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?

News Analysis: Breaking down 2018 NASCAR Cup schedule

NASCAR unveiled the 2018 schedule on Wednesday, and it comes with bigger changes than fans may be used to with such announcements.

Here are the highlights, a grade for each move and some analysis. (Note: I haven’t seen the “spin” or the explanation for any of these moves yet, so maybe I’m missing a key point or argument on some of them).

MOVE: Richmond will be second race of playoffs after serving as the regular season cutoff race for the entire Chase/Playoff Era.

GRADE: B.

COMMENT: This one is a mixed bag. Richmond is one of my favorite tracks, but I’m worried it won’t be the typical short track race because drivers will be in points-racing mode and will not want to risk anything by pushing too hard. However, I like that it’s a Saturday night race because it avoids a conflict with the NFL after the season has started.

MOVE: The Brickyard 400 moves to the last race before the playoffs instead of its traditional July date.

GRADE: C.

COMMENT: Even though the racing at Indianapolis stinks for the most part, there’s still enough prestige associated with the Brickyard 400 to have that race stand on its own. Now there will be a mix of storylines: Both the Brickyard champion and the playoff field getting finalized. The race winner will be kissing the bricks while the other 15 playoff drivers stand around waiting for their group photo. And really, who is going to care who wins the Brickyard when the moment is all about the last driver getting a spot in the field? However, the major upside to this move is September in Indianapolis shouldn’t be nearly as hot as July. The local fans are definitely going to benefit from that.

MOVE: Second Las Vegas race starts the playoffs.

GRADE: A-

COMMENT: If NASCAR was going to lose Chicago as a big-market opener for the playoffs, at least Las Vegas is a suitable replacement. That will be a great place for everyone to get pumped about the playoffs starting. The only downside is it’s still pretty hot in Vegas at that time of year. And it’s going to be a Sunday day race, so…yeah. Bring a seat cushion, because your butt (along with the rest of you) is going to be quite warm. But overall, that should make for a fun weekend.

MOVE(S): Charlotte playoff race switches to the roval; Charlotte becomes Round 1 elimination race.

GRADES: A / A-

COMMENT 1: There are two parts to this, so they have to be graded separately. First of all, everyone finally gets the road course in the playoffs they’ve been asking for! But is it the right one? I’m going with “beggars can’t be choosers” on this and giving it a thumbs up. I have no idea how Cup cars are going to look on a roval (a “roval” means it uses part of the infield road course and part of the oval like in the Rolex 24 at Daytona), but I imagine they’ll get strung out much more than at a true road course. That’s OK, though — progress! Plus, the roval is practically guaranteed to be more interesting than a 500-mile intermediate track race anyway.

COMMENT 2: As for the elimination race element of it…whoa. That’s kind of crazy! It’s going to be quite a big wild card (you know how road courses can be) — although with the new playoff points system in place, the heavy hitters should be able to survive one bad race if something fluky happens. Still, chaos on a late restart at this race might take someone out — not unlike how Talladega used to be at the end of Round 2.

MOVE: Chicagoland gets bumped out of playoffs, moved to July.

GRADE: D for Chicago fans, B for everyone else.

COMMENT: I hate this for Chicago-area race fans and for the nice people at the track, because they just went from a pleasant-weather fall playoff race to a hot July 1 Sunday day race that means nothing. It’s now just another intermediate track race in the middle of the season. I guess since it opens NBC’s portion of the schedule, there will still be some hype associated with it (and NBC can go for bigger ratings on a Sunday afternoon than opening their season on a Saturday night). And putting Chicago in this spot allowed NASCAR to take a swing at some other big moves. But overall, it seems like a blow to the track.

MOVE: Dover opens Round 2 of playoffs instead of being Round 1 elimination; Dover moves from June to May.

GRADE: A.

COMMENT: That’s fine. The Dover playoff race has typically been blah (remember last year?), so if this shakes up the racing a bit by changing what is on the line, I’m down. And the track has seemed to move from May to June whenever the calendar dictates an extra off week (there must be a certain number of races to fit with Memorial Day and Labor Day, etc.), so no problems here.

MOVE: Final six playoff races remain the same.

GRADE: A.

COMMENT: I’m glad Homestead is still the championship race, because that’s such a great track to end the season. And I’m glad Talladega still isn’t an elimination race (it was already moved from that spot starting this year), because that was too wacky. Overall, everyone seems pretty comfortable with the last six races at that time of year, because there’s only so much NASCAR can do with the weather. So no issues here, except Texas should shave off 100 miles (hi, Eddie!).

MOVE: June off-week returns, Easter and August off-weeks stay.

GRADE: A+.

COMMENT: Fans freaking HATE when people who work in NASCAR complain about how long the schedule is, and that’s fair. Drivers and crew members and media chose this profession and knew what to expect, right? But breaks are really nice when they are available — they keep people fresh — and I’m glad NASCAR kept them instead of trying to squeeze in a race on every weekend to somehow shorten the season.

——

OVERALL 2018 SCHEDULE GRADE: B.

COMMENT: I feel mostly positive about NASCAR’s schedule changes. Would it be better to have new venues, move the All-Star Race, add more short-track races and road courses? Yes, of course. But in terms of reasonable requests, working with the current lineup of tracks, there’s a lot to like here — particularly with the playoff changes (different tracks, road course, new races in first two rounds).

News Analysis: Regan Smith to replace Aric Almirola

What happened: “Super Sub” Regan Smith has been summoned for duty once again, this time to replace Aric Almirola in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car for the Monster Energy Open race prior to Saturday night’s All-Star event. Smith, 33, has subbed for Hendrick Motorsports (No. 88 car), Stewart-Haas Racing (No. 14 car, No. 41 car) and Chip Ganassi Racing (No. 42 car) since 2012. He has been racing in the Camping World Truck Series this year, where he is 10th in points.

What it means: At least we know who will be in the No. 43 car for now, although it remains unclear how long Almirola will be out with his fractured vertebra from the Kansas crash. Almirola will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway for a news conference Friday to “provide an update on his injury and his recovery plan,” RPM said.

News value (scale of 1-10): Only a 3, because this is just one piece of the news. There’s still much to find out about Almirola’s prognosis, how he’s feeling now and how many additional races he could miss.

Questions: Is Smith a lock to replace Almirola until the regular driver is ready to return? How much input did sponsor Smithfield have for who RPM was going to put in the seat? Can Almirola get back by Daytona, where he’s won before, and go for a longshot playoff berth?

Midseason changes harm a sport’s credibility

The email subject from this morning seemed like a very late April Fools’ joke at first: “NASCAR Adds Fourth Stage to Coca-Cola 600.”

Oh no.

Look, I get what NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway are trying to do here. The 600 is a long race, and dividing it into four 100-lap stages will break it up and make it more entertaining. Last year’s 600 was brutal — with 131 straight green-flag laps at one point — and people hated the race.

And the stages have added a lot to the racing this year, so an extra stage is fine. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if all races had four stages next year.

But…ughhhhhh.

What NASCAR fails to understand (or at least value highly enough) is how bad it looks to change rules in the middle of a season. These are the type of temptations a sanctioning body should avoid, because they harm credibility — and that’s very difficult to earn back.

Personally, I’m still affected by the worst decision of all time — adding a 13th driver to a 12-driver playoff in 2013. NASCAR changed forever for me that day, and I can honestly say I’ve never looked at NASCAR as a sport quite the same after that.

The Coke 600 decision isn’t on that level, but the concept is similar: A short-term play could have a long-lasting impact on people who are desperately clinging to the notion NASCAR is more of a sport than sports entertainment.

Yes, the “pure sport” aspect has been gone for awhile now — I get that — but it’s painful to see NASCAR toss aside more of its credibility.

That’s what makes this the wrong move.

NASCAR announced stage lengths for every race on Feb. 16. It said each race would have the same amount of stage points and playoff points, except for the Daytona 500 (which had 10 more stage points — but not playoff points — thanks to the Duels).

Now — less than two weeks before the 600 — NASCAR has suddenly decided a certain race is worth more stage points than other races. And it’s worth more playoff points than any other race.

Think about that: Drivers can earn more playoff points in the Coke 600 than they can in the Daytona 500.

That’s very troubling for purposes of consistency. All races should pay the same amount of points. And if they don’t, NASCAR should announce that at the start of the season — not 13 days before the race.

It’s really disappointing NASCAR decided to do this. Want to add a fourth stage to one race for entertainment purposes? Then at least do it before the season. Announce it, let people digest it and come to terms with it.

But by doing it now, NASCAR misjudged what’s more valuable: One night at Charlotte or its credibility as a sanctioning body.

News Analysis: Joey Logano’s win at Richmond ruled encumbered

What happened: NASCAR discovered a major infraction on Joey Logano’s  winning car during post-Richmond inspection at its Research and Development Center, resulting in a huge penalty for the No. 22 team. Logano’s victory was ruled “encumbered,” which means he cannot use it to qualify for the NASCAR playoffs this fall, nor does he get the five playoff points for it. In addition, Logano was docked 25 regular season points and crew chief Todd Gordon was suspended for two races and fined $50,000.

What it means: This is the first time since the “encumbered” term entered the NASCAR lingo last fall that it’s really had playoff implications. This will be a key moment if Logano somehow misses the playoffs (unlikely) or turns out to need those five playoff points sometime this fall (more likely). Logano still gets the trophy and is the official winner of the race, just without the playoff benefits.

News value (scale of 1-10): Eight. This is pretty big, but you know what would be bigger? If NASCAR did the right thing and actually stripped the win entirely. Why should an illegal car still be allowed to keep the win? I’ll never truly understand that.

Questions: How much longer can NASCAR refuse to take the win away, especially when the race winner’s car is illegal enough for this severe of penalty? Is there any chance Logano’s championship hopes will be affected by this, or will he just shrug it off? Did NASCAR officials find this by chance, or were they looking for it?

This is a screenshot from the NASCAR rulebook. NASCAR said Logano’s team violated No. 6 on the list above. (From NASCAR rulebook)

Initial thoughts on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement decision

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has decided to retire after this season, as announced Tuesday morning by Hendrick Motorsports.

The news just broke, so I’m still collecting my thoughts, but here are some early reactions:

— We all knew Earnhardt would stop probably racing within the next few years, but it’s still really jarring now that the news is real. To see the words “Dale Earnhardt Jr.” and “retiring” sort of leaves a pit in the feeling of your stomach, because it’s really the end of an era. When you take into account that a very large percentage of NASCAR fans are part of Junior Nation, there will be many people who feel lost, saddened and unsure of where this leaves them now. The positive for them is they’ll have 28 more races to watch their favorite driver and prepare to say goodbye instead of just dealing with a sudden departure.

— In February of last year, I tagged along with Dale Jr. for a day to visit one of his car dealerships in Florida. The conversation turned to how much longer he might want to race (this was before the concussion) and something he said has stuck with me.

“I’m in great cars,” he said then. “How long will I have great cars? When I’m not in great cars anymore, driving cars might not be fun. I’ve saved my money, so I don’t have to be doing this. But I love it, because I’ve got great cars.”

We’ll find out more about his reasons during a retirement news conference later today, but he doesn’t seem to be having as much fun this year. His team isn’t running well or getting good finishes and he’s already in a big hole for making the playoffs — and it’s still only April.

It makes sense that would ask himself: Do I really want to do this all of this year and next year if I’m not going to be running up front and winning?

I don’t have any insight into his reasoning, but I’m guessing that played some sort of role.

— One driver does not make a sport. But Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt made up a trifecta of star power — with Earnhardt being arguably the biggest star NASCAR has ever had — that transcended racing and could reach across the lines of sports and pop culture.

No, NASCAR isn’t going to die just because Earnhardt is leaving — nor will it be on life support. But NASCAR is sick, and it’s serious.

After Gordon left, there was unquestionably an impact on NASCAR attendance, TV ratings and interest. Some fans followed him throughout his career and were putting up with things they didn’t like about NASCAR just because they wanted to still watch their favorite driver. Once he was gone, they stopped watching and attending.

The same will happen with Earnhardt, but perhaps on a larger scale. That’s not good for a sport that’s already been struggling.

Thanks to the TV deal where FOX and NBC overpaid by billions, NASCAR (and the tracks, which get TV money) will be stable financially for awhile. But these next five or so years will be absolutely crucial in the sport’s history, because now is the time where NASCAR either builds new superstars or continues to trend downward.

Look, Earnhardt wasn’t going to be around for much longer regardless of whether it was this year or a couple years, so the time was coming when NASCAR would have to figure out how to exist without leaning on him. As it turns out, that time is starting in 2018.

— It’s a relief to know that Earnhardt will (hopefully) be leaving the sport by his own choice — not one made by doctors.

During that interview last year in Florida, he said: “The one thing I’m scared of is you’re physically injured and it just ends. It’s jerked out from under you. You don’t want that. You want it to be on your terms. Like, ‘Alright man, I think I’m done.’ You get months to mentally absorb it. If it’s thrown right there in your lap and it’s like it’s over, that’d be so emotional.”

When he suffered the concussion last summer that made him miss half the season, it seemed like a very real possibility he might not be able to race again — and that the end of his career wouldn’t be on his terms.

Now, as long as he stays healthy for the remainder of the season, Earnhardt will be able to climb out of the car in the way he wants. All the hard work it took for him to come back in the first place has to be more than worth it for him in that regard.

— Oh, so what about his replacement? The logical choice would be Alex Bowman, because he’s already worked with the 88 team and done well there (he almost won Phoenix, remember?). Bowman at least deserves a shot, and future star William Byron wouldn’t be hurt by spending another year in the Xfinity Series anyway.

But at the same time, I’m sure there are MANY drivers outside Hendrick Motorsports who would literally give up their pinkie toe for a chance to drive the 88 car, so perhaps it’s not so obvious.

— On a personal and professional level, I’m really going to miss covering Earnhardt. There’s something about his combination of candor, wit and humility that makes him the best interview in sports (at least that I’ve seen), and you really can’t replace a guy like that.

Dale Jr. is a normal dude trapped in a superstar’s life, and his fans identify with him because he acts and talks like they would if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Over the years, I’ve found Earnhardt to be respectful and genuine and someone who doesn’t try to hide behind corporate speak. There’s nothing fake about him, and people seem to connect with that. There’s a very sincere quality there, which is something you don’t find all that often with people of Earnhardt’s celebrity status.

The people who claimed Earnhardt was popular because of his last name have always missed the point. While the name may have led to his initial opportunity in the sport, he was able to cultivate an ever-growing fan base and keep it over time because of the person he is — not his name.

News Analysis: Circle K to sponsor Matt Kenseth for six races

What happened: Convenience store Circle K will be the primary sponsor of Matt Kenseth’s No. 20 car for six races this season, beginning with Richmond International Raceway next week.

What it means: Word of an unspecified announcement had prompted speculation that Kenseth, 45, was retiring. The team told reporters who asked that it was not a retirement announcement, but that didn’t prevent rumors from running wild on places like Twitter and Reddit. One blatantly fake news story making the rounds Tuesday even said Carl Edwards was coming back to replace Kenseth. The veteran driver sarcastically took a shot at people who ruined his off-weekend with the retirement talk, saying the fake news story was written by someone in their basement. Just as in politics, NASCAR fans will have to be careful and discerning about trusting news sources now that it’s easier than ever for people to create fake news.

News value (scale of 1-10): Three. It’s just a six-race sponsorship, but it’s notable that Circle K had not been a primary sponsor on a car before.

Questions: Even though this wasn’t a retirement announcement, what does the future hold for a driver who is currently the oldest full-time competitor on the circuit? Can JGR get Circle K to expand its sponsorship in the future? Will this prompt Sheetz or Wawa to become primary sponsors of a car?