NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

NASCAR: No Excuses For Carl Edwards in 2016

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

Carl Edwards has high hopes for 2016.

At the onset of the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Carl Edwards made a dramatic career move after ten full seasons with Roush Fenway Racing to join Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) as driver of #19 Toyota Camry in an expanded four car team stable.

Even more striking was Edwards’ brash prediction at the time of the change, as he stepped out (or up, depending on your viewpoint) and made a proclamation that caught everyone’s attention, declaring “I plan on winning ten races and the championship.”

Perhaps Edwards was tempted by the inaugural success that his former Roush teammate Matt Kenseth achieved in 2013 by transferring to JGR, going on to win seven races and finish second in the Sprint Cup Championship in his debut.

Or perhaps Edwards was eager to emulate the domination that Kevin Harvick achieved during 2014 in his initial year with Stewart-Haas Racing by winning the Sprint Cup Championship.

Things don’t always play out as planned, however. In 2015 at JGR, Edwards had a solid season with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 15 top 10’s. Yet, JGR teammate Kyle Busch went on to win the Sprint Cup Championship. Moreover, comparing 2015 with his last season at Roush, Edwards’ 2014 results were virtually identical with 2 wins, 7 top 5’s, and 14 top 10’s.

Edwards has shown that he can “walk the talk” based on past performance. From a career standpoint, he already has an XFINITY Series Championship, and he is probably one of the best wheelmen who has not yet won a Sprint Cup Championship.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we'll see 'Cousin Carl' in a better place.

Edwards has never bean an average driver, but he and Toyota expected more from 2015. Perhaps with the lower downforce pack for 2016 we’ll see ‘Cousin Carl’ in a better place.

Edwards has finished second twice in the Championship battle during his eleven year career. In 2008, he fell just short to six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, perhaps letting the pressure get to him in the Chase, given Edwards lost the points lead near the end of the season despite collecting nine race victories. In 2011, he was back in the championship mix through the season finale at Homestead-Miami, where he lost in a tiebreaker to three-time champion Tony Stewart.

So, by Carl Edwards’ noble expectations, 2015 might be considered a lackluster debut with JGR. As a result, JGR shuffled two of their Sprint Cup team crew chiefs with Dave Rogers moving from Denny Hamlin’s #11 Toyota to the #19 Toyota of Carl Edwards, and Mike Wheeler becoming Hamlin’s crew chief, having spent a year as crew chief of JGR’s #20 XFINITY Series ride.

No surprise, as neither Denny Hamlin nor Carl Edwards attained the 2015 Championship title that they covet, given their taste of having finishing second in the Chase in previous years. For JGR to make these leadership changes, both Edwards and Hamlin must be convinced that these new crew chief relationships will give them a higher likelihood of securing the title in 2016. 

Something must not have clicked with Edwards’ former crew chief Darian Grubb, as he is the odd man out left to “explore other opportunities”. No doubt the 2015 season did not start the way Edwards and Grubb envisioned, as the #19 team only recorded one top-10 finish through the first eleven races; as well, for a majority of the regular season, Edwards’ team sat outside of the top 15 in the Championship standings.

What is most curious is that “Cousin Carl” has been fairly mum on the crew chief change, deferring to the deep bench strength that JGR possesses in both their Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series programs, along with trusting that Joe Gibbs is best positioned to undertake the proper leadership actions.

But “chemistry” is the most popular word used to describe the relationship between driver and crew chief when performance is there. As Jimmie Johnson has supremely stated, chemistry is the intersection where the magic happens and bonding occurs between driver and crew chief. When there is perceived room for improvement in team chemistry, crew chief changes will occur.

And make no mistake, any Sprint Cup championship caliber driver will have substantial input into any crew chief decision. So, “Cousin Carl” surely conferred and concurred with the crew chief swap. Edwards is a charming pitchman for his sponsors and always strives to be likeable. Fans savor Edwards’ victory celebrations that include his signature backflip and plunges into the grandstands to mingle with fans.

So, regardless of his low profile behavior in the crew chief situation, Edwards surely interviewed Rogers prior to the change to assess what he could bring to the #19 program and make sure they were on the same page.

From Edwards’ perspective, he must be convinced that this change in team leadership will spur the #19 team to great things in 2016.

As a confidence boost, NASCAR heads into 2016 with new low downforce aero rules, and Edwards has been an enthusiastic proponent of this rules package. In 2015, Edwards won the Southern 500 at Darlington, where the new package was being tested. He even lobbied to have the low downforce package adopted early for the 2015 Chase playoff, but NASCAR did not wish to change its rules mid-season.

Edwards’ patience is wearing thin, having previously remarked that he is eleven years into his career having yet to win the Sprint Cup title. At JGR, Edwards believes he is learning how to take advantage of the vast JGR resources. Now, if he can hit on the new downforce rules and forge a tight bond with his new crew chief, Edwards just might finally pocket that Sprint Cup title in 2016.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

The 2013 Models Present Teams, And NASCAR, With Wealth Of New Challenges

Matt Kenseth not only faces the challenge of competing in a new car, a Toyota, in 2013, he’s also the newest member of Joe Gibbs Racing.

In 2013 it will be sort of a clean slate for NASCAR. An entirely new fleet of car models will compete on the Sprint Cup circuit, the Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion and the Chevrolet SS.

These cars are intended to be very fast, of course, while at the same bear a more similar appearance to their street counterparts – which, among other things, is intended to help fans more closely identify with each model.

Gone from NASCAR is Dodge, which, ironically, claimed the 2012 Manufacturers Championship with Penske Racing and driver Brad Keselowski.

That said, there is always uncertainty when teams adopt new car models. Changes and adaptations, some big and some small, are always present.

I might add that has been the case every time NASCAR has made any competitive alterations, be they in car models, engine displacement, aerodynamics, wheelbase size and so forth.

So it follows that the team, or teams, that make the quickest adaptations to the new cars, and the rules that come with them, will be the first to gain a competitive edge.

Boy, I have a great grasp for the obvious, don’t I?

But it is a fact.

We’ve seen it countless times. It happened as recently as the coming of the “Car Of Tomorrow” a few seasons ago.

That diabolically different car – which only vaguely resembled anything we saw on the street – had the vast majority of teams bamboozled.

They didn’t know what to do with it. They kept fooling around with various setups and things of the sort – which put some of them in hot water with NASCAR – until, slowly, a few began to solve the mystery.

It seemed one team, Hendrick Motorsports, found an advantage and for a period of time put a very competitive COT on the track.

But, as it almost always happens in NASCAR, its rivals caught up and were a competitive match.

Brad Keselowski (right) the 2012 champion, will drive Fords next season after Dodge’s pullout from NASCAR. He’ll also have a new teammate in Joey Logano.

Since that time teams have been, for the most part, relatively equal. Now I’m not saying one didn’t have an edge here and there because it did. But I do believe that where it did have an advantage, its rivals held sway elsewhere. So things were reasonably balanced.

I remember that when the COT was introduced I said it would be only a matter of weeks before the teams had it figured out.

Turns out it was a matter of months.

But I think there is ample evidence that, indeed, they did it. And I think they will also get the measure of the 2013 models. Uh, I think I’ll refrain from saying how long it may take.

As said, teams have always had to find a way to adjust to NASCAR changes, whatever they may be. But it’s highly likely that an entirely new car model, which we’ll see in 2013, is going to present a myriad of challenges.

NASCAR has already provided organizations opportunities to adjust, the latest being the test sessions at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Dec. 11-12.

So far teams have been very cautious. They have proceeded slowly and, to me, have tried to be very precise when it comes to analyzing the information they’ve gathered – and it hasn’t been all that much.

They will learn more during added test sessions scheduled into 2013.

For more than one team testing will provide clues to something beyond just a new car. Champion Keselowski, for example, will have to deal with an entirely new manufacturer.

So will Matt Kenseth. He’ll have a different manufacturer but, because he has ended his long tenure with Roush Fenway Racing, he will also have to amend to a new organization, Joe Gibbs Racing, and a new crew and crew chief.

Keselowski will race Fords in 2013. Kenseth will compete in a Toyota.

They are fully aware of the challenges.

“It’s hard to get a great read on the whole manufacturer change because, obviously, it’s a different car,” Keselowski said. “But I think all the signs are there that we have the potential to be just as strong, if not stronger, than we were last year, which is very, very encouraging. We still have to work for it and make it happen.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re only a half-a-day into two really important days, not only for Penske Racing but for the sport itself and, hopefully, we can
continue to show progress.”

Keselowski will have a new teammate in 2013 as Joey Logano moves over from Gibbs. That, too, will require adjustment.

Keselowski is confident.

“I think Joey has the ability to unload at a place and just instantly be fast and that’s not my style,” he said. “It’s something that I would like to add to my arsenal because there are times where that’s really, really helpful, so those are some of the things I look
at.”

As for Kenseth, the 2004 champion, he will readily admit that his adjustments are going to be obviously plentiful. They not only include a new car, but also an entirely new team.

“A lot of the guys have been around for a long time so I know who they are and I’ve spent a little time over at the shop,” he said. “I certainly don’t know them as good as I’m going to or want to and all of that.

“So, yeah, it was different. I’ve got to be honest, it was probably the first time I’ve been nervous in a race car – getting in there and going out for the first time – in as long as I can remember.”

As for that new car, a Toyota, Kenseth takes a cautious approach, as do many others.

“I don’t know what the rules are going to be for sure,” he said. “I don’t have any idea how much they’re going to change or not change. That’s more of a NASCAR call than ours.

“They haven’t really had us testing anything yet and so I’m not sure how different they will be when we come back.”

At this admittedly early point in the development of the 2013 cars, it is reasonable to say teams are not certain of what they have, or of what they many eventually have.

Some will find that sooner than others, for whatever reasons.

In time, these teams will be the ones to move to the forefront and gain a competitive edge.

But, if we look to the past, it doesn’t seem likely NASCAR will let them have it for very long.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cope Admits 500 Victory Gives Him Some Clout

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Because NASCAR dramatically changed eligibility requirements for the Budweiser Shootout, old-line driver Derrike Cope, and some others, were afforded what Cope called “a golden opportunity.”

The special event used to be reserved only for pole winners from the previous season. But in 2011, NASCAR expanded the eligibility requirements. One of them declared that past Daytona 500 winners could compete in the Shootout.

Cope is one of them. He raced in the Shootout in Larry Gunselman’s Toyota and finished 14th of the 14 cars remaining in the race.

Cope was eligible for the Shootout because he was the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 in one of the most improbable finishes in the race’s history.

Dale Earnhardt, at that time winless in the 500 although he had earned victories in every other race at Daytona International Speedway, was leading the last lap in Richard Childress’ Chevrolet.

Everyone believed he was at last destined for victory.
Cope, driving for the fledgling Bob Whitcomb Racing team, also in a Chevrolet, ran second. It was going to be a good day for him.
It got better.

As the two cars sped down the backstretch, Earnhardt suddenly slowed and drifted low on the track – allowing Cope to pass. Something was wrong.

Cope, as stunned as everyone in attendance, had only to keep all four wheels on the track to secure the victory.
Earnhardt suffered a cut tire after he ran over a piece of bell housing. Cruel fate had denied him again.

Dutifully, the media reported Cope’s victory. But not one of them thought it was anything less than a fluke – even though Cope, in second place, had run very well.

Earnhardt probably received more attention than Cope simply because the man known as “The Intimidator” had failed to win the Daytona 500 – again.

Cope was in only his third full year of Sprint Cup competition when he won the 500. Later in the year he won at Dover, which was not a fluke.

Those are the only two victories of Cope’s career.
He hasn’t raced full-time, or something close to it, on the Cup circuit since 1998.

But he still races now and then. And, except for a three-year period from 2006-2008 during which he didn’t compete, he’s always shown up for the Daytona 500.

However, the last time he actually drove in the race was in 2004. It’s been rough going since. He failed to qualify three times, in 2005, 2009 and last season.
He’ll try again this year, again in Gunselman’s Toyota.

The fact that he’s continued to simply find rides, much less race, amazes some. They reason he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his Daytona 500 victory.

Cope heartily agrees. He believes that any driver with a 500 victory has some power – bargaining and otherwise – that can produce benefits.

“Well, it got me to this dance (the Shootout) didn’t it?” Cope said. “You bring a lot to the table when you put ‘Daytona 500 winner’ next to your name.

“It indicates competitiveness and the ability to perform at racing’s highest level. So when you are in a boardroom, applying for some money, it’s the kind of thing that can put you right back at Daytona, so that’s a good thing.

“And you can keep racing here and there.”

Over the years Cope has established a successful shock absorber shop and has been a television commentator. He’s also run some Nationwide Series races.

Starting at Daytona, he’s scheduled to do so again in Jay Robinson’s cars.
So he keeps on racing.

Since Cope is now 52 years old, that he keeps on truckin’ begs the question, why?

“I physically love to drive a race car,” Cope said. “At places like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Atlanta and Charlotte – the fast places – the speed is just the draw for me.

“You get challenges like the one here at Daytona with the new pavement. That’s just another aspect you want to experience. You want to absorb everything you can while you can.”

So when does Cope cease the absorption process? It’s not likely to be soon.

“Mark Martin and I talked last night,” Cope said. “And we agreed we aren’t going to let anyone else dictate to us when we should retire.
“We are going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep doing it. We are going to absorb it for as long as we can.

“And, when it comes time to make that conscious decision, then that’s when we’ll do it.”
Looks like Cope is going to put a few more miles on that 1990 Daytona 500 victory.

NASCAR’s Brian Vickers: Welcome Back

Brian Vickers sat out most of the 2010 Sprint Cup season due to blood clots found in his lung,
legs and one arm. After 7 months of treatment and recuperation he’s ready to return to Red
Bull Racing. He has unfinished business. Michele Rahal of http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com,
breaks it down.

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