Talladega Superspeedway is known for the Big One. But as the track prepares for the final restrictor plate race in its 30-year history it feels like the equivalent of a NASCAR earthquake has already happened.
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus shocked NASCAR Nation this week by announcing they’ll split effective the end of the 2018 season. In over 17 years together, the duo has produced seven championships, over 80 race victories and an unprecedented run of success in the sport’s modern era. Knaus is the only full-time crew chief Johnson has ever had on the Cup level.
Both men emphasized this week their friendship is still intact. A Thursday press conference instead focused on the need for new challenges in each of their lives. Knaus will move on to crew chief the legendary No. 24 car at HMS, now driven by rookie William Byron, while Johnson will get Elliott Sadler’s crew chief Kevin Meendering. Meendering has exactly zero races of Cup experience at the crew chief level.
On the surface, their motives seem pure. It’s true both men now have an opportunity to rewrite the way history perceives them. Knaus has a chance to chase crew chief Dale Inman’s record of eight NASCAR Cup championships with two different drivers. Byron also has a decade-plus of racing ahead of him, giving Knaus more time to rack up wins and titles if he wants life on the road to continue that long.
For Johnson, it’s a chance to show Knaus’ brilliance isn’t the only reason he’s successful. Winning a title next season with a rookie crew chief would be the exclamation point on a resume that’s one of the best in NASCAR history. Seeking a new sponsor, the 43-year-old is only signed through 2020 and may be entering his final two full-time seasons in the sport.
We’ll never really know what the real reasons are behind the split. The Knaus-Johnson dynamic was always unique; the next-oldest crew chief pairing, Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe, have been together less than half the time (2011). Burnout is high with a NASCAR schedule (40-plus weeks) that’s one of the most demanding in sports.
But I do wonder whether the Charlotte ROVAL was the final straw in a relationship that might have been salvaged otherwise. Johnson was two turns away from potentially his first win of 2018 before an ill-fated move on Martin Truex Jr. spun both of them out. In a flash, Johnson went from second to eighth and lost an opportunity to advance in the playoffs. Win that race, then one of his best tracks in Dover is next and maybe Lady Luck smiles differently? (Johnson broke a suspension part before the green flag last Sunday and wound up behind the wall for several laps).
Both men had previously expressed a strong desire to retire together. Perhaps there was one last argument that those infamous milk and cookies couldn’t save?
Either way, HMS enters 2019 making perhaps the biggest Silly Season move of all. Redirecting the careers of two Hall of Famers is the type of bold move that helped them rise to the level of the sport’s New York Yankees. Does owner Rick Hendrick still have the same type of personnel vision he’s always had? Can both Johnson and Knaus find a way to make this move pay off?
Suddenly, the 2019 title race just got a lot more interesting.
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Talladega Superspeedway (Lincoln, Ala.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Chase Elliott
Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. Elliott was in the right place at the right time when a series of late-race stumbles handed him the win Sunday at Dover International Speedway. First, Kevin Harvick’s pit crew gave up a dominant performance when a lugnut flew off during a green-flag pit stop and broke a valve stem. Another stop under green was needed, knocking him off the lead lap and out of contention.
That appeared to hand the race to Aric Almirola, in position to capture his first victory in four years. But teammate Clint Bowyer had a tire blow late, causing a caution that cost Almirola track position. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson chose to stay out, trapping Almirola back in the pack for the restart. Within moments, Almirola pushed too hard, causing a wreck and keeping Elliott up front, where he fought off Denny Hamlin for the victory.
Who’s at the Back: Alex Bowman
Bowman has done a yeoman’s job, advancing to the Round of 12 as perhaps the biggest underdog in the NASCAR playoffs. But after another strong effort at Dover, Bowman’s luck ran out as he plowed into the Almirola late-race wreck that wuped out several top contenders. A 28th-place finish in that race and no career NASCAR Cup victories make him a longshot now to go any further in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s former No. 88 Chevrolet.
Kasey Kahne has officially retired from NASCAR. Out for the past month with dehydration-related issues, Kahne was still trying hard to return to his ride at the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet. But doctors were unable to clear Kahne at a test last week and his 2018 season was lost. The 38-year-old ends his career with 18 Cup victories, including the 2017 Brickyard 400 and a career-best finish of fourth in the standings.
Matt DiBenedetto was officially introduced as Kahne’s replacement for 2019. The journeyman driver steps into the best ride of his career as LFR’s No. 95 also announced they’ll receive Toyota support. Currently with underfunded Go FAS Racing, DiBenedetto has four career top-10 finishes in 134 Cup starts. However, the 27-year-old remains one of the sport’s hot young talents who has also shown himself to be highly marketable and popular on Twitter.
Obaika Racing announced David Starr as their Cup Series driver for Talladega this weekend. The Texas veteran will attempt just the ninth Cup start of his career as the XFINITY Series team attempts to make their Cup debut.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Out of a possible 804 laps Kevin Harvick led at Dover this year.
Victories by Chevrolet this season after Chase Elliott triumphed at Dover. That’s the lowest total for NASCAR’s winningest manufacturer since 1982.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Wanna lose NASCAR’s Big Three? This weekend’s your chance. Talladega’s Russian Roulette style of restrictor plate racing means all drivers are created equal. Brad Keselowski would beg to differ, though as his five Talladega victories lead all active drivers. The Team Penske veteran is seeking a victory to advance to the Round of 8 automatically; his organization also won the spring race here with Joey Logano.
Ryan Blaney is a good second option here. Coming off a win two weeks ago at Charlotte, he led the most laps in February’s Daytona 500 before a late-race wreck doomed his chances.
With potential retirement looming, Jamie McMurray has nothing to lose at Chip Ganassi Racing. The 2010 Daytona 500 winner has a history of restrictor plate success and has won the fall race twice, in 2009 and 2013. If this event turns Survivor like watch out for his No. 1 to forge to the front.
Ryan Newman was leading on the last lap one year ago before losing his chance to win here. The 2008 Daytona 500 winner doesn’t have the best restrictor plate track record but might be a nice reach play in a race where a higher-than-normal group of drivers have a chance to win.
How about 2013 Talladega winner David Ragan? He was sixth in the spring race for Front Row Motorsports who pours the majority of their resources and effort into these plate races. Teammate Michael McDowell also is a sneaky pick although he wrecked out with his No. 34 Ford in the spring.
Another option is Regan Smith, using his time subbing in the No. 95 as an open audition for 2019. While the chances of him landing a full-time ride are remote, this team has the speed to contend in a restrictor plate race. Kahne was a strong performer at Daytona in July, in position to win and leading 17 laps before ultimately fading to fourth.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski has the edge with 7/1 odds followed by Chase Elliott and Joey Logano. Kyle Busch is the best of the Big Three at 10/1.
What I Think
I’ll go outside the box and say Jamie McMurray triumphs in a wild race. In a season of very predictable winners NASCAR is long overdue for a Cinderella.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.