Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SPEEDWAY, IN – There’s no doubt what’s at top of mind at Hendrick Motorsports entering Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Getting seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson into the Playoffs is the No. 1 priority for the organization, which already has three of its four drivers—Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron—qualified for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series postseason.
“Me personally, I want to see him get in,” said Elliott, who won at Talladega and Watkins Glen this season. “I’m a race fan first, and I want to see him do well. I’m certainly pulling for him to do that, but there is a lot of emphasis to make sure he has a fast car.
“That’s the best way to fix it, to be fast. If they are fast today, that is the main thing. Your job gets a lot easier for the weekend.”
Mission accomplished, as far as the first order of business was concerned. Johnson was fast off the truck for opening practice at the 2.5-mile speedway. He was on top of the speed chart until late in the session, when other drivers began making mock qualifying runs.
After the dust settled, Johnson was ninth fastest, with a best time of 49.261 seconds (182.700 mph).
Though the speed was encouraging, Johnson faces an uphill battle if he hopes to preserve his perfect record of qualifying for every Cup postseason. Johnson is 18 points behind Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez, who currently are tied for 16th in the standings, the final Playoff-eligible position.
Johnson said his No. 48 team has been doing a more thorough job of preparation, but it hasn’t been confined to the week before the trip to the Brickyard, where Johnson has won four times, one fewer than the record five of former teammate Jeff Gordon.
“There has been more preparation, but it really hasn’t been because of the week,” Johnson said. “It’s been since Cliff (Daniels) took over as crew chief (in late July). There are more hours and more time…. We had a Saturday night race recently, and (team members) were asked not to come to the shop, and it’s not just Cliff alone, but the energy and the brotherhood inside of the No. 48 team and how bad the guys want to perform. They are there when they don’t need to be. They’re there when they’re asked not to be.
“So, it’s pretty amazing to see the time and effort. And all of that has added up over the last couple of weeks, where our guys have been able to spend more time on the car that we brought here. So it’s hard to just look at any given week and say ‘Hey, we’re going to do more,’ because you don’t have the time. The truck’s got to load and leave and all that stuff. But, weeks back, things started clicking, which have allowed really every car that’s gone to the track in the last three or four weeks to have more detail and more time spent on it.”
With the speed in his car, Johnson at least has a hope of making the Playoffs on points, but the definitive path would be a fifth victory at the Brickyard. Eighty-four races have passed since Johnson last went to Victory Lane at Dover in 2017.
“Yeah, it would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff with five here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said. “You guys (media) had to write about it and talk about it. To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the Playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”
IT WASN’T THE DARLINGTON WIN THAT SEALED NEW DEAL FOR ERIK JONES
It was coincidence rather than cause-and-effect that Erik Jones’ contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing was announced during the week after the most important victory of his career.
In the wee hours if Monday morning, Jones took the checkered flag in the rain-delayed Bojangles’ Southern 500 to lock up a spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. On Thursday, JGR announced that Jones would return to the No. 20 Toyota for the 2020 season.
But it wasn’t the win the made the difference, as Jones told reporters during a question-and-answer session on Saturday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, the extension had been agreed upon roughly 10 days before Jones took the checkered flag at Darlington.
“I knew we had it done,” Jones said. “It had been maybe a week-and-a-half that we had finally gotten it done. I felt good about it. I had a good idea the last few months that we would get it done, but it was about a week-and-a-half ago that we got it done.
“(The victory) didn’t make a difference, but it definitely made us all a little more excited.”
Nevertheless, the official announcement brought a sense of relief.
“Number one, I am just happy to get the release out and get it set in stone that we are going to be back in the same spot,” Jones said. “It feels good. I’ve had a good relationship with JGR since 2015. I’ve enjoyed racing for them, and I hope I’m there for a long time.
“I hope we can continue to prove that we deserve this ride. I think (crew chief) Chris (Gayle) and I having been doing our job here lately in trying to execute. We have good momentum going now, just need to keep that rolling.”
CONTACT OR NO CONTACT, SUAREZ AND NEWMAN ARE TIED FOR PLAYOFF SPOT
In racing, there are two sides to every story—and usually another one somewhere in the middle.
Daniel Suarez says he didn’t hit Ryan Newman’s Ford in last week’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Newman says there was contact and that it came from Suarez’s Ford.
Whatever the case, Newman went for a spin off Turn 2 on Lap 140, with Suarez’s car in close proximity. Suarez finished 11th and Newman 23rd, and that left the two drivers tied for the 16th and final spot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway left to decide the issue (2 p.m. ET on NBC, IMS and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“It was just racing—by the way, there was not contact,” Suarez insisted on Saturday at the Brickyard. “But, yeah, it was just a racing deal. It happened to be him, but it could have happened with anyone. Newman, I have a lot of respect for him. He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive.
“People know that. Sometimes we race hard, and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him. Unfortunately, he spun out, but there was not contact, and it was just racing like we do every week. That is part of it.”
Though Newman reiterated a point he made after the race—that what goes around, comes around—he can’t afford to tangle with a rival driver on Sunday, not with Jimmie Johnson lurking 18 points behind, hoping to steal the final Playoff berth.
But that doesn’t mean Newman didn’t feel contact from Suarez’s car, and it doesn’t mean he’ll forget.
“That’s just racing,” he said. “That’s what I said afterwards. Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around. It is what it is. I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around.
“It’s just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like Kenseth did to Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air of me or whatever. It’s racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race, other than to do the best that I can for our team.”
DENNY HAMLIN CLOBBERS TURN 4 WALL ON FINAL LAP OF PRACTICE
At the end of Saturday’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota blew a right front tire and rocketed into the Turn 4 wall.
The car erupted in flames, and with smoke billowing out of the cockpit, Hamlin steered his Camry toward pit road and hastily climbed out of the driver’s-side window.
“It was big, for sure,” Hamlin said after a mandatory visit to the infield care center. “It was the last corner, and I think the red flag (signaling the end of practice) had been out for a minute or so. We had just got into Turn 1 when the red went out, and we were going to finish our lap.
“It just blew a right front. We hadn’t seen any wear issues, so we might have run something over or whatever. Definitely got my attention.”
A four-time winner this season, Hamlin will start Sunday’s Big Machine 400 from the rear of the field in a backup car.
“The good news is that I think our backup is an OK car,” Hamlin said. “We’ll go to work and come from the back—again—and see if we can’t win another one.”