Jimmie Johnson was coming off of back-to-back wins entering the Pocono 400. However, Johnson was taken out of contention early in the event after colliding with Marcos Ambrose on pit road.
Johnson was exiting his pit stall after racing his way into the top-10 when the caution came out on Lap 73. The No. 48 car received major damage to the right front quarter panel, and caused Johnson to make multiple trips back to pit road.
“I was scared to death I was going to hurt someone,” Johnson said. “We just went to work and do what the No. 48 does best and grind it out. We thought we had a shot at it. Chad had a great strategy, but that last set of tires was just way too tight and I couldn’t get it done.”
After all of the chaos, he was able to finish sixth after capturing the lead for a handful of laps during a green flag pit cycle as the race was winding down. Moreover, Johnson experienced some issues with the handling of his Chevrolet. With the high speeds at the Pocono Raceway, aerodynamics play a key role in attempting to keep up with the leaders.
“We took two (tires) and we were leaving pretty quick and Chad (Knaus) was spotting me out of the pit and took full responsibility for it. He didn’t know the No. 9 was ahead of us pulling in. He thought the No. 9 had left his pit box,” he said.
“We had some aero stuff to sort out. After the second pit stop working on it, the car was a lot better. I honestly forgot about it until I felt like we had a shot to win.”
Johnson remains fourth in the standings as he has all but secured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This was Johnson’s ninth top-10 of the 2014 season, and he is on pace to surpass 20 top-10s for the year for the 13th consecutive season.
Jimmie Johnson is the all-time wins leader at Dover International Raceway with eight trophies. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is coming off of a victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and is looking to lock up his ninth career victory at the Monster Mile.
Johnson, 38, has all but owned Dover since he swept both races at the Delaware track in his rookie year. He has led at least one lap at Dover in all but five of the 24 times he has taken the green flag at the high-banked oval. He has recorded all but of Hendrick Motortsports' 14 wins at Dover.
But what is so vexing about Johnson’s success at Dover?
With Chad Knaus at the helm, Johnson has been able to tame the “monster” no matter what body NASCAR has thrown onto the cars. Whether it was the Generation Four vehicle or the Generation Six – Johnson’s dominance has been a never ending train ride which has helped propel him to the top of the Sprint Cup Series. Even though NASCAR has changed up the aero package from last season, Johnson believes he is going to be a contender once again, and he proved that by putting up a solid lap time during first practice on Friday morning.
“There’s a sensation that I look for, especially at this track. We all have a certain sensation that we look for. It’s just you need to find the speed that fits the track, and it has worked well for me, for Chad and the team. It has just been a really strong track for us,” Johnson said.
“ I just pay attention to what I am looking for, what we are able to work through and whatever challenges are thrown at us. There are different tire combinations and different generations of the car, and this is still the Gen Six car, but there is a different rules package for it. Regardless of change, there are just some tracks that you know what you are looking for.”
A hard charging Kevin Harvick was not enough for the second straight weekend at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. After coming so close to a victory during the Sprint All-Star Race, Harvick could not catch the reigning champion.
Jimmie Johnson ended his 13-race winless streak on Sunday evening. Johnson dominated the Coca-Cola 600, leading 165 of the 400 laps. The victory marks the fourth time Johnson has won the Coca-Cola 600, and his seventh points paying victory at Charlotte. After 447 career starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Johnson has secured his 67th victory, which is approximately 15 percent of the races he has started.
Johnson was in position to lose the race after fuel strategy was falling into Carl Edwards’ hands, but after a late race caution – Johnson was able to capitalize after taking four tires, maneuvering his way through traffic, and shooting by Matt Kenseth with nine laps to go.
After 100 laps, Harvick had a five-second lead over Johnson as only 12 cars were still on the lead lap. The race went green for the first 107 laps while Harvick lapped all but the top-10.
David Gilliland slammed the wall on Lap 164, forcing him to become the first driver to go to the garage.
Clint Bowyer had a vibration preceding the half-way mark. Bowyer pitted for two tires, but continued to report a vibration, and was forced to bring his No. 15 Toyota back into the pits to change left-side tires after competing for the win.
Jeff Gordon had the lead on the final restart, but slipped back to the seventh position after taking two tires as his No. 24 team assumed the race would go green for the remaining 20 laps. But after having back spasms for the majority of the weekend, Gordon's fight for the win was another small victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
Harvick led at the half-way mark with Johnson and Brad Keselowski trailing him by over two seconds. At the time, there were just 16 cars on the lead lap.
While running several laps down, Kurt Busch blew an engine on Lap 274, forcing an end to his attempt at becoming the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2001 to run all 1,100 miles in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finished sixth during his first race in the Verizon IndyCar Series after starting the day in what was originally Marco Andretti’s backup car. Overally, Busch ran a total of 906.5 miles between the two events.
“This symbolizes how tough it has been this year on the Haas Automation team,” Busch said after his engine blew. “I can’t let what happen with the car here dampen what I did today. The motor just went. I trained hard and gave it my all.”
At Lap 220, Danica Patrick began reporting she was down a cylinder. Patrick was running in the top-15 for the majority of the first half of the race, but began to slide back as the track began to cool down. Evidently, Patrick’s car blew up proceeding Busch’s engine woes, making the Stewart-Haas Racing duo finish 39th and 40th, respectively.
13 cars finished on the lead lap in a race where green flag runs spread out the field, forcing a mixture of strategies. Six different drivers led during green flag conditions for 13 or more laps, and four of them led for 34 or more markers with a total of 34 lead changes.
Chase Elliott, 18, is trying to do something rather rare. Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, currently holds the drivers points lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In doing so, Elliott has become the youngest driver to lead the points in NASCAR's second tier division.
After not being sure whether or not he would have a job come 2014, Elliott has made the most of his opportunity with JR Motorsports. Through the first seven races, the Georgia native has won back-to-back events. However, he is still in high school. Elliott is set to graduate from his private Christian high school in approximately a month, yet his priorities are straighter than most high school seniors.
Elliott spoke with Speedway Digest for an exclusive interview on Tuesday afternoon about his education, his future in racing with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, his early success this season and more.
Q: How do you manage school with your racing career? Has it been overwhelming for you?
A: No, it hasn’t been really overwhelming. There have been years in the past where we have done just as much racing as we are doing right now. I was still in school then too. I have been fortunate to go to a school where they work with me on this, and they allow me to go race. It has been that way for a few years now. At this point in school, there’s not a ton going on right now, so it has been a pretty good balance I feel like.
Q: What was the reaction from everyone that you know when you walked into school following your back-to-back wins over the past few weeks?
A: Honestly, it really hasn’t been any different. I don’t want it to be. I feel like I’m going to school like everybody else is, and there is nothing needed to lose sight of that.
Q: How much time have you been able to spend at the shop since you are always in school?
A: Zero percent as of right now. The (JR Motorsports) shop is located in North Carolina, and I’m located in Georgia, so we’re in two different places right now.
Q: A lot of people have said that once you graduate, you’re going to be even more focused on racing. How much of your concentration on your driving has been lost due to going to school?
A: I don’t know it has been lost honestly. I think going to school is a benefit for me. Hopefully, after school it will improve, so I will be able to put some more focus to racing. But I don’t feel like it has been a hindrance by any means. I think it has been a good balance to this point, and this is a point and time in my life which I don’t want to rush through it. It is a time you don’t get back, and I want to enjoy it while I am still here.
Q: There have been a few other drivers that attempt to race and go to college. Is that something you plan on doing on a part-time basis while having a primary focus on racing?
A: I’m honestly not sure right now. At this point, my focus right now is to finish up (high) school during the week and focusing on racing on the weekends. I’m not sure what the future holds. We will have to see.
Q: With such a hectic schedule, how do you find time to relax?
Yeah, it has been okay. I feel like obviously the weekends are busy, but I have been able to enjoy a little bit of time away from everything which I think in a way is good and bad at the same time. It kind of allows me to be away and enjoy school while it is still here, finish up school strong and try to enjoy my time. Like I said – time is something you don’t get back, and it is what you need to make the most of.
Q: What did you learn in your nine Truck Series starts last year that you have taken over to the Nationwide Series?
A: I think just laps. That was probably the biggest thing I can take from that - going to race tracks that we are going to be visiting here in the next few weeks that we ran last year in the Truck Series. It’s a completely different world from the Truck Series side. But hopefully, we can take a little bit of what we did last year and hopefully go forward to be competitive in Nationwide Series races and be a lot better there.
Q: You’ve been having a lot of early success at tracks which you have never raced at previously. What do you do to prepare to go to all of the different tracks since you can’t test?
A: We actually can’t test at all. Unless it is a test that is NASCAR sanctioned, we are not allowed to go with the team. The best that you can do is watch videos, and just learn from the guys around you. I have some great teammates in Regan (Smith), Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Kevin (Harvick) as well. Those guys are obviously very, very knowledgeable, and they have shared that with me up to this point. I hope they continue to strive with the great support the guys at the shop give. It is not something I want to pass up.
Q: What has been the biggest key to your early success this year?
A: I think the biggest thing is just having a good group of guys, being paired with the right people and being at a great organization like JR Motorsports. Honestly, I feel like NAPA Auto Parts has given us a great opportunity to do things like they need to be done, and being able to do that at a place like JRM has been as good as it gets. Some folks really stepped up this off-season I felt like, and just from what I see coming from the outside looking in last year, those guys got really close. I think during the off-season, they made a lot of changes – hopefully for the better. It is still really early in the year, so we definitely don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and be happy with what we have done because there is still a lot of racing left. There is definitely a plus side that you can take from these first seven weeks, but at the same time – there is still racing left. So much improving needs to get done for us to be exactly where we need to be, and compete at the level I feel like we need to be at each weekend. We just need to keep trying to get better, and hopefully we can improve a little bit this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Being the youngest driver to lead the standings in the Nationwide Series, do you feel like you can win the championship as a rookie this year?
A: Leading the points right now is like having the best batting average on opening day, so it is kind of irrelevant at this point in the season. We just need to make sure we keep taking it a week at a time, and not get caught up in that. It is too early for that, and we will focus on it when it comes time (to do so).
Q: A lot of people have discussed drivers rushing up to the Cup Series at a young age. What do you believe you need to prove in order to show that you can race for victories in Cup?
A: Like I said, I’m not in a rush to do it. I feel like I don’t need to be in a rush. I’m 18 and there is no need to do that right now. I have an opportunity right now, and if I can make the most of it now, I feel like the future will figure itself out.
Q: When do you believe you will be ready to race in the Sprint Cup Series?
A: I really don’t know. Like I said, it’s not anything I am concerned with. It is not my call. I am going to go keep doing what we are doing right now and focus on the situation that we are in, and race in the Nationwide Series. It is not something to get caught up in. We just have to focus on what we have going on right now. There is no need to think about it.
Q: How do you feel all of this attention from the media and fans has affected your personality?
A: I just want to be the same person I have always been. I want to focus on winning races. That is what I always tried to do, and I feel like you have to always do that.
Q: What is the biggest difference between working with Greg Ives compared to Lance McGrew?
A: It is tough to say. Both of those guys are great in different areas. I think both guys are really smart. I felt like Lance did a good job, and we had fun working with him, winning some races. I enjoyed that. It was great to work with him, and Lance is still a good friend of mine. I still talk to him a pretty good bit. Working with Greg has been great too. I’m still getting to know Greg. I know him for a few months now, so I feel like we have a lot of growing to do. I feel like we can still improve our communication though and make our relationship better.
Q: Growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be so successful so rapidly?
A: At the end of the season, I was going into a group that won races before, and those guys are capable of doing it. I figured it was up to me to get it done and give feedback to make the cars go faster. I need to try to give good information after the races so we can get better for next week. I feel like if I do my job for those guys, we can get better and win some more races
Q: What do you need to improve upon as a driver?
A: Anything and everything, man. There is always room for improvement in all aspects, and I feel like we need to try to do that each weekend. Hopefully, we can do that this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Do you believe that you are a better racer at the moment over your competitors which are in your age group?
A: No, I don’t think so. We’re all setting out to do the same thing, and their goal is to win the race. Obviously, you hope you do better than the next guy, but I think everybody is on such an even playing field right now with the way racing is, the setups on these cars and the tech process. These cars are very equal. At this point, I feel like everyone is on a leveled playing field, and I think all of those guys are capable of getting the job done at any given point honestly if things go their way. You hope things go your way each weekend, but I feel like all of those guys can definitely get the job done.
Q: What is it like to not only race against some of the Sprint Cup Series stars and work with them, but beating them in a division which they have dominated?
A: I think it has been good to have those guys around for sure. There is a lot that can be learned from them. I hope to continue to race with those guys on a week-to-week basis. I feel like we are capable of doing it. We just need to make sure we keep improving and taking advantage of off-weeks like this past one. It’s great to race those guys, and I hope we can race with them more throughout the year.
Q: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seen with you in victory lane during your two wins. What has he done for you that has helped you become a better racer?
A: He has been a great mentor honestly. Dale has a lot of experience and he is obviously a successful car owner as well as a driver. He has been around. He knows how to make things work. He is one of the best guys this year on the Cup Series side. I feel like having him on our side has been great. Just having his personality is good to have, and I am just glad to have him around.
Q: What advantage do you feel like JR Motorsports has given you that has helped you be such a success early in the season?
A: It is about having good people around you, and I feel like having a good atmosphere is big. They have that over there, and we just can’t be content with where we are. Our competition is always trying to get better, and we just need to make sure we are doing the same.
Q: During the off-season, you originally didn’t have a ride. Then, you signed on with JR Motorsports thanks to NAPA. Discuss how you guys were able to sign NAPA to a contract.
A: It was a little bit of a long process. We went to meet with those guys, and when we came back, they said they wanted to support our program. From there, we moved forward. That is how it really all came about.
Q: How long is your contract for?
A: As of right now, we are planning on running this year and next year in the Nationwide Series. Beyond that, we will see what happens.
Q: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
A: There are a lot of guys. Obviously, my dad has had a major role in it. He has been able to go to a lot of races, and we’ve been able to do a lot of races with him over the past five years, especially in late models. There are a lot of guys other than him that have helped a lot too. We have been fortunate to have some good folks on our side, and we are definitely fortunate to have those guys behind us. It has been fun to go racing with them.
Q: What has it been like to work with Rick Hendrick? How much of an influence has he had on your season so far in helping develop your skills?
A: Well, had it not been for him, we wouldn’t be racing this season. All of these opportunities and everything that I have done this past year has been due to him. I really owe it all to him, and had it not been for him, I wouldn’t be racing this weekend at Richmond. It is all thanks to him and what he has done for us. It means a lot to me.
Q: Does it ever cross your mind that you could possibly be Jeff Gordon’s replacement going down the road?
A: No, not really. I don’t think it is anything to be caught up in. Jeff can still get the job done on any given weekend, and he is a guy that is still in his prime. He is still in his prime in my book. Like I said before about going Cup Series racing – it is not anything to worry about, or even think about at this point.
Q: As a kid, what is one memory from your dad’s career that has stuck with you as motivation to replicate what he did?
A: I remember a little bit of the Brickyard win. That was cool to be a part of and see during the Evernham days. Those guys went out and had a lot of success in a short amount of time, so I think that’s what I look back on. It is definitely cool to have that experience in the house.
Q: What is the hardest part about jumping from division to division as you climbed through the ranks?
Well, it kind of depends on which stuff it is. All of them are tough steps. As you move up and do different things, it definitely doesn’t get any easier. You kind of have to keep that in mind, but you can’t lose track of what your goal is. I don’t care what you are racing – your goal is always pretty similar. I know I have the right mind set, and I’m not sure what the next step will be or where it is going to lead. But for me, I just need to try to focus on what we have going on and do a better job each weekend and try to get a little better.
Q: Going through all those divisions, do you feel like you rushed through the ranks since you didn’t stay in a division for more than a year?
A: I don’t think so. I think that is always a good thing to do if you can. We have had some great sponsors to do it and to run different cars. I think there are many different things you can gain on any given week, and we have been able to do that for the last several years.
Q: Last year when you won in Canada, you had a scuffle with Ty Dillon. Are you worried that people judge you based on that incident and say you are too aggressive?
A: I’m really not sure. I feel like that was definitely a race where we had a fast truck that day. It was good to get the win, but at the same time – I still have a lot of maturing to do and definitely that day. You definitely have to be mindful of the decisions you make. I felt like at the time, trying to go for the win was probably a move a lot of guys would have made, but I should’ve been a little smarter about it.
Chase Elliott, 18, is already climbing through the NASCAR ranks at an unbelievable pace. He is truly ahead of the game, especially for someone that is still in high school.
Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, might just be what the NASCAR world has been looking for. He is aggressive, smart and mature - all of which he has learned thanks to his hard work and determination. Sure, there are other drivers out there around his age group in the Nationwide Series such as Dylan Kwasniewski and Ryan Reed, but they are not having early success like Elliott.
However, even while becoming the youngest driver to win back-to-back Nationwide Series races in the history of the division, Elliott still has plenty to learn. Due to his success, rumors have initiated about Elliott's immediate future. Currently, the Dawsonville, Ga. native is leading the NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers points standings while racing for JR Motorsports. Think about it this way - Elliott has won two races, outraced his teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Regan Smith as well as outracing Sprint Cup Series regulars which usually dominate in the sport's second tier division.
JR Motorsports has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, one of the most proficient teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. However, the team does most of their work in-house as their alliance is mainly for Hendrick's engine program. Moreover, Elliott is winning in equipment which former Sprint Cup Series driver, Smith, has only won in four times in 41 events since Homestead in 2012. What makes Elliott's early success so magnificent?
Well, he has done things the old fashion way. He worked his way up through the ranks at a rapid pace, but did so by winning in everything he raced in. That is how he landed a deal with one of, if not the, most successful team in modern-day NASCAR.
Even though the season is still young, Elliott's points lead is obviously not a fluke. He has Smith's former crew chief, Greg Ives, atop the pit box, and they seem to be clicking rather well. Not only has Elliott been contending for wins, but he has finished inside of the top-10 in each race since Daytona where he made his Nationwide Series debut. Clearly, he has the talent to get the job done. But does it mean he should go to the Sprint Cup Series next season?
It is extremely unlikely that Elliott will be full-time in the Cup Series next season. If he were to win the Nationwide Series title as a rookie, it will be one of the most abundant accomplishments which have been achieved in the modern-era of stock car racing. However, he will still need another season in NASCAR's second tier series just to show he can make even fewer mistakes before he goes to NASCAR's largest stage. Thus, it will enable him to be extremely competitive right away.
Moreover, Elliott will be entitled to race in a Hendrick Motorsports car in the Cup Series if they opt to go that route. The problem is - NASCAR only enables four entries per team, and they can also enter a fifth car for a handful of races under Hendrick Motorsports ownership for a rookie driver. This would be the ideal situation for Elliott. It will enable him to still race full-time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, and it will also let him get adjusted to the larger, more powerful vehicles in NASCAR's top division. Previously, team owner, Rick Hendrick, has stated that Elliott has tested Cup Series cars, and actually ran times as competitive as four-time champion, Jeff Gordon. That's pretty impressive at his age.
Elliott is rumored to replace one of the four drivers at HMS in the near future. Specifically, Jeff Gordon or Kasey Kahne.
Gordon has stated that he is considering retirement. However, he has done so since having back problems several years ago. It is likely, however, that he will call it quits within the next dozen years or so. But with success like he has had already in 2014, putting a close on a Hall of Fame career should be no where near in the sights of NASCAR's active wins leader.
Kahne's case is a lot different from Gordon. He entered Hendrick Motorsports with hopes of contending for championships. Sure, he has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in both years that he has driven for HMS, but he has been extremely inconsistent. To start this year, Kahne only has two top-10 finishes in eight races, and four finishes of 22nd or worse. That is not what HMS is about. With each of the Hendrick drivers seeing success other than a Kahne, a driver change might occur in the foreseeable future. Before he joined HMS, most believed that Kahne would certainly be winning more races than he did when he was with Evernham Motorsports (which developed into Richard Petty Motorsports). However, consistency has always been a problem for Kahne since joining the Sprint Cup Series back in 2004. His contract runs up at the end of the 2015 season, as does Elliott's contract with his sponsor, NAPA.
It is possible that if Kahne does not show he is a title contender this year, Elliott can replace him at the start of the 2016 season. However, if Kahne resigns with the organization once his contract expires, Elliott might end up with a team which has an alliance with HMS. This would give him the option of racing with HScott Motorsports which is what Austin Dillon did last year as he prepared to race for Richard Childress Racing on a full-time basis in 2014. It is unlikely that Elliott would race for another organization that has an alliance with HMS which include Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. But anything can happen from now and then.
Let's face it - Hendrick is not going to give up on Elliott. He is going to be a champion if he keeps this up. He is still in school, and once he graduates, his focus will be on racing and racing only.