BK Racing names David Ragan as driver of No. 23 Toyota
By Rick Minter
David Ragan is one of just 24 active Sprint Cup drivers who have ever won a Cup race, and one of just 19 with multiple wins.
But when it came to the 2016 season, he was one of the last — if not the last — to secure a full-time ride.
Last week, just days before drivers begin arriving in Daytona for the season-opening Speedweeks, Ragan was announced as the driver of the No. 23 Toyota at BK Racing.
Ragan, who has wins at Daytona and Talladega, started his career at Roush Fenway Racing, but lost his sponsor, UPS, and his ride in the No. 6 Ford before he won in July 2011, at Daytona — an accomplishment that might have saved his job had it come earlier in the year.
He moved to the underfunded Front Row Motorsports and won at Talladega in 2013, but again, sponsor issues kept him from being assured of a full-time ride for 2015. That turned out to be a blessing of sorts, as it put him in position to fill in for the injured Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he ran nine races in 2015. From there, he moved to the No. 55 at Michael Waltrip Racing, taking the seat vacated by Brian Vickers, who was forced to step aside because of health issues.
But MWR was not the place to be at the end of 2015, as the team shuttered its doors. Then, throughout the winter, Ragan’s name was mentioned when various rides were up for grabs, but until last week, he was without concrete plans for the season.
Still, he said he never lost confidence that he would wind up back in the Cup series this year.
“Things seem to develop a lot slower this year,” Ragan said, adding that he attributes that to the effort to create a franchise system for NASCAR team owners, a process that has dragged on longer than most would have expected.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said during the sport’s media tour that the charter system is coming, even if it has taken longer than NASCAR officials and the team owners expected.
Ragan said he spent his time during the off-season talking to team owners and potential sponsors. “I tried to stay in the loop,” he said. “I didn’t know how it would all shake out, but I was confident I would be in the Cup series.”
The BK Racing team is not among the sport’s elite, but Ragan said the team is putting the pieces in place to improve its performance. The team has purchased cars from MWR and hired some of its displaced personnel. BK Racing also fields the No. 83 for Matt DiBenedetto.
“BK Racing has lots of potential,” Ragan said. “It’s obviously one of the smaller teams, but it has a good agreement with Toyota, and it has put a lot of pieces to the puzzle in place.”
Ragan said that he expected to be a top-15 to top-20 finisher most weeks this season, but there are six to 10 races he looks upon as winnable for his team — such as the races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where the use of restrictor plates to slow speeds also make nearly every driver in the field a potential winner. And he figures the short tracks, where aerodynamics and horsepower aren’t as important, also provide him with opportunities to shine.
“We had some good runs at those tracks last year in the same MWR cars that we will be running this year,” he said.
Off the track, Ragan and his wife, Jacqueline, are expecting their second child, which they’ve learned will be another girl. She’s due in March.
Gordon owns the night at Sprint Cup awards banquet
By Rick Minter
The annual Sprint Cup awards banquet often features a parade of drivers reciting a list of people they want to thank for helping them land among NASCAR’s elite that year. This year’s ceremony was different, and much more emotional.
For starters, it was the last official act as a driver for the retiring Jeff Gordon, who will no doubt be a first-ballot Hall of Famer once he’s eligible.
And this year’s champion, Kyle Busch, had much to be thankful for besides his good fortune on the track. His list of thank-yous started with the doctors who mended his bones broken in a crash at Daytona.
“One day, I went from being able to win races, to the next where I was just thinking about how I was going to be able to walk into the delivery room with (wife) Samantha to be a part of the birth of our son, Brexton,” Busch said. “I can’t thank Dr. Todd McCall and Dr. Bob Anderson for putting me back together as well as they did.”
Busch concluded his remarks by thanking his wife, who many credit with helping him shed his bad-boy image and become the kind of driver who can contend for championships on a regular basis.
Martin Truex Jr. was another who had more than racing on his mind in Vegas. He earned a speaking part at the awards ceremony by contending for the championship all the way to Homestead, and did it just a year after he had a miserable season on the track as his girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, battled ovarian cancer.
Even though he didn’t win the championship, the night belonged to Gordon, and it started with a surprise appearance by actor Tom Cruise, who introduced Gordon, and in doing so said his presence would be missed on the track.
“We are happy for him, but sad to see him go,” Cruise said during the televised ceremony. “When you’re treated to excellence every week for 23 years, well, that’s not something that you let go of easily.
“[Gordon] brought joy to millions, used his immense and deserved popularity for the betterment of the world both at home and abroad,” Cruise continued. “Transcendence … Few reach it. He did. And although many of us want to say we’ll miss you, what we really mean is we thank you.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France presented Gordon with the Bill France Award of Excellence, which is reserved for very special occasions.
The events of the night left Gordon with moist eyes and a bit choked up at times, especially when he thanked his car owner, Rick Hendrick.
“Rick and Linda Hendrick, thank you so much,” he said. “Thank you so much for choosing me as your driver. I’m so proud to say I drove for one car owner, the best car owner, my entire Sprint Cup career.”
Gordon thanked others as well, from fellow drivers to crew members to media types to fans, including those fans who took some time to warm up to him.
“I got off to a bit of a rocky start with the fans,” he said. “There were some cheers, but then there were some boos, but you accepted me, you supported me so much over the years, and this year you rewarded me so much.”
And speaking to everyone in the room, he ended his remarks by saying: “Thank you guys. It’s been so special. Thank you, thank you.”
Kenseth dominates at Michigan, earns third Cup win
By Rick Minter
Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team from Joe Gibbs Racing put on one of the more dominant performances of the season last Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Kenseth started from the pole and led 146 of 200 laps, including the final 25, to get his third win of the season and the fifth for his team owner in the past six Sprint Cup races.
Kenseth’s toughest challenge came from sophomore Cup driver Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Chevrolet fielded by his grandfather, Richard Childress. Dillon had to start from the rear after an engine change, but charged to the front and challenged Kenseth for the lead before finishing a career-best fourth.
Points leader Kevin Harvick finished second for the ninth time this season. Martin Truex Jr. finished third.
Kenseth’s teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards finished fifth and sixth, respectively, while the fourth member of the team, Kyle Busch, finished 11th in a backup car after he crashed his primary vehicle in practice. Busch moved to 29th in the standings, 23 points ahead of Cole Whitt in 31st place, which is important because Busch must be in the top 30 after three more races to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
For team owner Joe Gibbs, the past few months have been unlike any in his NASCAR career.
“Thinking back over the years, I can’t remember where we’ve kind of had a stretch like this over these last 10 weeks … and so you really want to enjoy those,” he said in the winner’s interview at Michigan. “They’re hard to get, and pro sports — I think that’s the reason why we all love it so much. We don’t know what’s going to happen from week to week.”
Gibbs also pointed out that fortunes can change in a hurry.
“The thing that amazes me sometimes is the quick turn, where you go the other way, and so we’ve just got to keep working hard,” he said, adding that getting Busch eligible to join his three teammates in the championship-deciding, 10-race Chase is a top priority. “We need to keep him up in points.”
The quick turn-around in racing fortunes that Gibbs mentioned could be used to describe the emergence of Dillon in recent weeks.
Since his grandfather shuffled crew chiefs at Richard Childress Racing eight races ago, pairing Slugger Labbe with Dillon, the youngster has posted some of his best career finishes, including a seventh at Daytona despite a frightening wreck after the checkered flag, and an eighth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In his post-race interview, Dillon agreed that his performance has improved since Labbe joined his team.
“That was pretty big, and I’ve just been really focused,” Dillon said. He pointed out that it takes time to learn how to win as one moves up the NASCAR ladder.
“From the Trucks and Xfinity, it takes a little while once you start having fast cars and running up front to learn how to race with these guys,” he said, adding that he gained valuable experience by racing Kenseth for the lead. “I feel like I learned a lot. Matt took me to school a few times.”
Kenseth said Dillon did a good job, especially on a late-race restart when he surged into the lead at one point. But in the end, he said, Dillon’s Chevy was no match for his Toyota.
“They gave me such a good car this weekend,” he said. “We didn’t really have a weak point.”
For Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, it was a weekend he will never forget.
“These are days that everyone in this sport dreams about — days like this, obviously,” he said. “They don’t happen very often, so we’ll definitely cherish this one forever.”
Joey Logano dominates at Watkins Glen in both Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series races, sweeps weekend
By Rick Minter
Before this past weekend’s NASCAR races at Watkins Glen, Joey Logano wasn’t looked at as one of the sport’s top road racers. Going into the weekend, his best finishes in Sprint Cup races on road courses were a pair of fifth-places — at Sonoma, California, earlier this year, and at Watkins Glen in 2011. His best road-course run in the Xfinity Series was a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen in 2010.
But last weekend saw him get his first major road course victory, in dominant fashion, winning Saturday’s Zippo 200 Xfinity Series race at The Glen. He followed that up on Sunday with a victory in the Cheez-It 355 Sprint Cup race at the venerable track.
In winning the Cup race, Logano led only the final lap — and not much of it — to overtake Kevin Harvick, who ran out of fuel.
Kyle Busch finished second, ahead of Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch.
For Logano and Kyle Busch, it was a reversal of fortunes from the week before at Pocono Raceway, where they both ran out of fuel while leading in the closing stages. And for third-finishing Kenseth, who won at Pocono, it was the second straight week that he excelled on a track that had confounded him in the past.
For Logano, it was his second Cup win of the season, the 10th of his career and the first Cup win at The Glen for his employer, Team Penske, which has won more races overall — including victories in several sports car divisions — at Watkins Glen than at any other track where the company has competed.
It’s also the first time that Logano has swept a NASCAR weekend.
“I didn’t really think a road course would be the time that we would be able to sweep the weekend,” Logano said, explaining that he had a dominant car on Saturday and a winning strategy from crew chief Todd Gordon on Sunday.
Gordon’s pit strategy put Logano in position to charge hard in the closing laps while the leader, Harvick, was trying to stretch his fuel.
“Our team just executed perfectly,” Logano said.
Logano said that as he struggled on road courses early in his career, he never gave up trying to figure them out.
“I remember the first time I came [to Watkins Glen] and I was so frustrated because I didn’t know how to go fast,” he said.
In the bigger picture, with four races left to run before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Logano’s crew chief said he believes his team is better than it was at this point a year ago.
“We’ve got more top-5s, more top-10s, more poles, the same number of wins we had at this point last year,” Gordon said. “I think team chemistry and continuity is at a level that we’ve not been at. We continue to grow that and we’re knocking on the door. We’re building momentum at the right time.”
Kyle Busch gets his biggest career win in the Brickyard 400, gives Toyota its first Indy victory
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch’s amazing comeback continued at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Sunday, as he scored the biggest win of his career.
Busch motored past both Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano in the closing stages of the Brickyard 400 to claim his first Cup victory at the speedway many consider to be the most historic in the world.
Logano finished second, ahead of Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
It was Busch’s third straight Cup victory, and his fourth win in the past five races. It also was the first-ever Brickyard win for his manufacturer, Toyota.
Despite his remarkable run of late, Busch needs to erase a 23-point deficit to 30th-place Justin Allgaier in the points standings to be eligible for the championship-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after six more races.
To earn a spot in the Chase, Busch needs to finish in the top 30 in the standings after the 26-race regular season ends. He has the wins he needs, and NASCAR has waived the requirement that he enter all of the regular-season races after missing the first 11 while recovering from his Daytona injuries.
But Chase implications were taking a back seat to the joy of the moment for Busch at Indianapolis on Sunday evening.
“To come home with a victory here at the Brickyard 400 — there’s nothing else like it,” he said. “It’s probably the biggest one of my career so far, and hopefully there’s more wins here at the Brickyard and bigger wins in the series yet for me.”
Busch said he considers NASCAR’s top four races to be the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500. He won the Southern 500 in 2008, while the other two majors have eluded him so far.
But among his 33 career Cup victories are some that are extra-special to him.
“I’ve won my hometown race, which is a big race for me — the Las Vegas race,” he said. “I’ve also won the Bristol night race, I’ve swept Bristol, so there’s a lot of great things that have happened for me in my career, but this one (at Indy) checks off probably the one that’s No. 2 on the races-to-win list, but there’s still that elusive championship as well that we want to achieve.”
Many continue to be amazed at Busch’s ability to quickly adapt to changes in NASCAR rules. In 2007 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he won the first-ever race in the Car of Tomorrow. And in the past three weeks, he’s won with three different aerodynamics packages.
He won Kentucky with a rules package that featured a smaller spoiler on the rear of the cars, which was intended to produce less downforce.
His New Hampshire win the week before Indy came under the rules used for most Cup races this season, and his latest win came in the debut of a high-drag package designed to promote more passing at the front of the field.
Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, who is in his rookie season, said neither he nor Busch could have been as successful the past three weeks without the support of the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team.
“I think it has a lot less to do with myself or my individual race team as much as it has to do with the entirety of Joe Gibbs Racing,” Stevens said. “These cars don’t go fast because of one person.
“You can’t underestimate the hard work and the dedication of the folks back at the shop that make these cars go fast.”
Team owner Joe Gibbs calls Kyle’s Busch’s Sprint Cup victory at New Hampshire ‘a great sports story’
By Rick Minter
Years from now, when people look back at the 2015 NASCAR season, and the sports season in general, one of the bigger stories likely will be the comeback of Kyle Busch.
Recovering from injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, Busch missed the next 11 races. Then he returned to his No. 18 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing, and five races later, got a win on the road course at Sonoma, California.
Many wondered if Busch would even be able to compete in that race, given the fact that his injuries would be a hindrance on such a demanding track.
He rebounded from an early wreck at Daytona to salvage a 17th-place finish, won the following week at Kentucky, and followed that with a win last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
His team owner, longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, said the performance Busch has put on since returning to NASCAR racing is a great moment in sports history.
“I said before when we won Sonoma with Kyle — it was a great sports story,” Gibbs said in the winner’s interview at New Hampshire. “I think this only adds to it.”
Gibbs said Busch has been working hard and preparing himself since he left the hospital in Daytona. He also said Busch’s three wins in the past four races show that he’s an elite athlete.
“There are only a few that are really, really special in a sport,” he said. “I think Kyle is one of those in racing, because he has an unusual ability, but also has a real fire and a passion for what he does. That kind of comes through. I think it showed up over these last five weeks.”
At New Hampshire, Busch put himself in position to win with some bold driving after he made an unscheduled pit stop under the green flag at Lap 244 for what he thought was a flat tire. He returned to the track a lap down, but began a furious charge to unlap himself.
Using a daring maneuver down the frontstretch, Busch motored by both race leader Kevin Harvick and second-running Brad Keselowski to get back on the lead lap, just before the caution flag flew on Lap 251.
When Harvick, Keselowski and the rest of the leaders made their pit stops, Busch was left in front with a lead he never relinquished. Keselowski finished second, ahead of Harvick, Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I didn’t want to waste too much time with them,” Busch said of the move that won the race for him. “I just kind of bulldozed my way through there. …”
The win moved Busch closer to the 30th spot in the standings, which he must reach before the end of the 26-race regular season to be eligible to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He’s now just 58 points behind David Gilliland, who occupies the 30th spot, with seven races left in the regular season.
“That’s manageable,” Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, said of the deficit. “That is certainly within the capabilities of the team.”
New aero package for Quaker State 400 helps Kyle Busch chase down Joey Logano for the victory
By Rick Minter
Kyle Busch entered Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in need of points to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins after eight more races.
He wound up scoring the maximum 48 points after leading the most laps — 163 of 267 — and winning the race. That allowed him to move from 37th to 35th in the standings, and more importantly, shave his deficit to 30th-place Cole Whitt from 128 points to 87.
Busch, who missed the first 11 races of the season due to injuries suffered in the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona International Speedway, now has two wins in the past three Sprint Cup races.
His win at Kentucky came at what is statistically his best track, but he had to do it under a drastically different rules package that is intended to facilitate better racing at the head of the pack.
The new rules package was a big winner as well, as there were numerous passes for the lead under the green flag, including some late-race lead swapping between Busch and eventual runner-up, Joey Logano.
Where in many recent races, the aerodynamics gave a great advantage to the leader in a situation like Busch and Logano found themselves in at Kentucky in the closing laps, the Kentucky finish saw Busch chase down Logano, swap the lead with him several times, then pull away for the victory.
“I think the aero package lended itself to options for us drivers to be able to move around and try different things,” Busch said. “When I got to Logano there late in the going, I knew he was going to come up and block my lane and take my air.
“But when he did, it wasn’t as bad as it has been with … the other aero package, where you just stall out, and that guy can basically manipulate whatever you’re going to do.”
Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing team and Logano’s Team Penske seemed to adapt to the Kentucky aero rules much more quickly than their competitors.
Logano said he thought the new rules were an improvement.
“I felt like we can enter [the corners] behind each other, and the effect of being behind a car wasn’t as big, so I think that’s good,” he said. “You’re never going to get rid of it completely — we’re going too fast. But I think, directionally, it was correct.”
Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, led 62 laps and seemed to have a car capable of running with Busch, but he wasn’t able to recover from a couple of slow pit stops, and finished sixth.
Busch’s JGR teammates Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth finished third, fourth and fifth, respectively — the first time the four-driver contingent has all finished in the top 5.
Hamlin, who had to make an unscheduled pit stop early in the race and was penalized for speeding on pit road, did as much passing as any driver in the field, as he had to come from two laps down at one point. He was supportive of the new package as well.
“You’re going to hear both sides of this story,” he said. “You’re going to hear guys in the front say they like it, guys in the back say they don’t.
“But I came from two laps down, I passed a ton of cars throughout the day. And there was a pass for the lead inside of 20 laps to go. Can’t really complain a whole lot about that.”
Edwards also liked the feel of the new aero package.
“I cannot say enough positive things about this direction NASCAR is going with less downforce,” he said. “If you give Goodyear a little bit of time to work on a tire, take away another 700, 1,000 pounds of downforce, we’re going to be racing.”
The new rules seemed to somewhat confound the Hendrick Motorsports contingent. Jeff Gordon was the best of that group, with a seventh-place finish, with Jimmie Johnson ninth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 21st and Kasey Kahne 27th.
Gordon said that since Kentucky is such a challenging race track, he didn’t get a really good feel for the new rules, which likely will be used at upcoming intermediate-length tracks, although that is not yet certain.
“Basically, the cars just drove really bad right from the beginning …” Gordon said. “I think we have to give it a try somewhere else. … We’ve got to get the right tires on it. … I’m glad we tried it, did a little more work. I’m looking forward to trying it again.”
Johnson’s gamble propels him to Victory Lane at Kansas
By Rick Minter
On a race track with a casino next door, Jimmie Johnson took a late-race gamble on pit strategy and won the big jackpot.
Johnson, who won the rain-delayed SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, didn’t have the fastest car in the race, or even the best handling car. In fact, he spun in the early going.
But when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun to bring out the caution flag with 12 laps to go, Johnson saw an opportunity to take a chance. When race leader Kevin Harvick, laps-led leader Martin Truex Jr. and others headed to pit road for fuel, Johnson stayed on the track. He inherited the lead, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon remaining on the track behind him.
Harvick got fuel and two tires, while Truex opted for fuel only.
The final six-lap run to the checkered flag saw track position come into play. Johnson drove away to the lead, while Harvick, who restarted sixth, was unable to overtake him, despite racing his way to second place. On intermediate-length tracks like Kansas Speedway, track position is very important, because the aerodynamic forces created by the lead car make it very difficult for the trailing car to overtake it.
And Johnson made the most of the advantage he had from being out front.
“He wasn’t that strong,” Harvick said of Johnson. “He was just trying to run right in front of our car, so for those first few laps when you’re pushing like that, it really takes the air off the front of the car, and it gets the chatter in the front end and it snaps around. But that was the strategy they took, and it worked out for them.”
Harvick said he knows that pit-strategy gambles don’t always work. For instance, had the race gone into overtime, Johnson would have run out of fuel, since he ran his tank dry during his post-race burnout.
“I’ve been on the other side of this deal, where the cars aren’t running good and you don’t have a chance to win,” Harvick said. “We won a championship on pit calls and tires, and everything fell our way. We’ve had a lot of things go our way, and we’ve had a lot of things work.”
For Johnson, the decision to forgo the final pit stop was made easier by the new points system. With two wins already heading in to Kansas, he’s assured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, so a bad finish at Kansas wouldn’t affect his chances of competing for a seventh Sprint Cup championship, as the points are reset at the start of the season-ending Chase.
Johnson also said the decision to stay on the track was mostly his.
“I could tell (crew chief Chad Knaus) was having a hard time making the decision,” Johnson said. “We have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race — let’s gamble.
“A few more laps — I think (Harvick) would have had me. He was awfully strong. We had just enough time to get to Victory Lane.”
The win was the 73rd of Johnson’s career and his third at Kansas. It was also his 200th career top-5 finish and his 300th top-10.
Truex, who finished ninth and remains second in the standings, said that after leading a race-high 95 laps in his No. 78 Chevrolet, it was disappointing to fall to ninth, even though it gives him 10 top-10s in the 11 races run this season.
His biggest regret was not taking on fresh rubber during his final pit stop.
“We should have either stayed out or took new tires,” Truex said. “We probably did the worst thing you could have done there, with just … getting gas only, because everybody else … ate us up on the restart.”
But Truex said he and his team aren’t going to let the disappointment affect them going forward.
“Cole (Pearn, crew chief) got put in a bad spot there at the end,” Truex said. “I told him to keep his confidence up, because he has done a good job all year long. We are going to get one. We just have to keep digging.”
Earnhardt finished third, ahead of Jeff Gordon and pole-sitter Joey Logano, who had to overcome two pit-road penalties that caused him to restart from the rear of the pack. The first was assessed when a crew member went over the wall too soon, and the second came because Logano drove on to pit road while it was still closed.
“Passing all those cars was fun, but the rest of it — we just did a terrible job of executing this race,” Logano said. “We made mistake after mistake.
“We all just have to raise our game a little bit and understand why we made mistakes and clean it up going forward.”
Jimmie Johnson takes record fifth checkered flag at Texas Motor Speedway
By Rick Minter
After an uncharacteristically poor performance in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jimmie Johnson appears to be back in the form that has seen him win 72 races and six championships since joining the Sprint Cup circuit full time in 2001.
In last Saturday’s Duck Commander 500, Johnson led a race-high 128 of 334 laps and held off defending series champion Kevin Harvick to claim his second victory of the season. It was his fifth career win at Texas — a series record — and his first in the spring race there.
Johnson had to work for the lead at the end, as a caution flag at Lap 310 allowed several drivers, including Jamie McMurray, to take two tires on the ensuing pit stops, and return to the track ahead of Johnson and Harvick, who had the two fastest cars for most of the race.
McMurray led for seven laps, but his tires gave out as Johnson, Harvick and Joey Logano ran him down.
Johnson took the lead for good, passing Harvick and McMurray at the same time with 14 laps to go.
“Unfortunately, the 4 [Harvick] was having some trouble getting by the 1 [McMurray], and they slid up high through [Turns] Three and Four and left the bottom wide open for me,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d at least get the 4 car, and when I came off of Turn Four, I was alongside the 1, and I thought, ‘Man, we’re going to get them both here.’ So that worked out well.”
Still, the outcome was in doubt, as both Logano and Harvick appeared to have cars fast enough to overtake Johnson.
Logano’s bid for the win ended when Harvick bumped him out of the way, then Harvick’s own chances for victory were dashed when he bounced his No. 4 Chevrolet off the wall with two laps to go. Harvick’s stumble allowed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to briefly take the runner-up spot, but Harvick reclaimed it to finish second, ahead of Earnhardt, Logano and Brad Keselowski.
Johnson’s other win this season came at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which, like Texas, has a worn, bumpy asphalt surface that suits his driving style and the skills of his No. 48 team.
“I think the tracks with high wear, bumps, all those types of things, have just always been a good surface for the 48,” he said.
“The spring race has always been tough results” wise, but we’ve had fast cars, and in the fall we come here and get the finish we hope for. It’s nice to get one done in the spring. I think the surface fits my style, fits … what our team does together. Our cars just perform well on those tracks.”
Harvick, who scored his fourth runner-up finish of the season and remains atop the points standings, said his car was good enough to win, but got tied up racing with McMurray and Logano, which hurt him in his bid to overtake Johnson.
“Just lost a little bit of time and tried to make too much of it up in too many chunks, and about spun out and got in the fence trying to make up ground,” he said.
Earnhardt said he was proud of the way his team, led by rookie crew chief Greg Ives, performed throughout the race.
“We made some good adjustments,” he said. “We seemed to have a good pattern of what was working for us, and I think by the end of the race, we had our car as good as we had it all night, so that’s a good job on the crew chief when the car is the best on the last run.”
Kevin Harvick scores another runaway Sprint Cup victory
By Rick Minter
There comes a time in any string of success when the historical comparisons start to hit home. It’s happening now for Kevin Harvick and his No. 4 Chevrolet team at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Harvick scored yet another runaway win at Phoenix International Raceway in the CampingWorld.com 500. It was his fourth straight Sprint Cup victory at that track, and it’s the first time anyone has won four straight at a track since Jimmie Johnson did it at Charlotte in 2004-05. And it was Harvick’s seventh straight finish of first or second place, dating back to the final three races of 2014. That streak ties him with NASCAR’s all-time win leader, Richard Petty, who did it back in 1975. He also now has seven Cup wins at Phoenix — more than any other driver.
“The Richard Petty part — that gives me chills,” Harvick said upon hearing those stats read to him during the winner’s interview at Phoenix.
Before that, another noteworthy comparison came up — this one from the race’s runner-up, Jamie McMurray. He said Harvick’s recent dominance reminds him of some of Jeff Gordon’s best years.
“I remember the days when Jeff Gordon won 13 races in a year in ’98,” McMurray said. “I remember watching every week. It was incredible.”
McMurray said what Harvick and his Rodney Childers-led team is doing may be even more impressive.
“I think our sport is much tougher now to do that in,” he said. “I remember when the 4 car [Harvick’s] unloaded at the Charlotte test last year in January — first lap on the track, he was literally the fastest car. For a year it’s been that way.”
McMurray, like others in the sport, believe Harvick and Childers could have won more races last year with some better luck at times. And he said their success is due in large part to the working relationship between driver and crew chief and the rest of the race team.
“When I listen to Kevin talk, it seems like there’s good communication between he and Rodney and the engineer and the whole team,” McMurray said.
That’s the same sentiment expressed by Harvick in the media sessions after each race. Sunday at Phoenix was no different.
“I’m just really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas for everything they do; really proud of Rodney and these guys on this team,” Harvick said. “I feel like we get better as we go through different situations.”
Harvick, who started on the pole and led 224 of 312 laps in winning the CampingWorld.com 500, almost had to take a back seat to McMurray at Phoenix. McMurray got the jump on him on a late-race restart, but didn’t move in front of him immediately off of Turn Two, and that allowed Harvick to motor by on the outside and run away to the checkered flag.
“Honestly, when I went through [Turns] One and Two, I felt like I totally missed the corner and I was waiting to hear, ‘Three wide, you’re in the middle,’” McMurray said. “I heard, ‘Clear.’ I wish I would have moved up immediately. He had momentum on the outside.”
McMurray said he hesitated because those gaps close quickly, and he might have caused a wreck by moving up.
“I didn’t feel like I was clear,” he said. “Hindsight, I would have listened to my spotter a little bit and just moved up.”
Ryan Newman had another strong run, finishing third, ahead of Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.
“We’re four races in and we’ve got two top-5s,” Newman said. “It took us until June last year to get our first one, so, we’ll keep digging.”
For Busch, his fifth-place finish gives him hope that he can salvage a decent season despite missing the first three races while suspended from NASCAR due to a domestic violence case in Delaware. He was reinstated last week after Delaware officials said he would not face criminal charges.
“Now it’s on to the next group of races to where we will develop as a team and get stronger and stronger and stronger,” Busch said. “We’ll just settle back in and get in that groove for these next couple weeks.”
Crew chief calls Jimmie Johnson’s victory at AMS ‘phenomenal’
By Rick Minter
When Jimmie Johnson fell out of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup after the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway, the focus shifted to a new set of drivers, including Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and eventual champion Kevin Harvick.
It continued on through Speedweeks at Daytona, as Matt Kenseth won the Sprint Unlimited and Joey Logano took the Daytona 500.
But when the checkered flag fell on the second race of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson was back in Victory Lane.
His weekend had a quiet start, as he was one of a group of drivers who had to start the race from the back after their crews did not get their cars through NASCAR’s inspection line in time to qualify on Friday. But that turned out to be little more than a bump in the road for Johnson and his No. 48 team, which now is guaranteed a berth in the 2015 Chase under NASCAR’s “win and you’re in” format.
If he were to go on to win the title this year, Johnson would tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt at the top of the all-time series championship list.
At Atlanta, in a race that was delayed 55 minutes because of rain, and run under cold, cloudy skies, Johnson started 37th, but had driven to 13th place by the time the first caution flag flew at Lap 27. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 198 and wound up leading six times for 92 laps, including the final 21. He finished 1.8 seconds ahead of the 2014 Cup champion, Kevin Harvick, who led 116 laps — more than any other driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third, ahead of polesitter Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
It was Johnson’s fourth victory at AMS and the 71st victory of his career.
His crew chief, Chad Knaus, said Johnson’s run to the front was something to behold. “To see Jimmie do what he did [Sunday] was phenomenal,” Knaus said.
Johnson said he considers a win in the second race of the season an indication of better things to come on down the road.
“It is a sign of who is going to be competitive,” he said. “This says a lot for us. What we did here we can take to a lot of tracks ahead.”
And being locked in to the Chase so early is a relief. “It takes the pressure off of us,” he said.
But Johnson also cautioned that it’s still a little early to draw any real conclusions about who will be fast at upcoming races.
“I’m feeling really great, but not 100 percent yet,” he said.
The race ran relatively incident-free until the later stages, when two multi-car crashes knocked out some of the top contenders. The first, at Lap 257, collected Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin.
The second, at Lap 306, involved six drivers and brought out the red flag for a nine-minute clean-up period. It started when Greg Biffle and Joe Nemechek collided just after a restart, and when the smoke cleared, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Kyle Larson all had damage to their cars. But the final 14 laps ran without incident, with Johnson fending off an early challenge from Earnhardt Jr. before motoring away unchallenged.
David Ragan, driving the No. 18 Toyota for the injured Kyle Busch, kept the car in the top 10 for the first quarter of the race, but fell a lap down at the halfway mark and finished 18th.
Another fill-in driver, Brett Moffitt, drove Brian Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota to an eighth-place finish.
Johnny Sauter must qualify his way into Daytona 500
By Rick Minter
Veteran driver Johnny Sauter has been hired to drive the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing in the upcoming Daytona 500.
But Sauter will have to qualify his way into the starting field, since the team finished the 2014 season 41st in car owner points, and therefore is not guaranteed a starting spot for the Sprint Cup circuit’s premier race.
Sauter, who will work with veteran crew chief Doug Richert, has experience in all three of NASCAR’s major touring series. He has 84 career Sprint Cup starts, 205 in the Xfinity Series with three victories, and 152 starts in the Camping World Truck Series, where he has 10 career victories and is riding a six-season streak of winning at least one race every year.
Sauter will run Daytona as a teammate to J.J. Yeley, who will drive the team’s No. 23 Toyota, with Joe Williams serving as crew chief.
Family affair: Racing’s Elliott family has a milestone week
By Rick Minter
For the Elliott family of Dawsonville, Georgia, this past week was about as big as it gets — with two milestone events on back-to-back days.
First, last Thursday, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Chase Elliott, at age 19, has been hired to take over the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet from the retiring Jeff Gordon, beginning with the 2016 season. In the meantime, Chase will defend his Xfinity Series championship and make five Sprint Cup starts.
Then, the next night, Chase’s father, Bill Elliott, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It’s a success story that began decades ago, when Bill’s late father, George, first urged his sons to chase their dreams of racing in NASCAR, buying them hand-me-down cars and supporting their efforts to put them on the track.
In the beginning, there was little indication that a week like the final one of January 2015 would ever be possible. The Elliotts were successful on the Georgia short tracks, but their NASCAR efforts left a lot to be desired.
Bill Elliott said his dad had a vision for a NASCAR future, and a unique way of motivating his sons Ernie, Dan and Bill.
“He always was leading you that way,” he said. “He never said, ‘Hey, you need to do this.’ The way he proceeded was, he’d go buy a race car and he’d look at me and Ernie, and he’d say, ‘Hey, y’all need to go run Charlotte here in a few weeks.’”
Even the boys’ most ardent supporters didn’t see much hope for the fledgling team operating out of an old elementary school — where the race car was prepared in old classrooms with chalkboards still attached to the walls.
“The car would be a total disaster,” Bill recalled. “Some of the things we showed up with were just terrible. But that was his way of nudging you along to try and make you better and better.”
What George did preach was the value of hard work. It wasn’t uncommon for him to call his boys away from their race car preparation to haul hay or do some other sweaty chore. The end result was that the Elliott sons developed the same work ethic as their father. Even as the team progressed to the point where they were winning races and poles, the brothers still often pulled all-nighters at the shop, then went off to race or test the next day.
“I didn’t feel like I was the best race car driver, but I was probably the hardest-working race car driver at the time,” Bill recalled. “We never gave up, and I think that ethic took us to the level it took us to.
“Without my dad and the ethic he taught us early on, we would have never achieved the things that we did.”
In Chase’s career, the financial struggles and lack of top-flight equipment weren’t an issue in his first years as a driver.
Chase’s early years, particularly in Late Model racing, saw him, in a similar manner to the previous Elliott generation, take advantage of what he’d learned from his father.
Only the things he picked up on had more to do with how to drive cars than how to prepare them. From the beginning, he raced — and still races — more like a veteran than a rookie.
He’s always seemed to instinctively know when to push his car hard and when to preserve his equipment. He also has a veteran’s feel for when to be aggressive in racing an opponent and when to wait and fight the battle another time.
Chase is smart enough to acknowledge his shortcomings, although they’re few, and he doesn’t get too up or too down, no matter how a race or a season is going.
“He’s an incredibly good race car driver,” Bill says of his son. “I’m not saying it’s because he’s my kid. I’ve watched him week in and week out through the short tracks, through all the stuff that the kid has done, and he’s a pretty phenomenal race car driver.
“I’ve said all along he’s better than I ever thought about being as far as driving a race car, and the way he processes knowing the things he wants out of the race car. I think he’s got a good enough head on his shoulders. He’s got some great people around him.”
Ray Evernham, who is in the unique position of being Bill Elliott’s former car owner and the one-time crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet that Chase will take over in 2016, said he has no doubt the youngster will find success in his full-time Cup career.
“I can tell you that I’m not surprised at his success, because I’ve known Chase since he was 5 years old, and I’ve seen him do some pretty amazing things behind the scenes coming along, like whipping Bill and I both testing a dirt car one day when he was about 12 years old,” Evernham said.
“I know that Chase will do a really good job because I told him all the time he’s the luckiest kid in the world — he’s got his daddy’s talent and his mama’s looks.”