Did You Notice? … NASCAR is dealing with an unspeakable tragedy that casts a shadow over what should be a historic race weekend at the Chicago Street Course.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson withdrew his No. 84 Chevrolet Tuesday (June 27) after news broke both his in-laws and a nephew-in-law were killed in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The deaths are currently being investigated as a murder-suicide.
In announcing the withdrawal on Twitter, the team made clear there would be no additional statements made by the Johnson family, at least in the short term.
The situation is both tragic and heartbreaking. In the coming days, I urge those reading to wait for the facts to come out surrounding this case and let the police department do their jobs. Johnson, his wife, Chandra, and their two daughters simply need NASCAR’s emotional support across the board, something this sport excels at whenever one of their own is in need.
Johnson had been pumped up to run the street course with the team he co-owns, Legacy Motor Club, commenting just two weeks ago how he hoped two years of running the NTT IndyCar Series full time would give him an edge. Instead, a nightmare season for Legacy continues both on and off the racetrack. This tragedy comes mere days after Erik Jones delivered the team’s second-best effort of the season, an eighth at Nashville Superspeedway.
This type of tragedy is unfortunately not the first one to happen within the NASCAR Cup Series. Robby Gordon lost his own parents in September 2016 in what police concluded was a gruesome murder-suicide. Johnson was vocal in supporting his former competitor back then. Now, it’s his turn to need some love from the racing community after an unspeakable tragedy.
Thoughts and prayers go out to everyone involved.
Did You Notice? … There are three unique road course ringers trying their hand at the Chicago Street Course this weekend? Since Chicago levels the playing field for everyone, as it’s the first time in the modern era NASCAR is attempting to drive a street course, there’s no better opportunity for a driver from another series to come in and steal a surprise victory.
Who are these drivers and what are their chances? Let’s start with the one making their NASCAR debut: Shane van Gisbergen. Van Gisbergen comes from halfway across the world, a New Zealand native whose racing career has centered around the Australian V8 Supercar Series (now called the Repco Supercars Championship).
For those old enough to remember Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose, the V8 Supercars are the same series he came from, winning two championships and over two dozen races before moving across the Pacific to try his hand at NASCAR in 2006. He’s considered one of the more successful drivers in series history and translated that success into two Cup Series wins.
But compared to van Gisbergen, it’s like Ambrose isn’t even racing on the same straightaway. The defending V8 Supercars champion set a record by winning 21 races last year alone. He’s got 35 victories combined in the last two seasons, dominant with the Red Bull organization that’s pulling off similar kinds of numbers in Formula 1 with Max Verstappen.
It makes van Gisbergen a name everyone should know immediately; he’s capable of contending the first time he straps behind the wheel of a stock car. The first time Ambrose ran on a NASCAR road course, in his third career NASCAR Xfinity Series start, he came home eighth in Mexico City. One would argue that was driving lesser equipment (JTG Daugherty Racing) than what Nashville Superspeedway winners Trackhouse Racing will give van Gisbergen in the No. 91.
The previous driver of that car, Kimi Raikkonen, was able to drive up toward the top 10 at times during the Circuit of the Americas race in March. And Raikkonen, retired from full-time driving, is shaking off plenty more rust than a Verstappen-level driver competing on road courses every week. Could dipping the toe in the water here for van Gisbergen be the start of a similar Ambrose-like quest come 2024? We’ll soon find out.
The other two ringers, Jenson Button and Andy Lally, have already driven in a Cup race this season. Button, the 2009 Formula 1 champion, came home an impressive 18th at COTA, the fifth-best performance for anyone driving a Rick Ware Racing car this season (keep in mind three of those were at pack-racing tracks, Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where horsepower restrictions give everyone an equal shot). Not bad for a 43-year-old who hasn’t driven full-time in any series in over six years.
Button’s F1 background, though should be perfect for a street course format few NASCAR Cup drivers are familiar with. Equipment could be the only handicap; even with Stewart-Haas Racing assistance in recent years, RWR cars have a grand total of one top five (David Ragan, 2020 Daytona 500) in 552 career starts.
Lally faces that same problem. The 2011 NASCAR Rookie of the Year struggled in his Cup return at Sonoma Raceway, the slowest car on speed for much of the afternoon. He wound up 35th, a lap off the pace, ahead of only Denny Hamlin after the No. 11 Toyota driver wrecked out midway through the final stage.
But Lally, at age 48, is still running part-time in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series, experience that should serve him well at the street course. Just earlier this year, he picked up a runner-up class finish at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona and was fourth at Laguna Seca back in May.
While the least likely of the trio to surprise out front, his best-ever finish (18th) came on the Watkins Glen International road course with underfunded equipment way back in 2010. Crashing out just twice in 41 career Cup starts, Lally’s likely to bring the car home in one piece — and survival may be the name of the game come Sunday.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- It’s a small sample size, but the previous two Nashville winners (Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott) went on to qualify for the Championship 4. It’s a huge statement race coming off the lone off-week of the year; it’s important to start on the right foot with limited, if any, breathing room from here. This trend bodes well for Ross Chastain who, as I wrote on CBS Sports, seems to have gotten a monkey off his back.
- A closer look at the standings shows that, even if we have 17 winners, you’re unlikely to have the same high drama as last year in terms of a potential championship contender (like Martin Truex Jr.) missing the field. Kevin Harvick (fifth) is the only driver left inside the top 10 in points without a victory, and Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled to produce front-running speed (unfortunately, I say that knowing Harvick was my pick for this year’s title back in February).
- That said, Harvick will want to avoid a recent trend: Johnson missed the playoffs during his final full-time year in 2020, along with Ryan Newman in 2021. His soon-to-be-fellow boothmate, Clint Bowyer, qualified in 2020 but failed to win.
- Keep an eye on AJ Allmendinger this weekend. It’s a driver who runs on emotional confidence and got a much-needed boost by that NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Nashville this past weekend. He’s got the street experience needed here to put a whoopin’ on the field under the right circumstances.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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