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


2014: Earnhardt Jr. And The No. 3 Will Be Under Scrutiny

In 2014, Austin Dillon will race the No. 3 Chevrolet as the newest Sprint Cup driver for Richard Childress Racing.

I think that in 2014 more attention will be paid to all things Earnhardt than in a long time.

There are two reasons for this. First, the hopes of the “Junior Nation” have soared after the son of Dale Earnhardt earned a fifth-place points finish in 2013. No, he didn’t win but he was the highest finisher in the championship without a victory.

He had 22 top-10 finishes, which tied him with Kyle Busch with the most among the top five.

Such a performance has his many, many fans wondering if the coming season will be the one in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. achieves his shining moment.

Will he win? Is there – gulp – a championship in sight?

I say yes on both counts. More about that later.

Earnhardt Jr. will indeed be under scrutiny. But among his loyal fans and many others, perhaps not as much as Austin Dillon.

As you know Dillon, the 2013 Nationwide Series champion, will begin his NASCAR Sprint Cup career in 2014 with Richard Childress Racing.

Dillon will drive a Chevrolet with the white, slanted No. 3 – the number made famous, and so identified with, Dale Earnhardt.

The senior Earnhardt won seven championships and 76 races with the No. 3, driving for Rod Osterlund, Bud Moore and Childress.

He became a NASCAR icon who is held in the highest esteem to this day, nearly 13 years after his death in a crash at Daytona.

Not until now has the No. 3 been seen in NASCAR. And some people say it should stay that way.

Dillon drove for Childress, his grandfather, in the Nationwide Series in 2013 and won the championship.

To have anyone else use the number is an affront to the memory of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

I understand that.

But I think Childress had, for a long time, plans for the number. Dillon is his grandson who moved up the competition ladder and reached the point, with his Nationwide title, where he proved he had the talent and skill to race at NASCAR’s highest level.

Which is exactly what Childress wanted to see. With NASCAR’s cooperation – the sanctioning body owns the No. 3 – he bestowed the number to his own flesh and blood, which was his right.

But there is this: Any driver – yes, any driver – that competes with the No. 3 is subject to intense scrutiny and, let’s face it, pressure to do well.

This includes Dillon. I think he has a huge challenge in 2014. Fair or not, he has to prove he can restore the No. 3 to competitiveness.

As a first-year driver he can’t be expected to pile up victories and pole positions. But with the No. 3 he has to race competitively and earn respect.

It’s not going to be easy. Dillon knows that. He also knows he has to show that his grandfather made the right choice.

Given that, Dillon and the No. 3 will certainly attract more than their share of attention in 2014.

As will Earnhardt Jr.

That he can do exceptionally well has already been established.

He seems to have established a bond with crew chief Steve Letarte that, in part, led to a strong performance this past season.

Although they didn’t win they could have. Earnhardt Jr. finished second five times including twice in the Chase.

Fact is, after Chicago, the first of 10 races in the Chase where Earnhardt Jr. finished 35th after a blown engine (only his third DNF of the season), the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished among the top 10 in eight of the last nine events.

Perhaps Earnhardt Jr.’s accomplishments in 2013 might have been more noteworthy had he not suffered the stumble at Chicago – or he had won a race.

Still, he offered ample evidence he can do well and, perhaps, in 2014 he will do even better.

Frankly, I would not be surprised. I think he has the momentum and confidence to make it happen.

He’ll be watched.

So will the No. 3.



Young ‘Phenom’ Jeff Gordon Showed His Worth Early And Often

It wasn't very long after Jeff Gordon made his debut in NASCAR Cup racing that he began to win races and earn a reputation as a young "phenom."

I was watching when a young phenom named Jeff Gordon entered the NASCAR Winston Cup scene. Young, different, polished and mustached, he was far from the good ol’ boys I was introduced to in my first years of watching Cup.

Gordon was, and looked like, a child but he knew how to wrangle a car. His debut came in 1992 in Atlanta, the very last race of the season and the final curtain call for the sport’s most visible star, Richard Petty.

For Gordon, ascension in the sport soon followed. Words like “dominant,” “unbelievable,” “talented” and “upstart” were bandied about constantly.

Gordon won races, collected championships. Then came gossip about, first, a forbidden romance, then a wedding and later a broken marriage.

When the successful duo of crew chief Ray Evernham and driver Gordon parted after three championships there was talk of the end of a short-lived but stellar era.

But Gordon won again. He won races then another championship with crew chief Robbie Loomis. Gordon now had earned four titles.

Being a Dale Earnhardt fan I never, in good conscience, called myself a Gordon fan. But, I did like him. I couldn’t help myself. Not only did the man have enormous talent and parlay that into wins and championships, he was, for what it’s worth, my peer. Gordon is only one year older.

At a time when most of the drivers had a decade or more (a lot more in some cases) on me, it was exciting to see someone with whom I could identify win on the track.

This was a time long before drivers may have started their Cup careers in their late twenties or older – like Joey Logano. This was a time when Harry Gant wowed and thrilled race fans with his can’t-lose string in his fifties, earning the name “Mr. September.” Youth was missing and certainly wasn’t dominating.

But I couldn’t help but be dazzled by Gordon. As the Crown Royal Presents The Curtiss Shaver 400 At The Brickyard 400 Powered By runs this weekend – hold on, I’m tired from typing all of that – my thoughts do turn to the inaugural race run at Indianapolis back in 1994.

Gordon, as you recall, won the race and solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s storied history – at the tender age of 23.

A few years later my father presented my husband a collectible plaque with Gordon’s picture next to a stamp of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, tying the two together. It was a gorgeous piece, but we were Earnhardt fans and found it to be a “dust collector” and sold it at a garage sale years later for a song.

Driving for team owner Rick Hendrick (left), and with Ray Evernham as his crew chief, Gordon went on to win three Sprint Cup championships.

I still kick myself about that. But hindsight is 20/20. At the time I was adamant about Earnhardt as my one and only driver. It was much later in my NASCAR fandom that I grew accepting and respectful of all the drivers in the field.

With four victories to date at Indy, Gordon still holds the record for most wins at the Brickyard 400.

Gordon is sure to be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. His accomplishments have made me soar. In addition I’ve been pleased for him personally as I watched him fall in love, get married, and create a lovely family.

It’s been difficult to watch him struggle this season. His chances for making the Chase are shrinking. It concerns me that he may not make it or even win a race this year.

Gordon isn’t finished; at least I hope he’s not. There are legions of Gordon fans still waiting to witness the “Drive for Five” so they can celebrate a fifth championship with Gordon. I’ll cheer with all of the rest.

In the meantime, I’ll be cheering loudly for Gordon to revisit victory lane at Indy.








The Iconic No. 3 Has Its Place In NASCAR Sprint Cup Competition

The "stylized" No. 3 that was attached to Dale Earnhardt for so many years has yet to return to NASCAR Sprint Cup after his death in 2001. Some fans say it should never be restored.

Few topics are more polarizing in NASCAR today than what Richard Childress should do with his No. 3 in the Sprint Cup Series.

Fueled by strong, emphatic emotion, the No. 3 can rarely be discussed without passion.

There are usually two camps:  One distinctly in favor of retiring the number from competition and one comfortable with its return to Sprint Cup.

Those vehemently against seeing the RCR No. 3 car in competition feel the number is synonymous with Dale Earnhardt. They believe that when Earnhardt died, at Daytona in 2001, the era of the No. 3 car ended.

Earnhardt made the No. 3 iconic.

To see the No. 3 on the track in first, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and, currently, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, is disturbing to many. They are uncomfortable with their hero’s number in competition when he is not the driver.

Like the No. 99 of the National Hockey League’s Wayne Gretzky or a long roster of numbers in Major League Baseball, there are legions of fans who feel Earnhardt’s No. 3 should be retired lest anybody forget him and his accomplishments.

They feel no driver is worthy of strapping into a race car with the number that so prominently identifies Earnhardt.

There are those fans, however, which feel differently. They may have reverence for Earnhardt, but understand that a number is not the driver.

Some fans are old-timers who have been NASCAR supporters for several decades. They recall a time before Earnhardt occupied the No. 3. Others are newer fans that may never have seen “The Intimidator” drive.

These fans either have a respect for the history of the sport and the fact that Earnhardt was a profoundly important part of it, or simply do not have an emotional attachment and do not feel the need to see the No. 3 retired.

My favorite part of being a columnist is being able to express my opinion openly.

I have made it clear that I had one favorite driver in all my years of watching NASCAR and that was Earnhardt. When he died, as part of my grieving process I walked away from the sport for many years.

I’ve watched programs about Earnhardt, talked about him and written about him a lot over the years and will continue to do so. He is a large part of my NASCAR fabric and I feel his absence daily.

My stance about the No. 3 in Cup competition may surprise some, but I think I can back up my position fairly.

While I consider writing and talking about NASCAR as my job, it is also my passion. I listen to podcasts, radio shows, and read myriad articles on the subject.

Recently, Richard Childress was heard on several programs discussing the future of the No. 3, the number he “owns” and has used since 1976.

Childress understands the emotional attachment people have with the “stylized No. 3” that Earnhardt ran. He is sensitive to the legion of fans who still worship Earnhardt and thus, by association, the No. 3.

But Childress has been doing an awful lot of interviews concerning grandson Austin Dillon’s use of the number and his team’s intentions when it enters the Cup Series.

The No. 3 Chevrolet, with Earnhardt aboard, began its NASCAR journey over three decades ago and for years featured Wrangler as the sponsor.

The No. 3 was brought back to NASCAR in 2009 after a hiatus following Earnhardt’s death – save the one time Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove it in a Nationwide race in 2002. Dillon started using the number in Iowa in the truck series and by 2010 ran the number full time on that circuit.

In 2010 Dillon won rookie of the year honors in the NCWTS. In 2011 he became the series champion.

This year Dillon is running in the Nationwide Series with the No. 3.

So why is Dillon granted permission to run the No. 3 in both the NCWTS and the NNS? It is because he is Childress’ grandson. NASCAR is rich with legacies. Among Childress’ legacies is a race team for his grandson.

When Childress was asked earlier this year if the No. 3 would ever be used by Dillon in Sprint Cup, he replied, “I never say never.”

Childress does emphasize that it is the “stylized No. 3” that everyone associates with Earnhardt.

In a different interview posted on the Jayski website, Childress reminisced: “Dale had his picture taken with Austin (and Ty Dillon) in victory lane in the 1998 Daytona 500.”

His point is that Earnhardt adored grandson Dillon and would be very proud of the driver he has become.

Later in the Jayski interview Childress recounted, “Many people drove the No. 3 car throughout history.”

Also quoted on the same Jayski program was a fantastic sound byte by Earnhardt Jr.

Eloquent and thoughtful, Earnhardt Jr. said, “(The No. 3 car) is like a bank where you deposit history.”

Clearly Earnhardt Jr. has no issue with the possibility of the No. 3 car running in Cup, especially with Dillon as the driver.

Earnhardt Jr. does admit Dillon would have a rough road to navigate in terms of fans’ reactions to the No. 3 in Cup, but, personally, he is fine with the situation.

My opinion is Dillon should run the No. 3 in the Sprint Cup Series. NASCAR has no history of retiring numbers.

Childress has created an amazing legacy for his grandson – grandsons when Ty is included – that he should be proud to carry into the next generation.

Even Earnhardt Jr., arguably the one man who could drive the No. 3 whom fans of all mindsets might possibly accept, feels Dillon has every right to drive the car bearing that number.

When Earnhardt was alive he began procuring a legacy for his own family in the form of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. That organization provided a ride for Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr.’s grandfather, the late Ralph Earnhardt, drove the No. 8. That was the number fit for the grandson. That was Dale Jr.’s legacy, not the No. 3.

I believe Earnhardt would be fine should Dillon create a new chapter for the No. 3 car. What would upset Earnhardt is that his son doesn’t run the No. 8 – not that Childress’ grandson wants to drive the No. 3 in Cup.

Dillon is the only driver I can see making his Cup debut in a No. 3 car. Actually, I’m all for it and hope it happens in the near future.

That’s my opinion. I’m interested in yours.


For more of Candice Smith visit








A Realization: It Is Finally Time To Let Dale Earnhardt Go

 It’s time to move on now; time to make peace with the past, heal our gaping wounds and start living our lives again.

I was his biggest fan. Well, one of his biggest. When we lost him I walked away from the sport.
Over the years I wrote about him and that helped.

Whenever I saw a program about his life and career I would wind up weeping. I was compelled to watch and I watched it all. Movies, interviews, documentaries, specials were all watched, taped, saved and purchased.

Eventually, after a six-year, self-imposed break, I was pulled back into the sport. It was a tough transition and I found I had no one to root for that I felt passionately.

I still wrote; I wrote about NASCAR and about him.

I found that I could embrace the sport easily if I was merely a fan of NASCAR itself and not concern myself personally with individual drivers. This allowed for a lack of bias that strengthened my effectiveness as a writer.
Still, my heart was heavy and my willingness to let go staunch.

He was not so much my hero although I loved his heroism. It was the fact he was revered by so many. For moments in his life he seemed not only incredibly talented but also invincible. I saw him walk away from a horrendous crash in Talladega and put his car on the pole at Watkins Glen the very next weekend.


Except, he wasn’t.

When he died I was incredulous. How could he be taken?
The NASCAR Nation mourned collectively.

We took cues from point man Darrell Waltrip who showed we could cry whenever the mood struck. DW also showed us we could keep going; life didn’t stop for the rest of us.

NASCAR kept moving. The fans cheered for his son. I was despondent; nobody was him.
I took a hiatus that I thought might last forever. But, seeing my husband’s passion for the sport we had once shared continue without me, I realized I better make a move to regain that connection. All too often spouses grow apart; I didn’t want to be a statistic. I love my husband far too much.

Watching races wasn’t high on my list of priorities, but I listened to pre- and post-race programming. I learned the new cast of characters’ names, memorized car numbers in relation to drivers’ names, and tried to stay current with who was running well in the NCWTS and NNS, the future stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

I courted Tony Stewart in 2008, but broke up with him as my driver before the year was over. My boys became fans of Jeff Gordon who I always liked from the time he ascended to Cup, but he wasn’t my driver.

Over the years I realized that I am a “fan” of any driver at the top level – NCWTS, NNS, or Sprint Cup – who has the potential to win at any given race. I admire the level at which they perform and what it took to reach this pinnacle of their career.

Now I enjoy writing about all NASCAR topics, from the era in which I began watching (1990), to the distant past, to the present.
And I was finally able to let him go last year, the 10th anniversary of his death. I could finally lay him to rest.
Sure I still miss him, will watch specials about him, and smile wistfully when I see his black No.3 Goodwrench Chevy, but I’m ready to face a future without him.

It’s time.
It’s long past time.

So I close the chapter of Dale Earnhardt as I smile bravely into the horizon. NASCAR has become a huge fabric in my life. Earnhardt will always have a place in my heart, but now I need to move on entirely.

It’s time to let go of Dale.

Earnhardt and Montoya: Can They Make It?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya have the same problem. They get no respect and they’re both in danger of missing the Chase. Eranhardt is sliding back and Montoya is stuck. Will a crew chief change help Montoya? Will Letarte and Jr.start making progress?

Leave Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Alone

It’s been far to long that the media, NASCAR and its fan base has pushed and pulled on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. trying recapture some of the aura from his Father. The driver has a right to his own life without the consistent and unreasonable expectations placed on him.

Piquet Hits The NASCAR Lottery

Former Formula One driver,Nelson Piquet, Jr., signs on with Kevin Harvick Incorporated to run a full season in the NASCAR truck series. Will the driver fit into NASCAR? Will Crashgate effect his performance? Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and breaks it down.

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