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.

The Weather Is Hot, So Watch For Tony Stewart To Heat Up

On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Tony Stewart (14) got a huge push from Kasey Kahne to move past leaders Matt Kenseth (17) and leader Greg Biffle (16). The victory was Stewart's third of the year.

Judging from his thrilling, last-lap victory in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, it looks like Tony Stewart is back on his game.

Now that I’ve said that, I wonder if he was ever really “off” his game.

Maybe he was a bit or maybe he just appeared to be.

Stewart has earned a reputation as a Sprint Cup driver who heats up when the weather does.

It seems for most his career Stewart has gathered most of his victories during the second half of a season.

Remember 2011? By the time the 26th race of the season at Richmond rolled around, Stewart was winless and barely holding on to a spot among the top 10 in points.

He wasn’t happy. He groused that, “This team doesn’t deserve to be in the Chase.”

But in the 10-race Chase, which began after Richmond, Stewart ripped off five victories to win the championship by a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

From September through November, Stewart won half of the scheduled 10 races. Talk about a late bloomer. His reputation for winning during the second half of a season was enhanced.

This year things began quite differently for Stewart.

He won two of the first five races of the season, at Las Vegas and Fontana, and rose to as high as third place in the standings.

He didn’t wait around until the weather warmed up to start winning. For him, it was the “Merry Month of March,” not May.

But afterward, Stewart’s hot start cooled down. He finished outside the top 20 five times in 10 races following his Fontana victory.

He experienced a rash of engine problems relating to the new electronic fuel injection system. It seemed he suffered more EFI woes than any other driver.

But he also had five finishes among the top five following his win at Fontana. Most important, he managed to remain among the top 10 in the standings, holding on to No. 9 as the season rolled into Daytona.

Stewart started off with a bang as he won two of the first five races of the year. One of them was at Las Vegas. Stewart routinely starts winning in the second half of a season - as he did in Daytona.

After five months perhaps many of us thought Stewart had peaked early.

But it’s hot in July in Daytona – and when it’s hot it is time to pay close attention to Stewart.

His Daytona win was his third of the season, which ties him with Brad Keselowski for the most this year. Stewart is all but assured a place in the Chase lineup.

“I think every time we come here, the field is more competitive,” Stewart said at Daytona. “And it’s proven by how many guys have a shot to win the race.

“Guys that you won’t see up front next week were guys that you saw at some point that were in the top 10 tonight.”

Like Stewart, perhaps.

“It shows how good a job everybody does at the restrictor plate tracks,” Stewart added. “And it is proof that everybody has a shot to win these things and to run in the top five when they get here.

“It’s just a matter of getting that luck on your side and being at the right place at the right time and having that opportunity.”

Stewart knows what he’s talking about. On the last lap of the Coke Zero 400, Stewart was on the high side of leader Matt Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle.

The Roush Fenway guys had proven to be a formidable combination throughout the race. Kenseth, in fact, led 89 laps, more than any other driver. Biffle led 35.

Stewart got a tremendous shove from Kasey Kahne on the final circuit and that allowed Stewart to eke out the victory.

He had luck on his side, was at the right place at the right time and had an opportunity – as he told us.

“I knew I had a good car behind me with Kasey Kahne, obviously,” Stewart said. “Knowing that those two guys were going to be teamed up with each other on the bottom, I was surprised we got as good a restart as we did.

“Kasey did a great job of getting hooked on the bumper right away, and it seemed like we actually held our own and actually we were better on the outside than those two cars were.”

Stewart said that he and crew chief Steve Addington have had to make adjustments this season due to racing circumstances – engine problems, for example – but now all that’s left is take it as it comes.

“I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing and the Hendrick engine and chassis department,” Stewart said. “I’m really pleased with the first half the season.  Yes, there were some races that we lost some opportunities on, but I think there were races that we capitalized on that we haven’t been able to in the past.

“I think on the average, we’re really looking good right now. Again, I’m proud of the effort with everybody. On the average, I feel like we’re making gains.

If Stewart thinks his team is making gains, perhaps all should take heed.

After all the weather is still hot. And it’s going to remain that way for quite some time.

 

Busch’s Drag Racing Foray Harkens To Petty’s Decades Ago

Kurt Busch’s foray into drag racing might not seem very impressive since it ended with his departure in the first round of the Pro Stock eliminations at the NHRA’s Tire Kingdom Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

He did qualify among the top 12 but then got bounced by Erica Enders in the opening session.

But let’s be real. Busch likely expected he wouldn’t get the best of any seasoned competitor. The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and winner of 22 races didn’t go drag racing with any notion he’d whip the competition. He went to gain a new experience and have some fun.

Judging from his effusive appreciation of the reception he got from NHRA competitors, fans, media and officials, he accomplished both.

As the NHRA made known in a press release on March 9, Busch is hardly the first competitor from NASCAR – or Indy-style racing – to take a crack at drag racing. Such legendary stock car drivers as Richard Petty and David Pearson raced fast cars in a straight line for a time.

So did John Andretti, who has competed in NASCAR and IndyCar, open-wheel star Danny Ongais and several others. Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs, well-known stock car team owners, were also successful in the same roles in NHRA.

Pearson and Petty entered drag racing at the same time – 1965 – and for the same reason. They didn’t want to leave NASCAR but felt the sanctioning body made it impossible for them to compete. The organization’s ruling at the time cost them their factory backing.

I suspect that, to this day, Petty wishes he had decided to just stay at home.

In the early 1960s for NASCAR the superspeedway era had begun with the creation of Daytona International Speedway in 1959. Atlanta International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway followed a year later.

The auto manufacturers quickly surmised that stock car racing had risen from a basic dirt-track sport, conducted on small tracks in small towns, to one that produced mind-boggling speeds on huge tracks in much larger venues.

Any car that won at these tracks – be it a Ford, Chrysler or General Motors product – would attract huge public interest. It was certain to sell. Sales meant profit, which is what business is all about.

Therefore, manufacturers always came up with ways to make their NASCAR entries more powerful.

But each time they did so they had to gain NASCAR approval. The sanctioning body’s constant dilemma was how to keep competition equal among all the manufacturers.

In 1964, Chrysler introduced the 426 cubic-inch hemispherical combustion chamber engine – the “hemi.”

It blew away the competition and helped Petty, who drove Plymouths for the family Petty Enterprises team, win nine races and his first NASCAR championship.

The Chrysler dominance was so great the General Motors camp, with Chevrolet, gave up stock car racing altogether. Ford didn’t quit, but petitioned NASCAR for everything from approval of its overhead cam engine to acceptance of the Fairlane in place of the larger Galaxy, all of which the sanctioning body refused.

But, in 1965, NASCAR turned the tables and outlawed the hemi engine.

Chrysler promptly pulled out of stock car racing. And for the first time in his career, Petty, whose team had greatly benefited from the support of its now-departed manufacturer, was out of a ride.

However, despite the NASCAR walkout, Chrysler wanted to help its most proficient and popular driver. It suggested Petty build a drag racing car.

Petty had never even been to a drag race. But with the help of Chrysler’s experts, Petty Enterprises constructed a Plymouth Barracuda, which was numbered “43jr.” and named “Outlawed.”

Petty competed in exhibition events and in a couple of NHRA national events. He won – a lot. In so doing he attracted a lot of attention because, at that time, no one had gone from stock car racing to drags and been successful.

Meanwhile, Pearson, on the NASCAR sidelines because of the Chrysler ruling, also turned to drag racing. He drove a Dodge Dart station wagon built by Cotton Owens with an alcohol mixture engine in the rear – called “The Cotton Picker” – in several exhibition events.

A Sunday afternoon in Dallas, Ga., in 1965 became one of the darkest days of Petty’s life and, ultimately, led to his departure from drag racing.

In that race Petty blasted off the line, went from first gear to second and then something broke. He had no control over the steering. He hit the brakes but nothing happened. His Barracuda cleared a wire fence and ended up on its nose – among the spectators.

People were screaming and some were splayed along the ground. Petty was asked by those rushing to his battered car if he was all right. He said not to care about him but to tend to the folks he hit.

Six of them were hurt. An eight-year-old boy was killed.

Petty has admitted several times over the years that he couldn’t bear the thought of that youngster’s death.

He tried drag racing a few more times but his heart wasn’t in it. He quit.

Petty will tell you that danger and tragedy lurk in all forms of motorsports, including drag racing.

He would know tragedy again much later in life with the passing of his grandson Adam in a crash at New Hampshire in 2000.

Midway through the 1965 season, NASCAR allowed Chrysler to run its hemi engine, but only on short tracks. Petty ran 14 races and won four of them.

Thereafter, as you know, he made racing history over the course of two decades.

He never returned to drag racing. I don’t think he would have under any circumstances.

I suspect, though, he would quickly tell you that the sport never needed him anyway. It’s had its own stars for many, many years – just as it does today.

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