Checkered flag a first in Cup for Waltrip

Saturday, May 18, 1996 – Michael Waltrip, winless in 309 NASCAR premier series points races, finally made it to victory lane – in a race that paid no points. Waltrip motored past a tangling Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte eight laps from the finish of the Winston Select All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway to score the surprising victory.

Waltrip, driving the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing, was the final driver to advance out of the Winston Open, a 50-lap qualifier that saw the top five finishers advance to the Winston Select. He became the first driver to win the All-Star race after advancing out of the qualifying race.

Waltrip wasn’t exactly a stranger to the winner’s circle in NASCAR – he had seven Busch (now XFINITY) Series wins prior to his win in the All-Star race.

Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Labonte rounded out the top five.

Waltrip earned $211,200 for the victory.

’87 Winston: One for the ages

Sunday, May 17, 1987 – Dale Earnhardt skated past a spinning Bill Elliott and Geoff Bodine, survived a high-speed run through the front stretch grass and held off a late charge from Terry Labonte to capture the annual Winston All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It was his first win in the non-points, for-winners-only event and earned him $200,000.

There were several instances of contact between Earnhardt and Elliott during the final segment, including what has been referred to as Earnhardt’s “Pass in the Grass,” with both drivers claiming the other was at fault. There was contact after the race as well as Elliott tagged Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevrolet on the cool-down lap.

The race marked the return of Tim Richmond, a seven-time race winner the previous season. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had been sidelined for the season’s first nine races due to illness; he would not compete in a points race until the series ran at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway later that summer.

Elliott, the pole winner (170.827 mph), collected $110,150 for winning the first two segments and his 14th-place finish.

The annual all-star race, which debuted in 1985, was still in its infancy; it returned to Charlotte Motor Speedway after a one-year stop at Atlanta in ’86 and has been held at CMS every year since.

Eligible drivers were those who had won one or more of the previous 20 Winston Cup points events. The race format called for segments of 75, 50 and 10 laps.

Johnson: Midseason move key to season

Jimmie Johnson’s 2019 paint scheme for the May 26th running of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson says he’s a patient person, but he admits it’s getting tougher as the weeks roll on and the months begin to stack up and when you stop to catch your breath you suddenly realize an entire third of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has come and gone.

“Over my career I’ve been able to … just let things work themselves out,” Johnson, 43, said Tuesday during a paint scheme unveil of his No. 48 Chevrolet for the May 26th Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“There are two factors leading to my impatience now. One is I haven’t won in a couple of years and two is, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in a couple of years. My contract’s up in 2020 and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”

It’s an honest conversation but an unusual one just the same.

The backdrop behind Johnson is impressive and when you look over his shoulder you see his name again and again and again.

Listed on the wall inside the Hendrick Motorsports team center are the races and winner’s names of every HMS points victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. All 253 of them.

Legendary races at legendary tracks are separated from the others. The Daytona 500, Darlington’s Southern 500, Charlotte’s Coca-Cola 600 and The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Eighty-three of the victories belong to the El Cajon, Calif., native, including a dozen of those “crown jewel” races.

But we’re not taking about NASCAR’s grand slam at the moment. We’re talking about last Saturday night’s race at Kansas. And not winning. And why Johnson isn’t and what he and his team are doing about it.

The season is hustling by and the sport’s only active seven-time champion finished sixth at Kanas just days ago. It’s been 71 races since his last victory.

For much of his career, a sixth-place finish would hardly seem noteworthy for Johnson. But the fact that it’s his second-best result of the 12 races run thus far says much.

“It’s flying by quick and we haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year,” he said. “We’ve got to fix that.

“If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. For me, right now this middle portion of the season is the key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”

His Hendrick teammates are making headway and garnering attention – Chase Elliott won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway last month to secure a spot in the playoffs and Alex Bowman is riding a career-best string of three consecutive runner-up finishes.

Meanwhile Johnson and William Byron have shown some improvement but less speed and consistency.

As for Kansas, Johnson said his team knew as soon as the No. 48 was unloaded “that we were down on speed to our teammates.”

“We made some (decisions) to race better and try not to pay attention about single-car speed a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track,” he said.

“So Friday we’re trying not to overreact, we’re just hoping that it would race better. Then when I got in the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us, I was like ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ We didn’t have the raw speed and didn’t have the better car in traffic.

“I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. Once (I voiced) my displeasure in the car, he made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome on pit road, those guys rallied around, we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth.

“We know what’s making speed within our company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car … with our philosophy.”

Johnson will be going after a fifth win in the Cup series all-star race, slated for Saturday night at CMS, as well as fifth win in the 600.

“Winning on either weekend would be really special and significant for us on the 48 car,” he said. “My All-Star wins mean a ton to me and obviously that big cash prize that’s out there (the winner’s purse is $1 million) is very tempting.

“The 600 is such a test of driver and machine, strategy … the challenge we have to face I guess ultimately in the 600 is just insane. Those victories mean a ton to me. It’s hard to believe I’ve won as many as I have.”

As part of the NASCAR Salutes initiative held in conjunction with the race, Johnson will carry the name of Army Sgt. Richard Donlan on his during the Coca-Cola 600.

The announcement was part of Tuesday’s paint scheme reveal for the All-sponsored Chevrolet.

“It’s just such an honor,” Johnson said. “Times like this put it all in perspective. … Our sport just does an amazing job of being active and involved. I’m one of 40 lucky drivers that get to carry a name on the car and to honor that fallen soldier.”

All-Star race likely aero package preview

Clearing off the desk with spring break around the corner:

Charlotte Motor Speedway will once again be the 1.5-mile NASCAR version of a laboratory as officials announced the details of an updated aerodynamic package to be used in the 85-lap test case otherwise known as the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.

NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell and Speedway Motorsports, Inc., president Marcus Smith unveiled the particulars for this year’s non-points exhibition race Wednesday evening on the Fox Sports program “RaceHub.”

On the technical side, the updates consist of a radiator duct that will direct air flow from the engine compartment out through the hood and a one-piece splitter/radiator pan made of carbon fiber.

The purpose of the first is to address aero issues while also helping reduce engine temperatures; the purpose of the second is to provide help in the area of ride height sensitivity.

The ’19 race will be five laps longer than the ’18 version, and will consist of four stages of 30, 20, 20 and 15 laps.

The race winner will collect $1 million.

Changes to the aerodynamic package first put into play in the ’18 all-star race became the basis for the current ’19 aero package. Should these changes produce the desired effect, it’s likely a version of the package will be incorporated into the rules platform for the Generation 7 car scheduled for a 2021 rollout.

While a restrictor plate was used in the ’18 race, tapered spacers became part of the ’19 package. Both devices restrict air flow into the engine.

“Last year’s all-star rules package resulted in one of the most exciting all-star races in history,” O’Donnell said in a news release. “With a similar package and added elements that we could see in the next generation race car, we expect another must-watch event.”

Qualifying for the all-star race is scheduled for Friday, May 17.

Three segment winners from Saturday’s 50-lap Monster Energy Open (20-20-10 laps) will advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance via fan vote.

Green and yellow flag laps will count in the first three stages; only green-flag laps will count in the final segment.

Drivers who have already earned a berth in the All-Star race (as a 2018-19 race winner, previous All-Star Race winner or former series champion): Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford), Ryan Blaney (Team Penske No. 12 Ford), Clint Bowyer (SHR No. 14 Ford), Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet), Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet), Denny Hamlin (JGR No. 11 Toyota), Kevin Harvick (SHR No. 4 Ford), Jimmie Johnson (HMS No. 48 Chevrolet), Erik Jones (JGR No. 20 Toyota), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford), Joey Logano (Team Penske No. 22 Ford), Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford) and Martin Truex Jr. (JGR No. 19 Toyota).

Talk of the need for more short tracks (and road courses) sent some folks to the archives …

Modern Era (1972-): The high-water mark for short tracks during the modern era came began in 1973 and ran through ’84 when there were 10 short-track races at five venues each year.

In ’73, the 10 races were part of a 28-race schedule; the tracks hosting two Cup races each season were Bristol, North Wilkesboro, Martinsville, Richmond and Nashville.

In ’85, the number of short-track races fell to eight when Nashville came off the schedule.

By ’97 the number had dropped to six, where it remains today, when North Wilkesboro was no longer hosting Cup races.

Prior to 1972, the number of short-track races fluctuated. In 1964 when the schedule consisted of 62 races, 48 were contested on tracks less than 1 mile in length.

As far as adding short tracks going forward, until the current five-year sanctioning agreements end (after 2020) there won’t be any changes in venues.

An off week means Christopher Bell might go more than seven days without being asked when he will exit the Xfinity Series for Cup competition. It’s been one of this year’s early storylines and it’s a legitimate item of interest since the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has the tools and the talent to compete at the Cup level.

He has 10 wins in the Xfinity Series, including two this season.

“That’s not really for me to decide,” Bell said at Bristol, where he pocketed a $100,000 bonus for winning the first of this season’s Dash 4 Cash events. “I just wait until they tell me where I’m landing.”

JGR fields four Cup teams with drivers Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. It also fields Xfinity series entries for Bell, Brandon Jones and a third for various drivers.

Exactly where Bell, 23, might land in a move to Cup isn’t known. Besides JGR’s four Cup entries, Toyota is also aligned with Leavine Family Racing.

Two other organizations field Toyotas but are not competing fulltime – Gaunt Brothers Racing and Motorsports Business Management.

JGR owner Joe Gibbs has said that Bell “has a place with us long-term,” as does Jones.

“That’s our goal; that’s what we’ll keep working on,” said Gibbs.

Bell said he hopes to continue to race outside of NASCAR when the opportunity allows. Even before he won the Bristol bonus, he said the six-figure windfall could become seed money for his own racing efforts.

“I think my ultimate dream, short term, is to have a sprint car for me to go race whenever I can … and then long-term I’d like to have a team that maybe runs the World of Outlaws or maybe just has a true outlaw schedule,” he said.

Could he focus just on NASCAR? Sure. Just don’t ask him to. He’s been racing some sort of open-wheel machine since he was six years old.

“It would be very, very difficult,” Bell said. “It’s been my life.”

Bell isn’t eligible for round No. 3 of the Dash 4 Cash bonus after finishing 16th last weekend at Richmond. Cole Custer, Austin Cindric, Justin Allgaier and Tyler Reddick will be competing for the bonus when the program resumes at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway April 27.

In case you were wondering: Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson ran his first marathon Monday, completing the Boston Marathon in 3 hr., 9 min. 7 sec.

Johnson began his NASCAR Cup career in 2001 and since that time, there hasn’t been one Cup points race that lasted exactly 3:09.07.

A couple have been close.

Coming in just six seconds shy was the 2009 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3:09.01). Mark Martin was the race winner and Johnson finished fourth.

The time of race for the 2004 Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a shade longer – 3:09.15. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race; Johnson finished fourth, again.

There was also the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 at Richmond Raceway (Sept. 8, 2001), a race that lasted 3:09.11. But Johnson made only three starts that season, and Richmond wasn’t one of the three.


Sweeping changes for NASCAR schedule

A change in the championship venue, a two-fer weekend at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, and big moves for the playoff races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series highlight sweeping changes announced by officials with the sanctioning body on Tuesday.

The 23 venues are the same – those might or might not change next year with the end of the five-year contracts between NASCAR and the individual race tracks. But the order in which they fall on the schedule has undergone a major shift.

The 2020 title-determining race, dubbed the Championship 4, previously contested at Homestead-Miami Speedway will now be held at the newly renovated ISM Raceway in Avondale, Ariz.

The date of the event, Nov. 8, is also a change with the season officially ending a week earlier.

The Arizona facility, one of 12 NASCAR-sanctioned tracks owned by International Speedway Corp., recently underwent a $172 million renovation.

Homestead will host its lone Cup race March 22.

Cut-off races for the 16-team, 10-race playoffs have also shifted –Darlington will now open the playoffs on Sept. 6 while Bristol’s night race moves to Sept. 19 for the final race of the opening round. Charlotte Motor Speedway will now host the final race of the Round of Eight on its Roval (Oct. 11); and the final race of the third round will now be at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Nov. 1.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said that “fans and the industry as a whole have been vocal about the desire for sweeping changes … and the 2020 slate is a reflection of our efforts to execute against that feedback.”

Meanwhile, Pocono Raceway will hold both of its annual MENCS races on the same weekend – Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28. The 2.5-mile venue has typically had about a five-week window in between its two Cup events.

Other notable movement in the schedule will include:

Daytona will continue to host the season-opening Daytona 500, but the second race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, held in conjunction with the July 4th holiday weekend since 1959, will move to Saturday, Aug. 29 and serve as the final regular-season event.

Atlanta Motor Speedway gets a later date and potential weather break with a move to March 15; Martinsville’s first Cup race will be held on Saturday, May 9, the day before Mother’s Day, and will be contested under the lights; Indianapolis Motor Speedway replaces Daytona as the July 4th holiday weekend race.

The 2020 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Schedule:

Sunday, Feb. 9 – The Clash (Daytona)

Thur., Feb. 13 – Duel at Daytona

Sun., Feb. 16 – Daytona International Speedway

Sun., Feb. 23 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sun., March 1 – Auto Club Speedway

Sun., March 8 – ISM Raceway

Sun., March 15 – Atlanta Motor Speedway

Sun., March 22 – Homestead-Miami Speedway

Sun., March 29 – Texas Motor Speedway

Sun., April 5 – Bristol Motor Speedway

Sun., April 19 – Richmond Raceway

Sun., April 26 – Talladega Superspeedway

Sun., May 3 – Dover International Speedway

Sat., May 9 – Martinsville Speedway

Sat., May 16 – All-Star Race, Charlotte Motor Speedway

Sun., May 24 – Charlotte Motor Speedway

Sun., May 31 – Kansas Speedway

Sun., June 7 – Michigan International Speedway

Sun., June 14 – Sonoma Raceway

Sun., June 21 – Chicagoland Speedway

Sat., June 27 – Pocono Raceway

Sun., June 28 – Pocono Raceway

Sun., July 5 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Sat., July 11 – Kentucky Speedway

Sun., July 19 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Sun., Aug. 9 – Michigan International Speedway

Sun., Aug. 16 – Watkins Glen International

Sun., Aug. 23 – Dover International Speedway

Sat., Aug. 29 – Daytona International Speedway

PLAYOFFS

Opening Round

Sun., Sept. 6 – Darlington Raceway

Sat., Sept. 12 – Richmond Raceway

Sat., Sept. 19 – Bristol Motor Speedway

Second Round

Sun., Sept. 27 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Sun., Oct. 4 – Talladega Superspeedway

Sun., Oct. 11 – Charlotte Motor Speedway

Third Round

Sun., Oct. 18 – Kansas Speedway

Sun., Oct. 25 – Texas Motor Speedway

Sun., Nov. 1 – Martinsville Speedway

CHAMPIONSHIP

Sun., Nov. 8 – ISM Raceway