Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was as calm and easy-going as usual walking around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway garage Saturday morning before qualifying for Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
For the first time in his career, he starts the Playoff portion of the season from the “outside” – he missed championship eligibility for the first time in 16 years. And candidly, Johnson said, it has stung this week as he prepares for the first race of the Chase, without being among those eligible for a trophy.
“I had to distract myself,’’ said Johnson, who spent a couple days this week riding mountain bikes with old friends.
“Seeing everyone partying and doing burnouts on the strip, that hurt,’’ Johnson continued. “I want to be a part of all that and I should be. As I analyze that, I’m glad it hurts. If it didn’t hurt, I think that’d be a problem.
“I’m disappointed, but it was more than just what happened at Indy, there were mistakes all season that put us in that position, 26 races that we could have made a difference in. But we have 10 left and the optimism and excitement within the team is really inspiring and I’m excited and ready to go.’’
The upside is the confidence and motivation he feels going forward with a new crew chief, Cliff Daniels, and an especially determined No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.
“The growing relationship between Cliff and I, when he came on in Sonoma (Calif.) it was very apparent, there was just more there, and as he moved into that role, it’s continued to grow.’’ Johnson said of his encouraged viewpoint. “Cliff and I both – in a sense – have been raised by Chad (Knaus, Johnson’s former crew chief). And Cliff has a lot of those very important qualities that Knaus has. He’s just wired that same way. He goes about things a little differently but at the core, it’s that hard, intense, brilliant guy.’’
ON A ROLL
Joey Logano was mostly smiles and optimism speaking with reporters at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in anticipation of Sunday’s South Point 400. He won a Cup race here in March and his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski is the defending winner of this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff opener.
In fact, Keselowski has three wins at the track, second only to four-time winner Jimmie Johnson among active drivers. And the Logano-Keselowski duo has accounted for four victories in the last seven Vegas races. Each driver also has an Xfinity Series win here too.
“That is a hard question to answer,’’ Logano said when asked about the impressive statistics. “It might be an easy question for you.
Not only does Logano chalk it up to his Ford, but also to the team’s engine supplier Roush Yates. The Roush Fenway Racing team, for example, leads all competitors with seven wins. Ford has won a series-best 12 races and 10 pole positions.
“You are never as good as you want, but it seems like we have been able to put together a good package at this race track,’’ Logano said. “I do think this race will be much different than it was in the spring considering it was one of the first races with this package and the whole industry has really evolved a lot from what we did here in March.
“I don’t know if we have figured out what we need to win, but we have gotten close and the whole field has kind of done that together. A lot of things have changed over that period of time.’’
William Byron, 21, is the youngest driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series grid each week. But youth alone won’t help with the 100-plus temperatures expected in Las Vegas this weekend for the race. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said Saturday that he regularly trains in such extreme conditions. Additionally, Byron pointed out, the season is two-thirds complete, so he’s optimistic that he will be better prepared for the temperature variables.
“It’s gonna be super hot, roasting in the car and by the time the sun goes down it’ll be roasting,’’ Byron said of the anticipated Vegas conditions.
“But, it’s a lot tougher when we have a race in the spring and it’s hot because your body isn’t prepared for it.
“I train at this gym in Charlotte that has no AC, it’s all outside air. The other day it was 96 degrees and that’s all part of trying to become an athlete and doing the best I can. Sometimes it’s really hard because my trainer is really tough on me, but especially a race like this, I don’t worry about being ready for it, just have to drink and eat the right things.’’
While his younger brother Kyle has a Las Vegas Monster Energy Series race trophy on his mantle, Kurt Busch is still vying for that first hometown hardware. In 19 races at the Vegas 1.5-miler, Kurt Busch has only two top-five finishes and five top 10s. His best showing is third back in 2005. He has only two top 10s in the last eight races, however he was fifth in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet just this March and led 23 laps – only the second time in the last nine races he’s led the field.
“I’ve always been on the gas too hard here,’’ Busch said this week. “I just need to settle in and let the race come to the team and not put too much pressure on the guys and on myself. It’s about coming in loose and confident and executing as a team.’’
A win is not only a sentimental reward but with Sunday’s South Point 400 being the 2019 Playoff opener, a victory could be crucial to advancing to the second round of the Playoffs. Busch, who won at Kentucky, is ranked eighth among the 16 Playoff drivers.
Both he and his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson have qualified for the Playoffs – only the third time in the last five years both CGR cars have raced for the championship. And while Busch wouldn’t go so far as to declare himself a championship “favorite” he does feel optimistic about advancing.
Busch has wins at six of the 10 Playoff venues, including Richmond, Dover, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami.
“I feel like we went to the cashier and we cashed in our chips and now we’re wanting more,’’ Busch said of his team. “We want to push in and we know we can be a contender if we go and balance the things we need to do as a team. That’s to execute with clarity and consistency and confidence.
“This first round, there are a lot of things that can happen in Vegas, Richmond and then the (Charlotte Motor Speedway) ROVAL. I think once we clear that, that’s when we start moving towards the championship run that I know we can put up.’’
Austin Hill’s win in Friday night’s World of Westgate 200 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race was good enough to punch an automatic ticket to the next round of the series Playoffs. But equally as important to Hill and his Hattori Racing Enterprises team, the victory is an unmistakable reminder that the 25-year-old Georgia native expects to be a major player in the series championship.
The Las Vegas trophy is his third this season (also at Daytona and Michigan). He has six top-five finishes and 11 top 10s through the opening 19 races.
He took the lead from three-race winner Ross Chastain with 11 laps to go. And it was a strong statement victory that Hill should also be counted among the title favorites along with Chastain and reigning series champ Brett Moffitt, who won the opening two races of the Playoffs.
“It means the world to me,’’ Hill said of his win late Friday night. “This is the hardest one I’ve had to win. We were going to stay out that last caution and we stayed out and everybody else pitted. We decided we needed to pit or we were going to be screwed.
“We came down pit road, restarted at the tail-end of the longest line and it stayed green. I had to drive all the way through the field and this truck was unbelievable.’’