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?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Blaney breaks through

When young Cup drivers face numerous challenges in a single race, they often fail to win. That’s because a lack of experience or poise typically trips them up at some point; even if they overcome one problem, the next does them in.

But at Pocono, Ryan Blaney had to survive three tough moments to score his first career Cup victory.

First of all, Blaney couldn’t talk to his team on the radio all day because his helmet microphone wasn’t working. The team worked out a series of hand signals as a substitute, and it made communication about changes to the car very difficult.

Jon Wood, through the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, tweeted late in the race: “If you could listen in for just like 20 seconds, you’d agree it’s just flat-out amazing that we are even on the lead lap at this point.”

After enduring that stress, Blaney found himself starting fourth on the final restart — and the first driver on four new tires. But although he was faster at that point, Blaney had to deal with extremely aggressive blocking from Kyle Busch, which could have easily ended in a wreck for one or both of the drivers. Blaney stayed patient, raced Busch cleanly and made the pass.

After that, he had Kevin Harvick approaching quickly. Harvick stayed on his back bumper in the final laps, waiting to pounce if Blaney made the slightest mistake.

“The way I passed people all day was waiting for him to slip up off the bottom, and he never slipped off the bottom,” Harvick said. “Ryan did a good job of not slipping a wheel with the amount of laps that he had left.”

Blaney drove flawlessly at the end — and throughout the race. He truly earned the win.

2. Silver lining for Dale Jr.?

Pocono was the low point of the season so far for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Earnhardt missed a pair of shifts this weekend that resulted in blown engines — and offered no excuses for the mistakes.

Though fans were eager for a reason to blame crew chief Greg Ives or the team (surely the shifter must be set up differently!), Earnhardt acknowledged nothing in the car has changed.

This was simply driver error.

“I wish I could blame it on something else, because this feels awful,” he told FOX Sports 1. “It’s just my fault. … I wish I could say the shifter is different.”

There isn’t much good to say about the day — or the season so far. Earnhardt clearly isn’t confident in his cars right now and isn’t having the fun he had been the past few years.

But there might be one positive. As noted by Justin Bukoski, an Earnhardt fan from Portland, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne appeared to have brake failures (as did Jamie McMurray). And Earnhardt had earlier been complaining of brake problems.

So if Earnhardt had not blown an engine, was it only a matter of time before his brakes led to a Johnson-like hit into the wall? If so, that might have been the end of Earnhardt’s career — or worse — given his concussion history.

3. Another scary moment

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness since the Aric Almirola crash, but it feels like there have been a lot of hard hits lately, doesn’t it? And there were two more on Sunday.

With four laps left in Stage 2, Johnson and McMurray suffered simultaneous brake failures going into Turn 1 — and both crashed hard.

They were each frightening in their own right. Johnson’s hit was violent — and he initially seemed headed straight for the wall, nose-first — while McMurray’s was fiery.

Johnson seemed shaken and said, “We got away with one there.” He knew it could have been a lot worse.

The burning car was the most worrisome part about McMurray’s wreck. Though it was nice to see the automatic extinguisher put out the fire in the front of the car, the back end was still in flames for quite awhile.

It appeared there were approximately 20 seconds between the time McMurray’s car stopped and when the safety crew put the first bit of extinguisher on the flames. Could the response time have been faster? Before you answer, consider what would have happened if McMurray had not been able to get out of the car (what if he had an Almirola-like injury?). That would have been ugly.

Either way, it’s just another reminder of how dangerous this sport is. And I think we’re all good on reminders for awhile.

4. New blood on TV

I was moving cross-country this weekend and missed the drivers-only Xfinity Series broadcast. That really bummed me out, because I wanted to know how it went.

Fortunately, many Twitter followers were able to fill me in. I received 115 replies to a tweet asking whether people enjoyed it or not.

The consensus: An overwhelmingly positive response to the broadcast, with many comments urging FOX Sports to try it again sometime. I’d say 95 percent of the responses were raving about it; people really seemed to enjoy seeing different faces on the broadcast.

Hopefully, that emotion from the fans was noticed by FOX executives. There appear to be many capable drivers who could fill on-air roles at the moment, some who will be retiring within the next few years. A career full of TV interviews and commercials and appearances has helped drivers become very polished on camera.

If that’s the case, why not stock the on-air booths with the most relevant analysts possible? FOX should do everything it can to keep its talent fresh.

5. Another race, another new winner

That’s now 10 different winners in the first 14 races — which is quite impressive considering drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have yet to go to victory lane.

But it’s also a whopping eight different teams that have won races, thanks to new faces like Wood Brothers Racing (first win since 2011), Richard Childress Racing (first win since 2013) and Roush Fenway Racing (first win since 2014).

Joe Gibbs Racing has not won yet and certainly will before the regular season ends, so that will be nine.

How does that compare to last year? Well, only seven different teams won a race in all of 2016.

Though it’s still tough to say whether this is a sign of real parity or just unique circumstances producing different winners, it’s always good when no single entity — driver or team — is dominating the season.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Get out of Line

After a disappointing finish to what was otherwise a very entertaining race, the immediate reaction from NASCAR Twitter was, Man, that overtime line rule stinks!

That’s understandable, because fans invested four hours in a race that built anticipation with great racing — only to see a non-finish. Ugh.

It’s easy to follow the “That sucked!” reaction with “NASCAR should change that!” But there are still a few benefits worth considering before throwing the whole thing out.

First, the current overtime rule was designed for superspeedways and still has validity at Talladega and Daytona. By cutting down on overtime attempts, there’s a reduced risk of a car flying into the fence like Austin Dillon or Kyle Larson at Daytona.

Second, it lessens the chances of race manipulation. Remember, this rule was created in the wake of the sketchy Talladega finish in the 2015 Chase.

So with that in mind, NASCAR had to come up with a rule that would address those issues while also applying to every race and all types of tracks (otherwise, people could scream inconsistency!).

But Dover really could have used multiple overtime attempts, so it doesn’t need to be governed by the same rules as plate tracks. Maybe it’s time to separate the two.

NASCAR could bring back the three overtime attempts for non-plate tracks while keeping the overtime line/current format for plate tracks only. After all, it’s a safety thing at plate tracks in a lot of ways and I can’t get on board with ideas like unlimited attempts no matter how much some fans say they want it.

Either way, NASCAR will probably end up changing some element of the overtime rule because fans seem really disgusted about how the end of the Dover race turned out.

2. Monster entertainment

It’s a shame the craptacular finish overshadowed what was otherwise a very fun and entertaining race for the second year in a row at Dover’s spring event.

I watched most of the race from the press box, and I kept getting so caught up in watching the battles that I forgot to tweet updates a few times. The leader never seemed to be able to get very far away, and the passes for the lead seemed to take multiple laps to execute.

There had been talk about adding VHT to Dover’s surface, but it definitely didn’t need it. The race had multiple grooves and drivers were all over the track. There always seemed to be something interesting going on.

I asked Martin Truex Jr. why Dover has put on a good race the last couple years.

“Man, it’s just so hard,” he said. “I think everybody is just so out of control, you run five laps and every one of them is a little different because you’re just out there hanging on. The tires are bouncing and skipping across the track so bad. You can get a little bit of a gap on somebody, and then you get in the corner a foot too deep and you slide sideways and he’s up your butt again and then you’re even looser.

“It’s just really hard to be consistent here and hit your marks. I think that’s why everybody comes and goes. (The cars) are just a handful and you’re sliding around just praying you make it through every single lap — and I guess that makes for exciting racing and guys getting close to each other.”

If that’s the case, this goes along with the theory that the more teams struggle with nailing a setup or finding consistency, the better the racing turns out to be.

3. Playoff Points for Dummies (like me)

Speaking of Truex, he won two more stages on Sunday to bring his season total to eight (most in the series) and has 18 playoff points halfway through the regular season.

For some reason, I didn’t understand how exactly the playoff points worked until talking with a couple people from NASCAR this weekend. So if I didn’t know, maybe you don’t either.

I thought — incorrectly — a driver would start with the playoff points and they were like money. If  the driver didn’t use them in Round 1, they would carry over to Round 2. But that’s not the case at all.

The actual rule is whatever amount of playoff points a driver has, they get that amount at the start of every round whether they needed them in the previous round or not. And they can further add to that total while in the playoffs.

So let’s say Truex doesn’t get another playoff point the whole season (unlikely). He would start Round 1 with 18 points. If he advances to Round 2, he starts with 18 points. Same with Round 3.

That’s a massive advantage and it will really make a major difference in the playoffs, because it creates a mulligan opportunity.

Anyway, hopefully my ignorance will help others out there understand. But I’m sure a lot of you already know that rule and you’re thinking, “Are you kidding me? How many races into the season are we?”

“Are you kidding me?” Truex said when I brought this up. “How many races into the season are we?”

He was well aware of the rule, of course, and that’s one reason why the 78 team has been so aggressive in going after stage wins.

“It is huge, and that’s why we keep trying to pile them up,” he said. “We might be able to get to 30 or so, but that’s still only half a race (with maximum 60 points this year). So they’re going to be important as long as you can be consistent. You’re still not going to be able to afford to have consecutive really bad days.”

In the past, the the typical regular season storyline is “Who will make the playoffs?” This year, that’s joined by the talk of “Who is in good shape with playoff points?”

4. He’s lucky AND good

There’s no doubt Jimmie Johnson got lucky in a couple instances on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean he’s somehow undeserving of getting to victory lane.

Let’s take Example No. 1. Chad Knaus had Johnson stay out while others were on pit road during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, even though the team was already in its fuel window. As it turned out, Regan Smith hit the wall and brought out a caution — which benefited Johnson, who stayed on the lead lap as others had gone a lap down and had to take the wavearound.

I asked Knaus to shed some light on why. Was he hoping to catch a caution, and did he have a hunch? I think yes, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

“Yeah, there is definitely some strategy,” he said with a smile. “For sure.”

Then there was Example No. 2. Johnson was surely going to lose the race to Kyle Larson, but David Ragan hit the wall to bunch the field and set up overtime.

“When I was watching Kyle pull away from me with five to go, I’m going, ‘All right, second is not bad,’” Johnson said. “And then something in my mind said, ‘This thing isn’t over. They’re not over until the checkered falls.’”

Sure enough, Johnson got his chance — but he still had to execute on the restart. Remember, Larson was right there controlling the overtime start with a chance to win. He couldn’t get it done and Johnson did.

As Kasey Kahne noted on Twitter, it wasn’t the oil dry that cost Larson a chance to win — it was Johnson.

Said Larson:  “Jimmie is the best of our time, probably the best of all time. He just has a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races and executed a lot better than I did.  I’ve got to get better at that and maybe get some more wins.”

5. Aw, (lug) nuts!

One of NASCAR’s safety rules was tested this weekend, and what officials decide to do about it should set an interesting precedent.

Kyle Busch lost his left rear wheel after a pit stop early in Sunday’s Cup race, much like Chase Briscoe did in the Truck race on Friday. Both incidents were clearly mistakes by pit crews — the jack dropped before the tire changers had secured the lug nuts — and were not intentional moves to make a faster pit stop.

But NASCAR typically does not judge intent — the rule is the rule — and so harsh penalties will likely be handed out on Wednesday. The crew chief, tire changer and tire carrier (of the wheel in question) are all facing four-race suspensions, which is the mandatory minimum as spelled out in the NASCAR rulebook.

So Busch, who hasn’t won this season, is set to lose Adam Stevens as well as two key pit crew members, for a month. All because of a clear mistake on pit road.

That seems awfully severe, and it also puts Busch on the same page as rival Brad Keselowski (who owns Briscoe’s truck).

“At the end of the day, intent matters,” Keselowski said Saturday. “The intent of the rule was to make sure guys don’t put three lug nuts on and have a wheel come off and say, ‘Aw, too bad.’ That isn’t what happened in the scenario we had.

“It was a mistake. … It’s the difference between murder and manslaughter.”

Here’s the thing, though: If NASCAR lets this slide, it’s eventually going to be faced with a less clear decision and have to play judge on whether or not a pit crew intended to send the car out with one lug nut attached (or something along those lines).

Honestly, it’s better just to have rules and enforce them the same way every time — no matter the circumstances that led to the infraction.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol race

Five thoughts from Monday’s rescheduled race at Bristol Motor Speedway:

1. What a race!

Bristol was one of those races that was so enjoyable to watch, I was disappointed when it ended.

That’s it? Only 500 laps? How about 600?

Seriously though, I could have watched that racing all day. It was just SO much fun to see the drivers going all out, with close-quarters racing and two equal grooves (yes, even though the bottom wasn’t the dominant lane).

I found myself smiling through many of the battles for position (which seemed constant) — and even while watching the leaders navigate lapped traffic.

It didn’t matter there was no late caution or restart to spice things up (the last 32 laps were green), nor did it matter there was a typical winner (Jimmie Johnson, again?). Bristol was just highly entertaining all day long, with the VHT-aided bottom groove just good enough to even things up with the top lane. As it turned out, that made for perfect racing conditions.

“Honestly, I don’t think it gets much better than that,” Kyle Larson said.

The sticky VHT slowly wearing off through the course of the race made it so that the track was constantly changing, and Bristol and NASCAR deserve a lot of credit for making it work.

Jimmie Johnson explained it this way: When there’s anything that’s consistent in NASCAR, the garage will figure it out. Everyone is too smart. But when the surface underwent a constant evolution like it did on Monday, Johnson said no one could exactly nail the setup.

“The track intentionally tried to create the need to be on the bottom,” Johnson said. “… This race, without a doubt, would have been single-file around the top without the VHT on the bottom,” Johnson said.

There was only one bad thing about the race: It was held Monday, when many fans were at work or school and couldn’t watch. Thanks a lot, Mother Nature.

How unfortunate that so many people missed one of the best races in recent years.

2. Larson Legend

I made a beeline for Larson’s car after the race, because watching him was half the fun of Monday’s race. He got out of his car and we made eye contact, and he looked sort of puzzled because I was grinning.

It took a second for me to remember he finished sixth on a day where he could have won, and probably wasn’t thrilled about the result. But I don’t really care where he finishes; I just know he put on quite a show — and usually does.

This seems so premature to say about a driver with two career wins, but Larson is really going to be an all-timer in this sport. I don’t know if his dry wit will ever translate into superstardom outside NASCAR (he might be too reserved to be the Jeff Gordon type who can guest-host a morning talk show), but he’ll be a legend within it by the time he’s done.

Larson’s driving style makes races more interesting to watch, and that’s not something you can say about many drivers. No matter what his career stats say by the time he’s done, he’ll be remembered as one of the greats of this generation.

3. Ol’ Jimmie does it again

Seven-Time, already the best driver in NASCAR history, just keeps adding to his career tally.

He now has 82 wins, which is one short of Cale Yarborough and two shy of Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison. It seems very possible that by the end of the season, the only drivers ahead of him on the all-time list will be Richard Petty, David Pearson and Jeff Gordon — and he may be alone in championships by the end of November.

It will be extra special for Johnson to tie Yarborough whenever he does, because Yarborough was the only NASCAR driver he knew while growing up. Johnson recalled walking into a Hardee’s as a kid and thinking he was in Yarborough’s race shop.

However, I fully recognize it’s not so great for everyone else living in the Jimmie Era — not just fans of other drivers, but the other drivers themselves.

“The damn 48,” Clint Bowyer said. “You know what I mean? Hasn’t he had enough?”

He certainly has, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to stop winning.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. in trouble

If the playoffs started today, Earnhardt would miss the cut by 50 points. It’s not even close right now, and Earnhardt — with the exception of his top-five at Texas — just isn’t running that well.

That’s not news to him or his fans, of course. But if this keeps up, he’s going to be in the type of territory where he needs to win — and that changes how a team goes about a race, particularly with strategy.

It’s been a fairly miserable start for Earnhardt, who is 24th in the standings — behind rookies Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon. He’s five spots behind Aric Almirola in the points.

I honestly don’t think Earnhardt has lost anything despite missing half the season last year, but he hasn’t had good luck (three DNFs due to crashes) and the car hasn’t been all that great in the other races. Bristol wasn’t going to be a memorable race for him even before his oil cooler broke.

He described his car as being too tight and said other drivers were “beating me really bad back to the gas” out of the corners.

“That ain’t no way to run anywhere, really,” he said.

5. Roush Fenway keeps plugging along

Chip Ganassi Racing’s hot start has been well-documented. Kyle Larson is the points leader and Jamie McMurray is tied for sixth in the standings.

But it’s not just Ganassi that is out-running some of the bigger teams this season.

Roush Fenway Racing is much improved, and both drivers finished in the top 11 on Monday (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 11th). In addition, Bayne is 12th in the standings and Stenhouse is 16th (although would currently be on the outside of the playoffs because Kurt Busch has a win and is 18th).

If they keep collecting top-15 finishes, that will be enough to keep them in playoff contention all summer. And right now, they’ve combined for 11 top-15s after having a combined 24 all of last year — this after just eight races.

Are they going to win? Probably not anytime soon. But they’re both ahead of six drivers in the standings from Hendrick, Gibbs and Stewart-Haas, so that’s an accomplishment after the last couple years.

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!

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.