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.






Unfortunately, Kurt Busch Just Doesn’t Get It

Kurt Busch is a proven winner and a past NASCAR champion. However, his continued confrontations with the media, fellow competitors and others has cast a great deal of negative attention on his career.

This is most likely on the tail end of the list of commentaries about Kurt Busch but I want to raise some points anyway – largely because I’ve been asked by more than a few to do so.

As you know, Busch has been suspended until June 13 and his current probation, which was to end on July 25, has now been extended until Dec. 31.

All of this is a result of Busch’s verbal altercation with veteran reporter Bob Pockrass – one of the best in the business – following the Nationwide Series race at Dover on June 2.

Busch was caught on SPEED video berating, and even threatening, Pockrass because he asked a followup question about Busch’s altercation with Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide event.

Among other things Busch said that his probation “refrains me from beating the s— out of you right now because you ask me stupid questions.”

Two points to make here:

Pockrass’ question was anything but stupid. It was simply logical to ask Busch if he refrained from roughing it up with Allgaier because Busch was on probation.

As for probation, it was Busch himself who brought up the subject in the first place. He did so in a post-race interview with ESPN.

Did he really think reporters would not follow up on that? I hope he’s not that dumb.

But then, Busch simply doesn’t get it – not at all.

Don’t take my word for it. Simply look up the litany of run-ins he’s had with the media over the years.

Add those he’s encountered with fellow competitors, and even an Arizona sheriff’s department, and you will learn that Busch has yet to figure out his problem. In fact, over the years he has simply intensified it.

You’ll reach the same conclusion I share with many people.

Which is, simply, Busch doesn’t get it – not at all.

Despite that he won the 2004 championship, and many races, with Roush Fenway Racing, Busch’s repeated controversial confrontations – topped by his arrogance and emotional rants when stopped near Phoenix International Raceway for a traffic violation – forced Roush to get rid of him.

A team spokesman said, “We are tired of being Kurt Busch’s apologists.”

Busch, admittedly a very talented driver, joined Penske Racing in 2006 and stayed there for six years. He won races.

But I suspect he always had a tenuous relationship with team members.

Nearly everyone thought the same when they heard Busch berate his crew members with profanity-filled tirades via radio during a race – many times, I might add.

Busch’s tenure at Penske came to an end last year. Busch called it a “mutual decision.” I’ll take his word for it.

However, I do believe that team owner Roger Penske’s patience had come to an end.

For a myriad of reasons Busch did not land a ride with the type of team to which he had become accustomed.

None of them came calling.

Which, in my opinion, should have set off alarms for Busch.

But he just doesn’t get it.

Busch now drives for James Finch (left) whose Phoenix Racing team won at Talladega with driver Brad Keselowski. Finch has indicated he won't tolerate Busch's behavior.

Instead Busch entered into a handshake agreement with James Finch, owner of Phoenix Racing.

For Busch it was clearly a step backward.

Which is not to be critical of Finch’s team. It has earned a victory and, overall, has done very well given the circumstances under which it exits.

But it’s fair to say that it can’t perform at NASCAR’s top level because it can’t match the resources of the elite teams. Even today it operates without a full-time sponsor.

Busch said that to be a part of Phoenix Racing was to have fun again because he would pitch right in and help prepare for every race.

And he had the opportunity to rebuild his image.

He hasn’t taken advantage of it.

At Darlington, Busch drew the ire of Ryan Newman’s crew when he did an anger-driven burnout through the team’s pit box after being involved in a crash.

After the race Busch and some of Newman’s crewmen were involved in an altercation.

There was an altercation that involved Busch? Really? So what else is new?

NASCAR fined Busch $50,000 and placed him on probation, which is how things stood until Dover.

Now he won’t be able to race at Pocono and has to be a good boy for the remainder of 2012.

If he does so count me as one of many who will be surprised.

With his latest episode Busch has only validated his reputation as arrogant and immature.

As such he’s done harm, again, to himself and to Finch’s team. Let’s face it, what kind of success in a sponsorship hunt can Finch expect given his driver’s proven reputation?

As things are now can you imagine any company’s desire to use Busch as a spokesman?

Finch may be a very witty and gregarious guy who has hung around NASCAR since 1990, but he’s a keen businessman and nobody’s fool. He’s already said he will hold Busch accountable for his actions.

And he’s indicated strongly that he may take action much sooner than later.

Let’s get one thing straight: Those who claim Busch is good for NASCAR because he’s the villain the sport needs are misguided.

I agree a villain always provides spice to racing.

But that villain has always plied his style on the track. He was very aggressive, known to tangle with others and on occasion simply applied whatever tactics he could, as blatant as they may be, to win – and the consequences be damned.

Fans either loved the guy or hated him. They chose sides and couldn’t wait to see what might happen next.

How could NASCAR not benefit from that?

Villains did not become what they were by berating media members or NASCAR. That should be duly noted.

Sure, they stated their case, whatever it might be, to the press. But why shouldn’t they? Most of them realized it served their cause – which was to gain even more notoriety by stoking the fire.

They were not about to back down over who they were or what they wanted to achieve or how they were going to do it. For much of their careers, they gave no quarter and asked for none.

These villains had names – Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond, Rusty Wallace and Tony Stewart come to mind.

Of that group only Stewart can be mentioned as one who vented, verbally or physically, against the media.

That was a while back. Seems he has learned some lessons.

Clearly Busch has not.

There is a big difference between being called out for actions on the track as opposed to boorish behavior toward the media – or others, for that matter.

I think fans expect the former. Many of them enjoy it and wouldn’t mind to see more.

But, as for the latter, they realize it does not in any way characterize a rough-and-tough driver they can appreciate.

To them, it sends out only one message: That driver is not an on-track villain. He’s nothing more than an immature brat.

And again, I don’t think – as talented as he is – Kurt Busch gets it. Not at all.


Layoffs, Sadly, Still A Part Of NASCAR

Ran into an old friend the other day, Scott Robinson, who has been part of NASCAR as a crewman and shop official for well over 20 years. Ol’ Scott doesn’t look like he’s aged a day.

But that might change soon. When I asked him how things were going, he paused and then said: “Pretty good right now. But who knows a couple of days from now?”

Robinson was referring to today’s precarious employment situation for many NASCAR team members. Although I told him it didn’t seem likely to me, he maintained he could be a victim to the ongoing layoffs.

“It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this sport,” he said. “When the time comes they don’t think about that.”

Layoffs have been a part of NASCAR for two years now and came about as the economy tanked. When that happened, corporations had to tighten their budgets which meant, of course, layoffs of their own.

It also meant many of them that spent good sponsorship money in NASCAR had to pull the plug on it – or at least reduce it significantly. One result is that even several of the top-tier teams have had to negotiate less expensive deals with two, three or even four financial supporters to make it through the 36-race season.

Other teams have had it more difficult. Some have lessened their participation in NASCAR while others have pulled out altogether.

When Robinson and I met, it had already been announced that Penske Racing had laid off 50 people earlier in the week with more to come.

The prime reason is that Penske has yet to find sponsorship for Sam Hornish, Jr., whose NASCAR career might be derailed if the money can’t be found.

Penske will field three Sprint Cup teams in 2011 with drivers Kurt Busch, Justin Allgaier and Brad Keselowski. Hornish Jr. will compete in the Daytona 500 and if he can’t proceed, Penske will enter him in the Indianapolis 500.

It had also been announced that Richard Petty Motorsports had laid off 75 employees. RPM itself might have ceased to exist had not new capital been infused by Petty and a couple of investment firms.

RPM, though, will operate with two cars next year instead of four. When a reduction in an organization’s number of teams occurs it means jobs disappear. Some employees are no longer needed – hence, they’re gone.

The RPM team reduction also has had an effect elsewhere, namely, Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush supplied cars and more to RPM in 2010. Since there will be only two to be serviced in 2011, Roush became overstaffed and as many as 60 people were let go.

This, I think, is a good example of the “trickle down” effect, something Robinson pointed out.

“People sometimes don’t understand how all of this affects the sport,” he said. “When a team doesn’t have the money and starts letting people go it reaches well beyond that. It hits a lot of folks working in the sport, even the people who sell souvenirs.”

There’s been plenty of evidence of that, given the speedways have struggled to sell tickets, advertising has dried up, souvenir sales aren’t what they were and fans have to, first, decide if they want to spend money to attend a race and, second, how much they’ll spend once they do.

As said, when it comes to layoffs they are across the board – in NASCAR, corporate America and businesses large and small.

We’ve been told that the economy is rebounding. But the process has been slow – very slow, obviously. People are still losing their jobs.

So it is in NASCAR, unfortunately.

It’s very likely Scott Robinson isn’t the only one taking a look over his shoulder now and then.

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