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

 

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

 

Jimmie Johnson or Harvick Will Win The 2015 Cup Title

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

These two drivers have everything it takes to go head to head in the Chase.

So Jimmie Johnson nails his fourth win of the year and everyone hates him, and lets face it, people hate others for a myriad of reasons. In this case it’s because he wins races.

What has been missed is the fact that this season in Sprint Cup has become unbelievably competitive. They are the same cast of characters that have provided the entertainment for the past few seasons.

There’s a reason for that. They are the best drivers in Cup and they drive for the best teams. Period. When you have a series where the teams run virtually the same equipment it comes down to two things putting that car in the winners circle, talent and money.

That could be said about any form of motorsport, but in Sprint Cup it’s a spec series, which makes it harder to win. No detail can be missed and every little trick they can think of has to be tried.

Johnson appears to have a handle on psychologically running block on his competition as the Chase looms later this season. I don’t care who you are, when drivers of this caliber see someone win four races and that driver has 6 Cup Championships, it gets inside your head. Harvick would be the one driver that it probably excites.

Ultimately I believe that’s who this Chase will come down to, Johnson and Harvick. I could be wrong, it is auto racing where anything can happen, but Harvick is still atop the points heap and remains consistent all the while Johnson creeps up in the standings.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Johnson fourth win this season is propelling him to the top of the standings along with Harvick.

Only four races remain until the ‘Race to the Chase’ begins and no one on the horizon appears to have quite the tiny little edge that these two drivers have. Johnson and his team know how to recover from bad weekends and Harvick knows how to play this game.

The racing in Cup has never been better but you can’t deny that these two drivers have the edge, the determination, the strategies and the sheer talent to drive at the limit for extended periods of time.

The fans all have their favorites but you have to consider that these two drivers, even at this still early stage, have the ability to overcome whatever is thrown at them, accusations of cheating aside.

Of course, in Sprint Cup, you never know what might happen, but history can be telling. Johnson and Harvick both know that when the points are reset, so are they. Their teams have been planning for it and will have a completely different strategy for the actual Chase than they did getting to it.

Stewart Haas have two drivers all but locked in, that is where the main team efforts will go. Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick with, perhaps, a little more influence on Harvick, It won’t be Tony Stewart or Danica Patrick.

Johnson’s team has always been on another planet when it comes down to the big fight and they learned long ago that they are the top Hendrick team. They will spare no expense or many nights using their brain-trust to execute every possible scenario to win this Championship.

Johnson wants that 7th title and Harvick now makes Pavlov’s Dogs look like a drooling Pomeranian.

Whoever wins the title this season it will have been well deserved, hopefully a clean and entertaining victory.

If I were a betting man, however, I would have to say Johnson will take the honor. Or maybe Harvick?

 

Johnson Holds Big Hand Heading Toward Season Finale

Kevin Harvick won his fourth race of the season and his fourth at Phoenix in the AdvoCare 500 and remains in third place in the point standings.

Last week I said that although Jimmie Johnson was a winner at Texas, it wasn’t time to cue the Fat Lady.

I think that can be done now. She needs to be in voice, because it is very likely she’s going to sing at Homestead this weekend.

Of course, I could be wrong.

After Phoenix Johnson is 28 points ahead of Matt Kenseth in the point standings and needs to finish only 23rd or better at Homestead to clinch the title.

I don’t think he’ll have trouble doing that. But then, I could be wrong.

Last year at Homestead Johnson suffered gear problems and finished a dismal 36th. He fell to third place in the standings, 40 points behind champion Brad Keselowski and one behind runnerup Clint Bowyer.

Just a week earlier Johnson came to Phoenix with a seven-point advantage – same as this year.

At Phoenix this season, Johnson avoided near disaster on the first lap, where a jostle with Joey Logano dropped him from the pole to sixth place. It could have been far worse.

Johnson rebounded nicely, ran among the leaders all day and finished third. His performance was a polar opposite from 2012, when a blown tire sent him to a 32nd-place finish and marked the beginning of the end.

“We had a very strong race car, so that made life a lot easier, especially comparing this effort to last year’s effort in the Chase,” Johnson said. “You know, we did what we should have.

“We’re heading into Homestead in the position we want to be in.  I’ll have to go down there and run 400 miles.  It’s far from over.

Matt Kenseth had his worst day in the Chase as an ill-handling car sent him to 23rd place, one lap down. He’s now 28 points behind Jimmie Johnson in the standings.

“You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”

That should not be a daunting task.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Johnson likely would not have that cushion of which he speaks had challenger Matt Kenseth not endured his worst race of the Chase.

Kenseth’s Toyota was never right over the course of 312 miles at Phoenix. No matter how much or how hard his Jason Ratcliff-led team tried to make corrections, nothing worked.

As a result, Kenseth finished one lap down in 23rd place, his poorest showing in the Chase.

“We just really struggled,” Kenseth said. “Honestly, it was the first day like that – that we’ve had all season long. Gosh, that speaks volumes about my team, we haven’t had a day like that all year where we’ve been far enough back where we couldn’t stay on the lead lap.

“But I Just couldn’t be prouder to drive this car for Joe Gibbs Racing. “It was an unfortunate, disappointing day, but man, we did the best we could do. We just were off today.”

While Kenseth, who has won seven times this year, has not conceded the title to Johnson he knows the task ahead is formidable.

“I’m disappointed over today, obviously, with the way our season has gone and kind of being in the championship hunt,” he said. “Now you hope to go down to Homestead and race for it on performance.

“Yet on the other hand, I’m extremely happy.  I’m really, really happy with my team.”

Kevin Harvick emerged victorious at Phoenix to win for the fourth time at the one-mile track. It was his 23rd career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.

It embellished what has been an outstanding final season with Richard Childress Racing. As a lame duck Harvick has won four times this year and stands third in points.

He’s 34 points behind Johnson and his chances of winning the championship are mathematical at best.

“I think Richard would probably sit here and tell you that we’ve been good for each other because we challenge each other,” Harvick said. “You know, I obviously handle a lot of situations wrong, but it pushes a lot of buttons to try to make things better.

“There’s no better way to go out than to do what we’ve done this year.”

For Johnson there will be no better way to conclude the 2013 season than to earn a sixth title in the last eight years.

Me? I think he’s going to do it.

Of course, I could be wrong.

 

 

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