I got tickled listening to Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane Sunday after winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 in Atlanta. After thanking crew chief Chad Knaus and his crew, he asked them, “What did you do to this thing last night?” Obviously Chad pulled out his magic wand that the crew chiefs have, waved it over Jimmie’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and that baby came alive.
Everyone got a real good indication of how strong that car was because Jimmie started 37th and by the time NASCAR threw the mandatory caution at Lap 25, the No. 48 had already moved up to 16th spot. Jimmie ended up leading the second most laps of the race: 92 of 325. It was his first win of 2015, his 71st overall and his fourth win at Atlanta. Just to show you how good he is there, Jimmie has now run 24 races there and Sunday was his 15th top-10 finish.
Jimmie looks to be back to his 2013 form. I suspected that would be the case when NASCAR announced the rules changes for 2015. They took away downforce and horsepower going into this year which made the cars more like the 2013 cars than the 2014 cars. Even though he won four races last year, we all know that Jimmie and crew chief Chad Knaus struggled with the 2014 rules package and never quite could find the consistency they are famous for.
I also don’t know the last time that we’ve had so many NASCAR Sprint Cup champions start in the back of the field in a race. Like I mentioned, Jimmie started 37th. His teammate, Jeff Gordon started 35th, Tony Stewart started 39th and Matt Kenseth started 36th. Young Joey Logano started on the pole, but I bet he just had to be wondering when all those champions in the back were going to make their way to the front.
Joey ended up leading the second most laps, with 84, before giving way to Kevin Harvick who had a great race car all day long. Kevin ended up leading the most laps Sunday totaling 116 laps and bringing his No. 4 home in second spot. It’s also interesting to note that those three — Joey, Jimmie and Kevin — are also the top three in the standings. Joey has a one-point lead over Jimmie and a two-point lead over Kevin.
Sunday also showed us something we are sick of seeing. Jeff Gordon once again found a spot where there were no SAFER barriers and took a hard hit. Naturally this is fresh on the heels of Kyle Busch being injured at Daytona in the XFINITY Series race by also hitting the wall where no SAFER barriers were placed.
This is now two weeks in a row, and it’s simply unacceptable. These tracks have got to get together, walk these tracks and identify areas that don’t have the SAFER barriers. NASCAR said Monday in the wake of Jeff’s hard hit that the SAFER barrier development is the sport’s highest priority. Additionally, NASCAR had dispatched staff members to the West Coast to work with the tracks where the circuit is headed for races this weekend at Las Vegas, then Phoenix followed by Auto Club Speedway. There’s simply no excuse for these proven safety materials to already be in place.
Of course the other big uproar from last weekend was the qualifying debacle. It was another case of the blame game. The teams blame NASCAR and NASCAR blamed the teams. The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is the premier series in stock car racing, and they simply have to get this qualifying procedure straightened out. As I said Friday in Atlanta, always remember there are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. The solution lays somewhere right smack dab in the middle. There just doesn’t seem to be any valid excuse as to why so many cars last weekend at Atlanta didn’t even get a chance to attempt a qualifying run.
Another component of qualifying that I believe has to change is drivers backing their cars out of their pit box to go out on the track. It looks like a traffic jam that could very easily be avoided. When they drop the green flag to start qualifying, let them pull out of their pit box like a normal pit stop headed nose first instead of backing out and almost running over each other. It just is silly and doesn’t look good, in my opinion.
Sunday was a great race, and part of the reason is because we got a chance to talk about some drivers who we normally don’t see up front week in and week out. Martin Truex Jr. had another great run. Yes, it’s very early in the season, but after the dismal 2014 season, Martin has had two great runs and that’s put the No. 78 bunch fifth in the points. AJ Allmendinger started 11th and finished seventh. Twenty-two-year-old Brett Moffitt, filling in for Brian Vickers in the No. 55 car, started 22nd and finished eighth in only his eighth start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. What a great accomplishment for that young man who admitted after the race that he was fighting back tears because that’s how much Sunday’s run meant to him.
I’m also happy for Casey Mears. He finished sixth in the Daytona 500 and backed that up Sunday in Atlanta with a 15th-place finish. He and his Germain Racing team now find themselves sixth in the points. He’s just another example of some of these single car teams that are making some noise up there against the mega-teams already this season.
I’m also glad to hear that Kurt Busch has signed up for NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. Kurt has agreed to the requirements set out by NASCAR that he must complete to get reinstated. There was no timetable given for Kurt’s return. If you remember, he was suspended indefinitely on Feb. 20 following a Delaware Court Commissioner’s ruling that Busch “more likely than not” committed “an act of abuse” against his former girlfriend. I’m praying for both Busch brothers. We need Kyle to heal and get back behind the wheel of his No. 18 Toyota, and hopefully Kurt can get things turned around to where he can get back behind his No. 41 Chevrolet.
Both Daytona and Atlanta were fun and exciting. Now we head out for our western swing. As I mentioned earlier, the next three weeks take us to Las Vegas, Phoenix and then Fontana. I always love going to Las Vegas. It’s another one of Bruton Smith’s tracks and they certainly know how to put on a show out there.
You definitely want to tune in Friday for NASCAR Sprint Cup qualifying on FOX Sports 1. If those cars can qualify at Atlanta last week at 194 mph on that old, worn-out surface, goodness knows how fast they will be this Friday in Las Vegas. Then when it comes to the race on Sunday, you better buckle up because it’s going to be a good one.
Come Sunday the casinos won’t be the only place you’ll see some high-stakes gambling going on. I would wager — yes, pun intended — you are going to see some teams roll the dice and try to get themselves an early-season win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They want to join Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson who have already punched their ticket into the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase.
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