Social Spotlight with Jimmie Johnson

Each week, I ask a member of the NASCAR industry to shed some light on their social media usage. This week: Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who won Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie, you are quite proficient at a number of social platforms. What is your favorite one to use?

I’m torn, but I would head towards Instagram. I’m a huge fan of photography and imagery and when it first started off, it was kind of a not-so-popular space (and had) great creativity. It certainly has morphed into something more mass; I’ve seen enough of everyone’s dinners and stuff like that to drive me crazy. But Instagram is probably my favorite.

It’s closely followed up by Strava (a workout tracker where followers can like and comment on runs or bike rides). I enjoy my physical activities and it’s amazing how knowing you’re going to post to that app and site, how it will motivate you to run faster, pedal harder, ride longer. You think of interesting names for your rides. Looking for a photo (to put with the workout). It’s a very fun way for me to stay motivated and stay connected with other athletes around the country.

That was actually one of my questions, if you considered Strava a social media network. I feel like it is, but it’s not one that people mention off the top of their heads. But you are sharing in the same way you’re sharing anything else you do.

Yeah, you really do. The numbers are much smaller on that platform. But from meeting other athletes and setting up rides or training sessions with others around the country, it’s really cool.

And then if you go on your laptop, you can designate any stretch of road as a segment and name it yourself if you want. So as you ride or run across through these areas, your device takes the time to rank you and tell you how fast you were this year and all time. If you come through the segment again, it starts to rank you against yourself.

So the way my mind works and living by the stopwatch with everything I do in my life, it’s really nice to see the progression of your rides and your fitness. And if you’re in a big group on the bike and you guys are drafting or being smart, you can post and put up big numbers, which is fun.

What’s amazing about that is it’s probably the most positive social media network because there’s nobody trolling on there. Everybody’s giving encouragement to others and it’s motivating you to do better because there’s a peer pressure factor. Even when I’m out there, I’m like, “Oh man, this is a slow mile time or a slow ride and people are going to look at my time, so I gotta go faster.” Do you know what I mean?

I totally know that aspect and it’s highly motivating from that standpoint.

But you bring up such a great point: Out of all the social platforms, I don’t think I’ve seen a negative comment or any trolling. It’s all positive. When you like somebody’s ride, you give them a little thumbs up. The comments are all very constructive and positive — so you’re right, I haven’t thought of it as being the only positive social space out there.

Let’s go back to Instagram for a minute because it’s clear you have a love for photography. Do you have photographers that work for you and then you pick the best picture of the weekend? Or are they all of your photos? How do you decide what to put on your feed?

It kind of changes from week to week. There are a lot of photos provided to the race teams over the course of the weekend that I have access to and I kind of pick some cool shots just to use. Of course, I take my own photos and do some (Instagram) Story stuff.

But over the years, I have brought in some professional photographers. In Homestead last year, I brought in Liz Kreutz to shoot and document the weekend, largely because I love photography so much. Someday I want a big book full of all the images that I can relive, and she came and shot that and took like 10,000 pictures. And then we took a few and used them on our social channels just to share the experience with others and let people see a race weekend through a different viewpoint.

This year, I started a program at Daytona where I’m going to bring in four different professional photographers and then have those four professional photographers pick four amateurs to come and shoot. So, we’ll have at least eight opportunities for me to collect imagery. Then, we’ll use them through our social platforms. Lyle Owerko was our photographer at Daytona, and then the famous Danny Clinch who’s done all the Rolling Stone shoots for years and years will come and shoot Indianapolis for us.

So it’s fun to see what they shoot and what they bring in their style. We’ll share all that stuff through the social, but then someday down the road, if we decide to do a book or an exhibition, I’m gonna have a ton of photos over the next four to five years, just collecting all that stuff.

How do you decide how much to share with the public? When these photographers first come, it seems like they have all-access. Is there anything where you’re like, “Hey, not this part?”

Yeah, I work hard to get them into anything and everything and I also firmly believe that they are the photographers they are, and I don’t want to mess with that style. I don’t want to push them into a corner and only post this and only show this; I try to turn them loose.

With Lyle Owerko, he did a lot of time lapsing, and we posted that on the social channels. I didn’t even know time lapse was on my phone and how to use it and that it would be cool, and he did that pretty frequently.

As things are developing with Danny, his style is much more creating a scene and a set to take a picture. Obviously, that’s pretty tough to do on a race weekend with how quick we’re moving, but I want to give him that opportunity to put a couple of sets together and grab his traditional shots. So I really let the style of the photographer steer where we go.

I follow you on Snapchat, and every once in awhile a stray snap will come out. It’ll be like one snap and then it’ll go a few days where there’s no more snaps. Do you think to yourself, “OK, you know what, I’m gonna snap today,” and you have good intentions but you just go focus on that other platform?

For sure. What’s tough for me with Snap is that my phone comes out often, and I take pictures in the platforms where I can go back at the end of the day or I have a free moment to think of a caption, work on the photo and edit it. That just works better for me, especially with chasing two little ones around and how busy my life is. So it’s hard for me to think, “Oh yeah, Snap.” That’s its own photo and you go from there. I dig Snap — I think it’s fun. It’s just not in my first line of thought.

So you have somewhat of a social team, where people can help you with your social media. Why is it important to have people help you? What do the partners say to you about social media that makes that an important space for you?

In my office we’d been looking for something that we could own, especially as I developed to be a multi-time champion. I was just looking for a space to really dominate and make a presence. As social media was coming along, we’re knocking off our championships, and we could see that everything was switching to digital. Even websites and what information those websites provide … was changing.

So I hired a firm in New York to work with me and help get my social stuff going. I quickly realized we didn’t need a firm. It was helpful, but it just wasn’t me. Through relationships in New York, I was able to really focus in and lay out a plan on what we wanted to do, and we did a deep dive into our sport and what platforms our consumers used and what was important then.

Way back then — like eight to 10 years ago now — out of all the NASCAR fans, only about 15 percent of the fans had a smart phone. That led us in a direction to bolster our website (as the top priority). So we really doubled down on our website, won best website in all of sports which was a huge honor for us. It was very creative and very cool the way interaction worked between our social channels.

And then I just knew that as requests were coming in for sponsors and they saw our investment in digital and everything shifting to digital, we needed somebody to manage that stuff and really work with the sponsors and make sure things were authentic on my side and then also serve the greater good of racing.

We hired somebody from Sprint — Lauren Murray, now Lauren Edwards — she came in and worked on our program for a lot of years. And she’s done so well, she’s now started her own firm (Reine Digital) and was married recently to Jon Edwards, who’s been Jeff Gordon’s longtime PR man. I’m her first client at her new place and I’m trying to help her build up her social team and her clients. She’s done an amazing job for us and I know that she can help some other drivers here in the garage area and other people outside.

Let’s talk about Twitter, the big one that everybody seems to be focused on in this garage at times. How often are you looking at your feed on Twitter? Do you visit it daily?

I do visit it daily, multiple times a day. For me, I use it for my news feed. I’m always on the run, and the magazines I follow, the news outlets I follow — of course there’s the work side in our industry — but that’s how I consume the world news today.

I don’t go on to my mentions as often. I mean, sometimes you want to see it, some times you don’t. If I post something, it’s nice to see what people think or what the reaction is. But from a consumption standpoint, I do spend a fair amount of time just looking through the feed and taking in the news.

I feel like you’re one of the notable people who’s not afraid to go back at somebody if they’re a hater. If they say something to you, you’re not afraid to retweet them and poke a little fun back at them. Do you ever block people? What’s your general response to the trolls?

I haven’t blocked a single person yet on any platform. Believe me, I’ve wanted to. When the digital stuff first started — back when there were blogs on NASCAR.com — I went through them and read the Jimmie Johnson blog. I couldn’t believe the things that people were staying about myself, and also what they were saying about my wife when we were dating. It’s why I had a quick departure and was pretty late the Twitter game to start with. I was like, “I don’t need that in my life.”

But then I realized the importance of it, so you just need to breeze by certain things and move on. But poking fun back at these guys is, I think, critical. You know, people sitting in their underwear in their mom’s basement, they’re pretty brave and want to say things. It’s funny — as soon as you draw attention to them and let some hating happen on their feed, they’re quickly apologizing, they delete the tweet and hopefully they don’t do it to anyone else again.

It is interesting how when you go back at somebody, they’ll come back and say, “Actually, Jimmie, I’m a big fan and I respect you.” And you’re like, “What?”

Totally. I’ve had that, I’ve had the tweet deleted and then people tell me how rude I was to bring this upon them and get everybody else hating on them. I’m like, “Oh no, you started this whole thing. Be a little smarter before you hit send.”

Do you ever almost tweet something and then decide not to tweet it?

Yeah, I think we’ve all had one ready to send out and we put down the phone and come back a few minutes later like, “I probably shouldn’t.” So yeah, I’ve been there quite a few times.

Where do you see social media going next? There a lot of people doing live video, there’s Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, Snapchat, you can do Periscoping. Where do you see this evolving for you?

It seems like the unique experience on each platform is kind of gone and now all the big platforms are like, “OK, that’s kind of cool there, I’m gonna bring that into mine.” Having a presence on all (the platforms) is hard and trying to keep a consistent schedule of posts going on all those sites is important because there are people who only use certain platforms because it fits their lifestyle better.

But what’s interesting to me is looking at our sport and looking at sports in general. I read an article (last week) in the Wall Street Journal where (Amazon) has purchased the right to stream the Thursday Night Football games. On the surface it looks like a standard play — but long term, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, they’ll know your shopping habits and your buying habits and they can send strategic marketing to you while you’re watching on their platform.

So understanding how that stuff works and how it might work in our industry (is valuable). Nobody’s watching TV; it doesn’t matter if it’s sports or what, the numbers are just going down. TV ad buys have supported our lives, my life and racing. And we’re trying to convince sponsors every day that it’s all moving digital: “Here’s our numbers, here’s our presence.” You’re just trying to understand that, which I don’t think anybody does.

(Social media) has been very good for me on a social standpoint and being able to let others see my personal side and what I’m about and what my interests are, because I don’t give the best interviews at the track — I’m more focused on the job. But from a business standpoint, there’s a big business in that and I think we need to be wise in our industry to jump on that so sponsors understand that.

This week’s Social Spotlight interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you plan to attend the upcoming Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link to make your purchase. Thanks!

12 Questions with Kasey Kahne

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Kasey Kahne of Hendrick Motorsports. I spoke to Kahne at Texas Motor Speedway.

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

When I was younger, it was both, because my dad always was on me to learn about the cars and work on the cars. But from the first time I got on a four-wheeler, a car or whatever, I felt like I knew what I was doing — and that was nice. So I’d say I had a little bit of ability driving, but I’ve always had to work at it. Today, I’d say I work way harder than (use) ability, it feel likes at times, so it’s just tough. Racing’s tough. It’s always changing, so you can’t just drive. You have to be aware of a lot of other things if you want to go fast.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Carl may come back; you’ll never know. But the other guys are doing other things that they’re enjoying, so that’s pretty cool. I feel like I probably have some of their fans — we probably have fans that are more of a Tony Stewart fan than my fan but they probably still like me a little bit because of our backgrounds. Same with Jeff Gordon, and then being Jeff’s teammate.

Those guys have always been my favorite drivers growing up because I enjoyed the way that they got to NASCAR and then what they’ve done along the way and in NASCAR and how dominant they were at times. So those have been some of favorites.

But I think just doing some of the same things and having some of the same passions for racing would maybe be able to get some of those fans on our side.

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

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack right now is probably the schedule. I’m trying to get everything in thoroughly and do a good job at the things I need to do racing-wise (and) sponsor-wise each week, making sure everybody’s happy.

And then there’s also doing my things that I enjoy that I feel helps me in the car — which is working out and putting in the time and effort of reading the notes and trying to be prepared, watching the videos and things to be prepared for when you get to the next track. And then working all that together with taking care of my son, Tanner.

So, doing all those things together, scheduling and giving each one of them plenty of time and then having the most time going to Tanner would probably be one of the tougher things we do.

It looks like Tanner is a really happy kid on social media and I enjoy following him. Is he loving life?

He’s loving life, and it’s crazy because he’s super happy. He probably gets a lot of that from his mom (Sam Sheets) because she’s really happy. He’s excited, he’s happy, he’s a mover right now and he has tons of energy.

We’ll hang out (and) he’ll stay up all night if I let him. But as soon as it’s time for bed and I tell him, he knows because it’s later than when he usually stays up. At night, I say, “Hey, are you ready for bed, bud?” It takes him a second, but then he heads to his bedroom, so that’s pretty good for a 17-month-old that has a ton of energy and is a really happy little boy.

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

Yeah. I’ve never really minded that. I’ve always (signed) autographs or taken a picture. Sometimes like right in the middle of eating your main meal is probably not the right time; for one, you’re hungry, so that’s why you’re there and you can’t wait to get down whatever’s in front of you.

And for two, in my opinion, eating food and shaking hands is kind of dirty in a way.

That is gross.

That’s kind of gross. That’s what gets me.

But prior to a meal and as soon as you’re done, whether you’re having a drink or sitting there relaxing or leaving a restaurant, those times are really good times and it’s nice to do a picture or sign something if you run into a fan.

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

I screwed up and forgot to ask this question and didn’t realize it until after the interview. My bad!

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

It’s actually Dale Jr. Yesterday we were going back and forth. Jimmie was also on there and Chase, but Dale was doing most of the texting. We were just working on team stuff over the weekend.

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

I think our job can definitely be entertaining. I think there’s times when it can be, but other times maybe not so much. I wouldn’t say that an actual driver is a whole lot of an entertainer. But I think maybe the sport and what we have going on at certain tracks can definitely be entertaining for sure.

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

I hate using it. I used it more when I was younger, and it’s truthfully pretty dumb when you use it. I feel bad the next week. I probably used it once this year and was mad because (of) whatever happened. Then you kind of feel like, “Man, why did you do that? What good did you get out of it? What point did you get across?” It was nothing. You probably just made the other guy mad and you (feel) the same. I got flipped off plenty of times, but I try not to do it too much anymore. I’ve kind of grown out of that.

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?

Absolutely. You know that just kind of builds up. A lot of it, the list kind of goes away and you forget about it and as soon as that person either does you wrong or does you good again, it comes right back and you instantly remember. As quick as it’s happening, you remember the past — good or bad.

You don’t think about the list daily, but if you have another deal with that guy, it comes back and you remember every single time you had a problem and why and what and so on. That list is never-ending on both ends.

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

Probably Blake Shelton. And that was with Clint (Bowyer). We were at the Super Bowl and we had Blake Shelton. Clint and Blake are good friends, I think. So having dinner with those guys, with Blake, that was a blast. Good times.

That had to be a pretty fun dinner.

It was a very fun dinner, very entertaining at that point.

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

I always just wish I was a little bit happier. I enjoy racing and I’m really happy with Tanner, but there’s a lot times throughout the week where I’m just kind of getting through the day, you know? It’d be nice to just walk around a little happier daily.

12. Speaking of getting through the day, you post workout videos, and that was something Clint Bowyer was interested in asking about. So, he wants to know: Why do you post workout videos on social media?

I don’t know why he cares so much about this. He’s had this talk with me already. He’s texted me. (Laughs) I think he thinks I’m trying to be like Danica or something, is what he was saying.

But I just think it’s just working hard and enjoying. I enjoy working out. I really do. I love it. And when you’re sweating and working hard, you want to show some of your fans that you’re getting after it. You’re doing things to try and improve yourself and be better. I think Clint knows that.

That’s probably what it is, because he doesn’t work out, so he’s probably like, “Man, you’re making me look bad. Stop posting these workout videos!”

That is definitely what it is. But, truthfully, every time I see Clint go run, and he’ll do it like twice a year, he’ll just take off out of the bus garage and then he comes back 20 minutes later and he did two and a half or three miles. And he doesn’t honestly look bad for not running that often, so he can probably do whatever he wanted and get in good shape in a hurry, I’d imagine. But he’s in good race shape, so that’s really all that matters.

The next interview I’m doing is with Daniel Suarez. Do you have a question for him?

I like Daniel a lot. We all know it’s a big step, what he’s doing this year. He’s working hard to do it right and do a good job with it, so that’s really cool.

I’m guessing he lives in North Carolina, close to Gibbs maybe? I really don’t know, but how does he enjoy living wherever he lives? Does he enjoy it as much as where he grew up (in Mexico)? I’m from Enumclaw (Wash.) and I live in North Carolina now and I loved where I grew up, and I really enjoy where I live now. I just want to get his opinion because his (situation) is from a lot further away than Enumclaw.

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race in June, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas Motor Speedway race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway:

1. Stop questioning the 48 team for any reason

One of the dumbest NASCAR storylines — which I’ve probably been guilty of buying into several times over the years — is questioning Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. Seriously, it’s really, REALLY dumb.

Incredibly, the Johnson/Knaus questions were doubled at Texas, which is extra ridiculous — especially after he got win No. 7 here.

— With only one top-10 heading into the race, had the defending champion lost a step? (OBVIOUSLY NOT, NO. HE NEVER DOES.)

— After spinning out in qualifying and being forced to start in the rear of the field, would Johnson be able to come from the back and win? (DUH, OF COURSE. HAVE YOU EVER WATCHED NASCAR?)

Johnson loves to rub it in his doubters’ faces when he wins, and he should.

“I guess I remembered how to drive, and I guess this team remembered how to do it,” he said in victory lane.

Remember, Johnson was asked at Fontana about his lack of performance so far this season and sounded annoyed.

“Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us?” he said then. “I mean, come on.”

Make that 81 wins.

Anyway, I’ve decided to never doubt Johnson and the No. 48 team until A) Johnson retires, B) Knaus retires or C) Johnson goes three years without winning.

Other than that, let’s just all make a pact not to bring up such a silly question again.

2. Short-term vs. long-term gain

Is it better go to for a stage win or get track position for the real win?

That was the dilemma facing the field at the end of Stage 2, when a debris caution presented the opportunity for a strategy play.

Ryan Blaney — who was dominating the race with 148 laps led — decided to stay out and go for the stage win (and a playoff point). He won the stage, but restarted 20th for the final stage as a result. After getting bottled up on the restart and later sliding through his pit, Blaney finished 12th. Obviously, that was a bummer.

On the other hand, Johnson and Kyle Larson used the same strategy as Blaney — and ended up finishing first and second. So it’s not like there was necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s up to teams what is more important and what the priorities are.

“It’s easy to look back on it and say, ‘Oh, we should have done this, should have done that,’” Blaney said. “But you can’t really change any of that now.

“We thought we had enough time after (Stage) 2 to work our way back up through there. … I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I’m for that.”

Knaus made a similar argument afterward, saying he was “very confident our car was going to be able to drive back through traffic” but added “you get a big pit in your stomach” after losing the track position.

“All you can do is make a decision and then adjust to the decision you make,” Knaus said.

I’m honestly not sure what the correct play is for future situations, especially since the results were a mixed bag. Either way, I enjoyed the added strategy element, which is just another plus for the stages.

3. Woe is Gibbs

Nearly 20 minutes after the race had ended, pit road had been emptied of the cars and most drivers were probably at the airport already.

But as a cloud of confetti drifted by, Denny Hamlin stood with his hands on his hips, talking to team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Mike Wheeler and a couple other team members.

It’s obvious why Hamlin wanted to linger on pit road: Joe Gibbs Racing is struggling so far this year.

“We were a 20th-place car at best most of the day,” Hamlin told me afterward. “I didn’t think any of us were very good.”

Texas was another bad race for JGR. The top finisher was 15th-place Kyle Busch, followed by Matt Kenseth (16th), Daniel Suarez (19th) and Hamlin (25th).

The performance can no longer be brushed off as an early-season fluke; JGR is not meeting its own high standards. And with Hendrick Motorsports finally getting a win, the “What’s wrong with JGR?” questions will only getting louder.

So what now?

“We just work harder,” Hamlin said. “We’re already working hard, but it takes time to get things figured out. We’ve got a new Camry and a lot of new things, and we’re just trying to adjust to it at this point. There’s a lot of different rules we’re trying to adjust to as well.”

4. Finally, a positive for Dale Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t scored a top-10 finish since June 6 at Pocono. That was 10 straight races without a good result.

You could tell it had started to wear on him, even though he was trying to be as optimistic as possible — for both himself and his team.

So a fifth-place finish at Texas was a welcome development for both his points position (he moved from 25th to 20th) and his psyche (he moved from “upside down face” emoji to “grinning face with sweat drop” emoji).

“I was trying not to get frustrated, but you can only take so much,” Earnhardt said afterward.

Texas was both a physical and mental challenge for a driver who had only completed one 500-mile event since returning from his concussion.

His air conditioning blower didn’t work all day, so he had to run with his visor up for the entire race. Afterward, he was more gassed than I’ve seen him in a long time; he chugged portions of two water bottles and cradled the cold, wet towel around his neck like a kid with a blankie.

Earnhardt said it was on “the backside of the top 10” most uncomfortable races he’s had in the car, which is saying a lot considering he’s made 602 Cup starts.

And it was a challenge to stay in the game mentally as well.

“When you don’t do (500-mile races on a regular basis), your mind is not as mentally tough,” he said. “I felt it. This was a tough race for us — physically and mentally. It was good exercise. Hopefully it will help make us stronger.”

5. That’s four twos for the 42

Another day, another top-two finish for Kyle Larson. Larson has finished in the top two in five of the last six races; that’s a win and four second-place results.

“We thought we’d start the year off good,” Larson said. “I don’t think we thought we’d start the year off this good.”

It looks like Larson is going to be a fixture toward the top of the series point standings this season, because he certainly isn’t showing any signs of losing speed.

At this point, it’s clear Chip Ganassi Racing isn’t just having a cute little stretch of good races, where everyone gets excited and then it turns out to be a blip in a long season. No, Ganassi is definitely for real — and so is Larson.

That’s exciting for NASCAR, because there’s a new face contending every week; even more exciting that he’s only 24 years old.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Fontana race

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. Today: Fontana.

Larson no loser

Holy crap, how impressive is Kyle Larson lately?

Sunday really felt like the first of many wins for Larson this season. He’s already the breakout driver of 2017, with finishes of second, second, second and first in the four non-plate races.

You can credit faster cars at Chip Ganassi Racing — and of course, that’s a major part of it — but Larson also isn’t making the type of mistakes that took him out of races earlier in his career. Remember when it seemed like he’d hit the wall at some point every time he had a good car?

Not anymore.

He also seems more willing to try different lines instead of being so committed to the running the wall. Larson made some awesome moves by hooking the bottom of the track during Sunday’s race, and that paid off in a big way at times.

So, about that new package…

I’m officially concerned about the effectiveness of the low-low downforce package.

NASCAR got lucky with late drama at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix that covered up ho-hum races. But Fontana — which got a 90% approval rating in the “Was it a good race?” Twitter poll last year — had expectations to break that trend and provide a great show from start to finish.

Unfortunately, much of the race was rather tame again until Gray Gaulding crashed with 20 laps to go. Then, much like the other non-plate races, a chaotic finish erased all thoughts of the earlier lack of action.

But that trend can’t continue all season. NASCAR wants the action to be compelling throughout the day, lest races turn into the NBA cliche, where only the last five minutes matters.

The new aero package test isn’t passing the eye test as far as compelling races. Why? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to hear some theories.

Clint Bowyer’s extra effort

In a Saturday roundtable interview with reporters, Bowyer said he had a long phone call with crew chief Mike Bugarewicz on Friday night — something he didn’t typically do in the past.

Then, after finishing third on Sunday, Bowyer revealed he drove to Bugarewicz’s hotel room on Saturday night to pore over data and try to find ideas to fix the car, which didn’t look great in practice.

“I’ve never went to a crew chief’s hotel room,” Bowyer said. “Never done that before.”

It’s clear this opportunity really matters to Bowyer — as it should. At 37, this might be his last, best chance to resurrect his career and get back to the championship-contending driver he’s capable of being.

He’s on the right path. Sunday was his best finish at an intermediate track since July 2013 in Kentucky.  Bowyer now can head to Martinsville — one of his favorite venues — with confidence and momentum.

Weird stats after five races

Two Chevrolet drivers have won races this season — and neither are from Hendrick Motorsports.

The one Toyota winner so far isn’t from Joe Gibbs Racing. And the winner from Stewart-Haas Racing isn’t Kevin Harvick.

So yeah, if you thought Richard Childress Racing would have more wins than Hendrick and Gibbs combined after five races? Well, you’re just lying.

It’s been an odd start to the year. There have been five different winners, but six of the eight active multi-race winners from last season have yet to reach victory lane. That’s a big zero for Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth.

Yes, it’s still early, but the regular season is also roughly one-fifth complete. So how much longer is this going to last?

Painful commercials

I was proud of myself for not getting too aggravated with the commercials during Sunday’s race — the first I’d watched from home this season.

They didn’t seem to be as bad as usual. But naturally, I couldn’t make it the whole time without getting irritated.

It remains absolutely maddening to see tweets about a great battle for the lead while we at home are staring at a commercial listing the side effects for a drug named Symbicort.

By the way, some of those side effects include headaches, changes in your voice, mood changes and shaking — which coincidentally also describe the effects on me when there are too many commercials during green-flag racing.

Honestly, NOTHING about the current state of NASCAR makes me angrier or more frustrated than the commercials. It’s no wonder TV ratings are in the toilet.

No other major sport disrespects its fans like this. Even soccer figures out a way to show games — including World Cup games! — without commercial interruption (except for halftime). Most sports fans wouldn’t tolerate a broadcaster cutting away from live game action, but for some reason, NASCAR fans are just expected to shut up and deal with it.

If the TV networks need money that badly, give us a pay-per-view option with an ad-free broadcast. Would you pay $10 for a race with no ads? Personally, I would.

12 Questions with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Each week, I’ll ask the same 12 questions to a different NASCAR driver. Up next: Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick Motorsports. (Note: This interview was conducted at Atlanta, so the reference to punching a driver had nothing to do with the Las Vegas fight.)

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

For a long time, it was all ability, low effort. Now I think it’s 50-50.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

You know, I’ll be honest with you — I’d probably steer them toward the new guys. I’m on the backside of my deal, so for the health of the sport, I think it’d be awesome if they grabbed onto (Ryan) Blaney or Chase (Elliott) or somebody like that. They’re going to be successful and are going to be around a long time. That would probably be better for everybody.

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

The hardest part of my job away from the racetrack is probably appearances that are out of market, which means anything Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Like (before Atlanta), we flew to Florida on Wednesday and then we did an appearance in Texas on Thursday and then we came (to Atlanta). It just eats up an entire day.

The appearances themselves are fun. Just the travel — we had a 100-knot wind going out to Texas. It took us three hours to get there, do the appearance and then come home and it’s 5:30, you know? You leave at 9 in the morning. So the travel, I guess. You kind of would like to be home during the week, but you’ve got to be doing these appearances.

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

After I’m done eating. Once they see me put my utensils down, I’m fair game.

So if you have a bite of food in your mouth, maybe hold off?

Yeah, it’s probably going to piss off whoever I’m having dinner with more than me. I don’t like people talking over my food. Like if you’ve got a plate of food in front of you and somebody comes over and talks over your shoulder? I don’t like my dog even being near me when I’m eating, breathing all over my plate. It’s just gross.

They’re raining spittle down on your food.

There is the possibility! In all likelihood, they are.

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

Well, I think there needs to be more effort to market Chase, Blaney, Bubba Wallace. They’re doing a great job with Suarez, but they need to really get these guys in front of not only the NASCAR fans, but more mainstream media (like) Rolling Stone.

Blaney did Watch What Happens Live (the Andy Cohen show on Bravo) before I did, which is certainly outside the NASCAR world. Those are great things for those guys, because they’re carrying the torch, man.

And they have the personalities. They’re so funny, you know? And they’re good guys. They’re not brats. They all have great personalities, and if NASCAR is going to return to its peak, that’s where it’s going to come from. Those guys, they’re going to be the ones driving when that happens. (The NASCAR marketers) need to start putting the funding and the marketing behind those guys and get people to know them.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Let me see. (Pulls out phone.) Jimmie (Johnson), Kasey (Kahne) and Chase. We’re on a GroupMe (chat on a texting app). We were talking about running a four-mile run tonight.

And you’re thinking of doing that?

Yeah, I ran three at home yesterday. So it shouldn’t be too hard. I don’t run the pace they run though. Jimmie and Chase are in the 8-minute mark but I’m not even close.

So you can do a 5K now?

Yeah. Sure! I could. Yeah, that’d be great. I should try one.

Anyway, that’s the last group. I guess that’s too obvious.

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

Yes! Yeah, I think certain guys — Spencer Gallagher… OK, you laugh. I think he’s certainly entertaining when he’s doing his interviews. He’s got a great outlook and approach to racing and is very cavalier about it, but at the same time, he’s competitive.

I talked about Blaney and Chase. Those guys are hopefully going to utilize their personalities to market themselves. There is a point when you’re an entertainer, you know? You get up and do those Q&As, and you’ve got to be funny and witty and interact with the audience. When you’re in the car, I don’t think you’re much of an entertainer. But outside of the car, you are an entertainer many times during the week.

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

Well, that’s a good one. If they’re much, much younger than you, you can totally flip them off. If they’re the same age as you or have ran more than four or five seasons, you cannot flip them off.

I flipped off Shawna Robinson once in practice, and she wrecked me in the race. She never said she meant it on purpose, but she was very upset with me in practice.

You hear about Rusty Wallace and all those other guys — you get flipped off, especially by someone younger than you? You just go on attack mode. You lose your mind. So it’s a very seldom-used expression on the track and there’s some etiquette there on when to use it and when not to use it.

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?

You certainly do remember the guys that tend to race you not as hard. I think you race people how they race you. Other than that, you don’t really keep a mental note of it. There’s guys that are really, really hard to pass — (Ryan) Newman’s probably at the top of that list; if you asked everybody who is hardest to pass, they’re going to say Newman. But he’s a great guy. We’re pretty decent friends, to be honest with you.

But then there’s guys like Mark Martin that never raced anybody hard — at least in the first half of the race. A lot of give and take there. And when he’d come up on you, you’d kind of return the favor.

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

Jay-Z and Beyonce. When he invited us to Monaco to be in their video with Danica way back, about freakin’ 10 years ago, we had dinner with them. Lot of fun. Had some beers and goofed up and joked around quite a bit. They’re very down to earth.

Did they seem like normal people?

They were incredibly normal. Beyonce said I reminded her of her uncle with my honesty. I guess I’m super honest. Amazing compliment.

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

My disposition. Be a happier person more consistently. Not get bummed out or frustrated or aggravated so easily.

I don’t know. You say that, but lately…

I’m hanging onto it. Yeah. See, I got this being out of the car. I sort of worked on myself a little bit, so I’m trying to hang onto it. But this racing can piss you off, so I don’t know how long it’s going to last.

12. The last interview was with Garrett Smithley. He wanted to know what advice you’d give to yourself as a rookie driver that you would do differently now.

There’s a lot of things I didn’t know or didn’t do well. I would have spent more time in the hauler working on the car with Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony (Eury) Jr. They weren’t the chattiest guys, but I certainly would have been much, much more involved in what went on between practice and qualifying, and what went on between qualifying and Saturday practice and all that.

I would walk up to the car just as they were firing the motors. Nowadays, I feel bad if I’m not here 30 minutes early, talking to Greg (Ives) and seeing what the plan is. And then when we get done running, I hang around until Greg seems to be bored with me.

When I was racing as a rookie, I’d get out of the car, say five words to Tony Jr. and run into the bus and play video games the rest of the day until it was time to go get in the car for qualifying (with) like 10 cars to go. I didn’t have my head on straight. Everything had been handed to me in a sense to where I didn’t appreciate how much I needed to be working for this — and how much that would have made a difference. I didn’t think it would or even know it would. I certainly have learned a lot.

Do you have a question for the next driver?

If you could punch any driver in the face, who would it be? Has anyone ever asked that question?

No, but I kind of want to use it on the 12 Questions permanently next year.

(Laughs) Well, if it gets a really good answer, maybe you move it. Kind of like the specials at dinner, if it’s really good, they put it on the menu.

Yeah. The middle finger question came from Landon Cassill.

There you go!

And (the face punch) doesn’t have to be because they made you mad on the track. Just maybe you don’t like ‘em.

They could just have a punchable face.

A punchable face, yeah. Who’s got a punchable face? There you go. Ask it that way. And you might actually get an honest answer. Who has the most punchable face? (Laughs)

The Top Five: Breakdown of The Clash at Daytona

Each week, I’ll provide some quick analysis of the race through a post called the Top Five — five notable storylines from the just-completed race. First up: The Clash at Daytona.

1. The two best plate racers in the event crashed on the last lap

When the white flag flew, it looked like Denny Hamlin — who swept last year’s Clash and Daytona 500 — would edge Brad Keselowski for the win, barring something crazy happening.

Well, something crazy happened.

Keselowski got a huge run (which doesn’t happen that often with this restrictor plate aero package) and Hamlin went down to defend, but it was too late. Keselowski was already there, and the cars made contact.

Hamlin told MRN his attempted block was ill-timed, and Keselowski seemed relatively cool about the incident.

“Well, it is the Clash and not the 500,” he said on pit road.

But then Keselowski’s jaw clenched and the muscles in his face tightened.

“I guarantee he knows — and everyone else who was watching today — that I’m going to make that move again,” Keselowski said. “And you better move out or you’ll end up wrecked.”

A few moments later, he said it again: “I know all the other drivers are back watching it today, and they know not to make that block on me again.”

Your move, everyone else.

2. Something is up with Hendrick cars in Turn 4 at Daytona

OK, what’s going on here? Jimmie Johnson twice spun in Turn 4, which continued a pattern of Hendrick Motorsports cars having trouble in that turn over the past year (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun out of Turn 4 last year).

After coming out of the care center, Johnson said he didn’t know — and, perhaps more telling, that the team had been so unconcerned about it that no one had discussed it prior to the race.

They certainly will be talking about it now. Johnson said he noticed Elliott looked loose in that turn as well.

One theory?

“The sun certainly sits on that edge of the track a little harder than anywhere else,” Johnson said. “We’ll take some notes and learn from those mistakes and applied that to the 500.”

3. Alex Bowman is a beast

With each opportunity he gets — and there aren’t that many on his schedule for 2017 — Bowman shows he deserves a chance to run a full Cup season in a good car.

No one wanted to help him during the Clash, and the other drivers treated him like a leper at times. At one point, it looked like Joey Logano might go with him — and then Logano went with the Joe Gibbs Racing cars again and Bowman fell all the way to the back of the field.

Bowman won the pole and almost won the race at Phoenix last year, then basically willed himself to a podium finish in the Clash. This guy will drive a great car some day and, at 23, he has time on his side.

4. Joey Logano is an underrated plate racer

Let’s not get too carried away here, because Logano wasn’t going to win the race until the leaders hit each other on the last lap.

But Logano has won three plate races in the last two seasons (2015 Daytona 500 and the Talladega fall race twice in a row), and now adds the Clash to his collection. When is he going to start getting mentioned alongside Keselowski, Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the best of the best on plate tracks? (I’m asking myself that question, by the way.)

Combined with Keselowski the puppet master, you’d better believe the Team Penske cars will bring a large threat to the JGR contingent next week.

5. Danica Patrick gets a good result

I’ll have to go back and watch the replay to see how Patrick ended up with a fourth-place finish, but she’ll certainly take any positive momentum she can get these days.

Her performance on the track has been below average compared to her teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing for a couple years now, and she hasn’t seemed like the restrictor-plate threat she was when she first emerged in the series.

Plus, there’s been that whole Nature’s Bakery lawsuit and the scramble to find a replacement sponsor just a month before the season.

So while a fourth doesn’t count for the official records, it’s a boost of momentum.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will wait to sign contract extension

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s contract expires after this season, but he’s not in a hurry to sign an extension.

Earnhardt said the delay is not a sign he is ready to quit driving; rather, he just wants a couple months to figure out whether his health will allow him to continue racing beyond this season.

“When I got hurt last year and what I saw it put the company through….I don’t want to do that again,” he told a group of reporters Saturday. “So I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t deliver on.”

Earnhardt said he thinks he can race for “a couple” more years, but — despite asking himself the question — hasn’t been able to put a date on exactly when he might stop (should his health allow him to keep going).

But one thing is for sure, he said: He’s racing because he wants to be at the track and has a passion to keep competing.

“It’s not going to be a lot of fun to retire,” he said. “You’ve seen a lot of people, athletes retire. It seems a very difficult press conference to have. When I’m ready to do that, I’ll be making that decision knowing it’s the right thing to do. When I’m ready to do it, it’s going to have to be done.”