Video: Toyota drivers participate in Olympic crossover event

During two days in Utah, I watched as Toyota NASCAR drivers Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — along with crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Chris Gayle — mingled with Olympic athletes and participated in various Winter Games training.

It was pretty fun, and I could tell you all about it, but I’d rather show you. So here’s a video I made about it:

12 Questions with Erik Jones

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Erik Jones of Furniture Row Racing. I spoke with Jones on Wednesday while attending a Toyota event in Utah where NASCAR drivers and Olympic athletes interacted.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

Man, it sounds bad to say, but I’d say up until last year it was 100 percent natural ability. And then once I got to the Cup Series, I think we all have natural ability at this level — everybody’s really good, so that’s where working at it really comes into play. I would say this year has probably been 60 percent natural and 40 percent working at it.

It’s definitely a big change for me. Being in Trucks and Xfinity wasn’t easy, but it definitely wasn’t as hard as the Cup Series; I felt like I could really just get a good feel for it quickly and go out and be pretty quick everywhere. At the Cup level, it’s like, OK, everybody’s pretty quick at it, everybody gets it pretty easy and so you have to be really good at all the little things that make up for it for a lot of times.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I think for me, I’m just an average 21-year-old kid. I like to have fun, I like to party and have a good time. You know, go out, work hard and do my job on the weekends and have fun during the week.

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to show that in our sport. It’s hard to really broadcast that side in the world or that side of our lives out to the sport. But I like to just hang out and play a round of golf with my buddies or hang out at the pool and do whatever we wanna do. So it’s hard to really show that personal side. I wish there was a better way or an easier way to broadcast that out.

And I think that has been changing over the last few years and I think you’ll start to see more personality from a lot of guys. You’ve really only seen Dale Jr. come out and really show a lot of personality within the last few years, so hopefully I can figure that out better and hopefully it continues to go that way in NASCAR.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Just the travel for sure. I’m kind of a homebody at heart; I like to be home, I like to be around my family, my friends. In the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series, it’s not so bad. You leave on Thursday and you’re home on Friday or Saturday night and you have Sunday off. In the Cup Series, you really only have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at home and Thursday you’re traveling again. So that’s a tough part.

All in all, compared to an everyday person going to work 9 to 5, we have it pretty good and you feel kind of guilty at times complaining about some of the things you have to do. But it really does take a toll on you traveling that much. It’s pretty rare that we get days off and get to enjoy ourselves and do what we want to do, so that’s definitely the hardest part for me.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, I don’t really have an issue with it. I guess the hardest part for me sometimes is if I’m trying to spend time with friends and family. I wouldn’t necessarily say a restaurant setting, but sometimes you really just want to chill out and relax. But I don’t really have a problem with that — as long as we’re not in the middle of a meal or anything, I don’t really have much of an issue.

It’s not like I’ve ever been bombarded at a restaurant by 10 people. Every once in a while I have somebody come up and say, “Hey, nice to meet you,” and I don’t really mind that all.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I really don’t think that people necessarily understand 100 percent of the work that goes into it from the shop side and the engineering side. I don’t think a lot of people really see how many smart people we’ve got working on these cars. The engineers we’ve got — we have at-track engineers, but we also have engineers who are just working in the shop 100 percent of the time and trying to develop new products and make our cars faster.

Obviously, we can’t share all our simulation tools and all the neat things we get to use to make our cars faster, but I wish people could see that because there’s some really, really cool stuff that I think people would be pretty intrigued by to just check out and learn more about.

Unfortunately, we can’t show every fan in the world 100 percent what’s going on in the shop. I wish I could take everybody on an in-depth tour and show them the process of how these cars are built and how they’re put together, how the bodies are put together, the wind tunnel testing we do and some of the more technical side of things would be really cool to show people.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Geez, I don’t know. Let me pull out my phone. It’s been awhile.

You’re scrolling through all these texts and no driver names are popping up.

Daniel Hemric. There we go. That was on the 12th (nine days ago). It’s been awhile. But yeah, Daniel Hemric. I hang out with him probably the most of any driver away from the racetrack. We have a pretty similar background, so we have lots to talk about usually.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, 100 percent. I started racing Late Models when I was 13, and it was the first time I’ve ever been on a racing tour. We pulled into the track one day and my first-ever crew chief said, “We’re just kind of the traveling circus. We all roll in, it’s the same guys, we unload, set up and put on a show.”

It’s no different at all at this level. I think we’re there to put on a show, to entertain the fans. That’s what we’re there to do, and I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be considered entertainers.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’d say it’s changed a lot over the years. Early on in my career I didn’t use it much and then I think I got a little too happy with it and then I had a lot of guys angry at me, so now it’s pretty rare (when) it comes out. The only times I really get frustrated now is racing with lapped cars. If there’s a lapped car you catch and he’s not giving you the lane, that’s pretty frustrating.

I had a guy early on, a race director in Late Models. Every drivers meeting, he’d say, “I don’t want to sound rude, but the lapped cars, you’re a second-class citizen today. It’s not your day. Give these guys the lane, they’re trying to race. That respect is going to come around when it’s the other way around some day.” So it’s really frustrating to me when you don’t get that respect, because it is going to come back around for him some day, and that’s probably the only time you’ll see it out of me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, it goes both ways. I’ve never really went back out necessarily and just wrecked somebody, paying them back for being wrecked, but I make their lives as hard as I possibly can. Anytime I race around them, they’re not going to get a break from me and there’s not going to be a lot of patience from me either.

But it does go the other way for me, too. If there’s a guy that lets me go early in the race if I run him down, he’s going to get that respect back — at least until 50 to go. I think that’s the time where it goes out the window a little bit, everybody’s racing hard for the position, they don’t want to give anything up.

But it definitely does go each way. Most of the time, a lot of these guys will give you that favor early in the race, and definitely you feel like you kind of owe it to them.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

Danica Patrick, I guess, probably. I haven’t really had dinner with like a celebrity of any sort, other than that. No A-listers, Hollywood or anything like that, so I’d have to say that’d be it.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

I think it really goes back to one of your first questions there about working at it, the natural ability and the work ethic of it all. It came so easy in the Truck and Xfinity level that I never really learned how to work at it and how to get better at it. I’ve had guys tell me, “You might need to work on this or that,” but I was like, “I’m winning races, why do I need to work on that?” Getting to the Cup level now, I think that’s the biggest thing that I’d like to improve, at least on the racing side, to try and get more proficient in it.

12. The last interview was with Michael McDowell. His question was: Eventually when you do retire someday, what do you think will lead into your decision to say, “I think I’ve had enough?”

That’s a deep question. I think it will go two ways, honestly: Either you’re not capable of performing anymore, you’re not competitive, you’re not running up front and contending for wins — or you just get burned out. You get burned out on the schedule.

I think a little bit of that was with Jeff Gordon. He was still competitive, he was still winning — he made it to Homestead his last year. So I think a lot of his decision was based on he has two young kids and he was done with the grind. I see either one of those two ways.

I think for me, it will probably be that I’m not competitive anymore, honestly.

The next interview is with Todd Gilliland. Do you have a question that I might be able to ask him?

I’m trying to remember back when I was 16 and racing. I would ask him how much pressure he feels to perform, or how much pressure does he put on himself to perform well to try and get that break at the next big level.

Does he feel like there’s a lot of pressure on him, or does he feel like he just puts that pressure on himself? Because I felt like when I was his age, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get those big wins that were going to put me on the map. So I would ask him if he’s feeling that same kind of thing.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Lesson learned

Remember two weeks ago at Dover, when FOX foreshadowed Kyle Larson screwing up his chance to win on a late-race restart before losing to Jimmie Johnson? Larson’s lack of closing ability was starting to dog him to the point where his failures were becoming predictable late in the race. And that’s the sort of thing that really messes with some drivers.

“You always kind of have in the back of your mind all the races you lost on restarts,” Larson said Sunday.

Fortunately for Larson, he was able to close out a race when he needed to — and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of his confidence. If Larson has learned from those situations and has now adapted to the point where the can convert those opportunities to wins, then the rest of the field should be pretty nervous.

Larson is a title contender, no doubt. However, there remains plenty of room for him to improve before the fall. He’s won three races in a row on the 2-mile ovals — August Michigan 2016, Fontana 2017 and Sunday at Michigan again — but those are his only three career wins.

Given his talent level, Larson can and should expect more. The next item on the agenda is to win on a smaller oval to start building momentum for the playoffs.

2. Fountain of Youth

NASCAR now has had young drivers win three of the last four races, with Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney winning for the first time and Larson winning for the third. In addition, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first win was only five weeks ago.

It’s been an exciting time for NASCAR to have such a surge of energy and enthusiasm from its victory lane winners, and now the sport just needs these fresh faces to keep winning. Victories by Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and perhaps Daniel Suarez all seem possible in the next couple months.

And that’s the best thing NASCAR can hope for right now. No matter who the driver is, the same face in victory lane always seems to get old quickly. It’s the whole sense of, “Ugh, that guy again.”

It’s not that fans don’t like greatness, but any form of racing is the most fun when you have no idea who is going to win. That’s been the case lately, and it’s helped build a relatively positive vibe as the midseason lull in the schedule approaches.

3. Delete debris

Debris cautions remain one of NASCAR’s great frustrations for both fans and drivers. Officials would do themselves a favor by really making this a priority before the playoffs begin in a few months.

Late-race cautions of any kind can dramatically alter the race, as was the case at Michigan when a caution came out with 20 laps to go. The official reason was “Debris Frontstretch,” although it was never shown to viewers (at least that I saw).

After the debris caution, there were two more cautions for crashes involving a total of six cars — three of them under the Stewart-Haas Racing banner. So it’s no wonder team owner Tony Stewart was frustrated by the initial caution.

“It’s a shame that so many drivers and teams day (sic) was ruined by the results of another ‘debris’ caution towards the end of the race today,” he tweeted.


“Debris” was in quotes, which isn’t much of a hidden message. But is he wrong? If NASCAR isn’t more transparent about why it calls debris cautions, these questions will persist.

Officials have said in the past they can’t always show the debris because sometimes a driver has either hit it or it moved after it was initially spotted. With all the technology available today, though, you’d think it would be in NASCAR’s best interest to make sure it works with FOX or NBC to show what its officials are apparently seeing — or at least tell the viewers what the debris was. And if the TV cameras are unable to find it, was the debris really worth a caution?

That leads to another point: NASCAR continues to need to get more consistent on why it calls for these yellows. There was a debris caution for a plastic bag on the track on lap 7 — but not one for a cowboy hat on the track later in the race. And was the final debris caution worth it? We don’t know.

Until this is resolved, fans and drivers will continue to take a cynical view of how NASCAR calls a race — which is most likely a disservice to the officials who really are trying to be fair.

4. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to be OK

Through 15 races, the dominant team of the last two seasons has yet to reach victory lane. That seemed crazy after five races, let alone 10 and now 15. Heck, there are only 11 races left until the playoffs start.

But the Joe Gibbs Racing cars are clearly improved from their early-season struggles, so we shouldn’t wait until one wins to declare the team is “back.”

Just look at Kyle Busch. The increasingly frustrated driver has led at least 19 laps in each of the last six races (and 40 or more in five of those), where he only reached double digits in laps led during three of the first nine events.

Similarly, Denny Hamlin has finished 12th or better in seven of the last eight races — but did that in only two of the first seven events.

So the JGR cars are qualifying better, running closer to the front and generally showing up with better performances. Yeah, the team might still have some gains to make, but let’s not pretend it’s as far off as it was a few months ago.

5. Apps are amazing

I watched the Michigan race with a group of NASCAR fans in the Portland area, and three people were using NASCAR RaceView on their phones to follow the race. Two were listening to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s audio and watching his progress and another was doing the same for Kasey Kahne.

Each of them knew when a caution was out before it aired on TV and they were generally more informed about the progress of the race than anyone else — even those of us scrolling through Twitter.

Forgive my ignorance, but these apps must have apparently come a long way in the last couple years. I used to occasionally use Sprint Cup Mobile when I wasn’t at the track, but the radio chatter was so far behind the actual race that I gave up after while. Apparently I need to try again because these days, the apps seem to have made enough progress to really be relied upon as a second screen.

Of course, this gives people another reason to not watch the actual race on TV — they can go anywhere and use these apps if needed, just like Twitter — but as long as they’re still engaged in the sport, perhaps that’s what matters to NASCAR.

Post-Michigan Podcast with Portland-area NASCAR fans

For this week’s post-race podcast, I was joined by several of the race fans who watched the Michigan race with me at a local sports bar near my new home in Oregon. The fans gave their impressions of the Michigan race and also gave their picks for the championship favorite at this point of the season.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Michigan

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission. Disclosure No. 2: I might be America’s worst daily fantasy player.

Last race’s results: Didn’t play last week.

Season results: $26 wagered, $17 won in 10 contests.

This week’s contest: $4 Brake Pad single entry game.

Michigan picks:

Kyle Larson ($10,200). Taking the polesitter and the most expensive driver seems like a bad idea, but I’m counting on Larson to be the hammer and control the race. After all, he’s won the last two races at the big 2-mile tracks (Michigan and Fontana) and his confidence isn’t higher anywhere else.

Martin Truex Jr. ($10,000). Like Larson, not much of ceiling for a guy starting second. But I’m banking on Truex leading a lot of laps at some point during the race and having the points add up that way. Yes, there are fewer available laps to lead at Michigan than other tracks, but those points can still add up if a driver dominates (which has been the case at times in recent Michigan races).

Jamie McMurray ($8,200). This seems like a steal at the price, because the Chip Ganassi Racing cars are both looking quite strong at Michigan. McMurray qualified eighth, so there’s not a huge upside for positions differential — but he could still end up in the top three by the end.

Erik Jones ($8,000). I’ve picked Jones a lot this year, but it seems like another tempting opportunity this time. He qualified 14th with one of the best cars there, has extra motivation racing at his home track and is coming off his career-best finish last week at Pocono (third). All that adds up to a great bargain for the price.

Daniel Suarez ($7,500). For a moderate price, you get a rookie who has finished on the lead lap of six straight Cup races. Suarez takes care of his equipment, which is reason for optimism he can use a fast car to make some nice gains from his 20th starting position as Joe Gibbs Racing continues to show improvement.

Ty Dillon ($6,100). After having his qualifying time disallowed, Dillon starts 37th. Even if he only finishes in the 20s, that’s still a lot of positions to be gained.

Movie Review: Cars 3

Cindy The Intern is an 18-year-old college student in Southern California who has been helping out with JeffGluck.com for the past couple months. She went to one of the first showings of Cars 3 and filed this review.

By Cindy The Intern

I was so excited for Cars 3, I couldn’t wait until opening day to go see it in theaters. So I bought a ticket for the 7 p.m. showing on Thursday night — and the $15 was so worth it.

As a NASCAR fan and kid at heart, Cars 3 was simply spectacular. I would highly recommend bringing your entire family to the theater to enjoy this masterpiece — particularly if you love racing.

For those unfamiliar with the Cars series, the first movie in 2006 introduced us to Lightning McQueen, an egotistical rookie racer who found himself in the small town of Radiator Springs after falling out of his hauler. In Radiator Springs, he met his future best friend Mater the tow truck, his girlfriend Sally and the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, who became his mentor.

The sequel, Cars 2, focused on Mater’s spy mission of protecting Lightning and some other racers from an evil fuel company as they competed around the world to see who was the best racer (think Formula 1, NASCAR and IndyCar drivers in the same race). Cars 2 was disliked by a lot of fans due to a confusing plot and its marketing ploy to sell more Mater toys.

Cars 3 takes place about 10 years after the first movie. Lightning and his buddies are getting beaten by newer, faster cars that are coming to the racing scene. After Lightning gets into an accident (that’s not a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer), he has one more chance to prove himself as a winner — or else face retirement. To attempt his comeback, Lightning enlists the help of a trainer, Cruz Ramirez, in order to beat his newer rival, Jackson Storm.

The tone of Cars 3 is similar to that of the original Cars movie, which is a change I’m sure many moviegoers will be happy about. Despite the seriousness, there are still many funny moments including Mater’s presence at the races and the training montages with Cruz . There are also some jokes that will fly over kids’ heads, so don’t worry about the humor being just for children.

But the best part for NASCAR fans is how much the movie is geared toward stock car racing. In the film, Lightning visits many tracks — from Daytona and Bristol to a dirt track to an abandoned raceway. Lightning even insists on training on the beach, a great throwback to the Daytona Beach races back in the day. Pixar did a marvelous job rendering these racetracks, and I’m not embarrassed to say I might have cried when some of these tracks were introduced.

In addition, the introduction of newer characters based on Junior Johnson, Wendell Scott, Smokey Yunick and Louise Smith is something a lot of race fans will appreciate and enjoy. Of course, the NASCAR on FOX team and some up-and-coming drivers (Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace) also had roles in the movie — and even though they had a single-digit number of lines, the advertising done between NASCAR and Cars 3 will hopefully draw new younger fans in.

Overall, Cars 3 is a great movie. I had the biggest smile on my face from the minute the movie was over until the time I got home, because I was so happy about how Pixar decided to complete Lightning’s story. I am not ashamed to tell you I will probably go see Cars 3 in the theater again.

You can follow Cindy The Intern on Twitter at @nascarmeli.

 

News Analysis: Jimmie Johnson signs contract extension

What happened: Jimmie Johnson is not ready to join the exodus of star drivers and drive off into the sunset just yet. The seven-time champion, whose contract was set to expire at the end of the season, has signed a three-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports that would keep him in the No. 48 car through 2020. In addition, Hendrick announced Lowe’s will return for 38 races next season.

What it means: If Johnson had chosen to walk away after this season, it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. He turns 42 in September and has won far more money and trophies than he could have ever dreamed. But he’s still competitive and has a desire to race, so the idea of driving until age 45 — the age Matt Kenseth is now — seems fine to him. Heck, he might even race beyond that point. Johnson is obviously in outstanding shape and his performance isn’t dropping off (he’s already won three times this season). So as long as he’s enjoying himself and can maintain the work-life balance between NASCAR and raising his two young daughters, why not keep racing?

News value (scale of 1-10): Let’s go with a 6 here. The news in this case is really that Johnson has no plans to retire anytime soon. We’ve been so used to NASCAR’s big names calling it quits lately — between Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — that one of them opting to stick around for awhile seems to buck the trend.

Questions: In addition to the seven titles, Johnson has 83 wins; how many more can he get in the next three-plus seasons? Will crew chief Chad Knaus (whose contract runs through the end of next season) stick with Johnson for the duration? How will this affect Hendrick’s driver development plan?