments and an eight-inch rear spoiler. Also, the radiator pan size was adjusted.

I’m no engineer so I’m certainly not able to declare what these changes will do to the competition.

To be frank, NASCAR and the competitors aren’t either. They can only speculate.

To gain a stronger certainty on performance NASCAR scheduled a test session at Vegas on March 6. The goal was to build upon the 2014 package.

Greg Biffle said testing did little to help his cause and wonders why his Roush Fenway Racing team can’t get a handle on Vegas.

To schedule a test session at a track just days before its race is not a common practice in NASCAR, not at all.

So that should tell you how much importance NASCAR attaches to the goal of improving competition on the intermediate tracks – not to mention the teams, 48 of which showed up for the session.

Did the test indicate racing would indeed be better? Well, no one really knows. It’s more speculation albeit optimistic.

“The test session was nice,” said Johnson, a member of Hendrick Motorsports. “There were points where we were real fast and happy.

“We are learning and we are enjoying the process.  There are a bunch of new challenges right now with the new car.

“This weekend is important for sure.  The test was very helpful and useful.  I’m glad that NASCAR allowed us to come out for a few hours.”

Even with his appreciation of NASCAR’s efforts Johnson, who qualified fifth, admits he doesn’t know how good – or bad – he’ll race at Vegas.

“It’s more complicated,” he said. “There are more steps involved with making a decision now.

“I feel like communication still is key, but the thought process on the pit box is more important than it’s ever been because a simple change affects more things now.”

Kevin Harvick, who won in dominating fashion at Phoenix a week ago and starts 16th at Vegas, agreed that the test helped but he, too, can’t say how things will go until the actual competition begins.

“I thought it went really well,” he said. “We struggled in the beginning just to get the feel.  It took us a couple of hours to kind of get everything situated and get the balance of the car right.

“Then we felt pretty good about it after that.  Changed a lot of stuff and did a lot of different things to the car.

“Felt like we made good head way in the end and hopefully we can progress and make it even better – hopefully.”

Not every driver felt optimistic after the test. Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway Racing, who starts a distant 25th at Vegas, was decidedly pessimistic.

“Last year I was the fastest on Thursday, probably the third-fastest on Friday, 12th on Saturday and I was 25th on Sunday,” Biffle said. “This year I’m 34th on Thursday (testing), and hoping that I’m about 20th Friday and maybe 12th Saturday and win on Sunday, but that’s about as good of an analogy I can give you on what is wrong and why our fastest car is 27th (in testing).

“I really honestly wish I had more to tell you about it, but we just aren’t getting a hold of the race track is about the best I can say.”

The Team Penske Fords displayed strength in qualifying. Joey Logano won the pole with Brad Keselowski No. 2. It was the second consecutive time they had swept the top two positions.

“Team Penske has done a great job of finding the speed in qualifying trim,” Keselowski said. “We need a little bit more in race trim.  I think we saw that last weekend in Phoenix and a little bit on the first day of testing here in Vegas.

“We’ll get a better idea and read for that when we get back in race trim, but in qualifying trim I think we’ve got our cars really refined well for this package.”

Certainly the race at Vegas will receive its due attention. But what’s also riveting is if NASCAR’s many alterations will produce better competition at an intermediate track.

If it does, then it is so much the better for racing.

If it doesn’t it might be time to go back to the drawing board

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