Jimmie Johnson’s win tied him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh all-time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. How high will Johnson rise on the list before he retires? Can he catch mentor Jeff Gordon, who sits third with 93 wins?
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I think Jimmie Johnson’ll slot in just behind Jeff Gordon. He can catch Gordon, but he needs 17 wins, and Johnson turns 41 this year. If he wins five races a year, he’ll catch Gordon when he’s 44 or 45, and five races a year is no given. He certainly won’t come close to David Pearson. But really, what else does Johnson need to prove? He’s the best of his era, one of the best of any era. Anything else he does at this point is gravy.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Johnson will most certainly surpass Gordon’s win total of 93 — or will he? When Gordon notched win No. 76, it was in the midst of a seven-win, 30-top-10 season in 2007, and production declined almost immediately thereafter. I don’t see Johnson nosing over win-wise, even with the addition of Chase Elliott to the Hendrick Motorsports stable. He’s still its moneymaker and will be for the foreseeable future, along with, coincidentally, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. If Johnson ends up third all-time, he, along with Gordon, will still be viewed in a different league than Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt.
Sean Fesko, Contributor: I think this stat is most telling: Gordon scored 76 wins at age 35, and of his 93 wins, only eight came after he turned 40, which is where Johnson is now. If Johnson follows Gordon and Tony Stewart’s example, he’ll hang it up in a handful of seasons with a win total higher than it is now but still short of 93 (let’s say the high-80s). The only thing going for him is this new race package – if his team truly has a better handle on it than others, he could go on a tear and win a lot of races.
Dustin Albino, Contributor: Johnson will be third on the all-time wins list in the Cup Series prior to retirement. Over the last couple of years he averages four to five wins a season, and he is still winning left and right. More times than not, the No. 48 car is among the teams to beat each and every week. Plus, he is arguably the most physically fit driver in the garage, meaning that his stamina and endurance inside of a racecar can last longer than other drivers. I say he ends his career with close to 100 checkered flags.
Michael Finley, Contributor: It’s difficult to say. On one hand, Tony Stewart has shown that it’s very easy to lose a lot of skill very quickly, and the Cup field is much more competitive from even just five years ago. On the other hand, Mark Martin was winning races and competing for a championship at 50. Between his lack of risk taking (unlike Stewart with his sprint car schedule) and athleticism, I think he’ll match or even exceed Gordon, but will finish below 100 wins and thus third all-time.
Television ratings for the race at Atlanta continued the freefall that began with the Daytona 500, even with a new rules package in place that produced a competitive race. Why aren’t fans tuning in?
Bryan Gable, Contributor: NASCAR’s TV ratings have been falling for the last 10 years, so the problem is not a new one. The changes that NASCAR has made during the Chase Era have genuinely alienated a lot of fans. The good news is that there is cause for optimism with the new aero package. A better racing product will bring fans back to the sport, but it will take more than just a few weeks.
Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: A lot of people have been turned off to the sport with all the changes that have occurred in the last 15 years or so. Every change that is made turns off more people. There isn’t so much hatred of the racing or the teams, it’s the sanctioning body. A lot of people probably feel that NASCAR won’t do what needs to be done for its own good. It’s frustrating at times.
Jason Schultz, Contributor: With the quality of racing higher than it has been in years and seemingly endless storylines each weekend, the low ratings have truly been surprising. Other than the abnormally nice weather up and down the East Coast during the past two Sundays that may have attracted people outside rather than watching a nearly four-hour-long race, I’m not sure where the problem lies. Hopefully the falling ratings even out sooner than later and this doesn’t become a downward trend throughout 2016.
Henderson: There are a lot of reasons, but one big one is because the TV coverage is terrible, with the tight shots and focus on the leader and a few others. If they showed the actual racing and battles throughout the field that the fans in the stands were treated to on Sunday, it would be more compelling. Instead, it all looks the same week after week.
Fesko: Fans are still disappointed with the direction NASCAR has headed the last few years. With a Chase format, a champion who missed 11 races and continual debris cautions, it’s easy to see why they aren’t tuning in like they once were. Atlanta was a decent race from the television side of things, and a better race if you were there live. If the network picks up on that racing and NASCAR doesn’t throw so many yellows, fans will return to watching in due time.
The low-downforce package saw a few drivers who are usually very strong on the intermediate tracks struggle, like Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne. Will the new package make things more competitive through the field, or was Sunday an anomaly?
Allaway: As interesting as Sunday’s race was to watch, Atlanta doesn’t really race like anything else on the schedule these days. However, if the struggles for Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne were to continue this weekend in Las Vegas, at Auto Club Speedway and Kansas, then yeah, they’ve got problems. It’s a little hard to tell whether it’s more competitive through the field because we didn’t see that much action outside of the top 10 Sunday.
Schultz: Sunday illustrated the beauty of this new package perfectly. It allowed a variety of drivers to be in contention for the win and top running spots. Over the years, the trend of competitive drivers has typically included the same five or six names. However, as teams continue to figure out the new package and its unpredictability, there’s a high chance for a more competitive field that will add another compelling aspect to each race.
Mark Howell, Senior Writer: Caution flags mix things up, and Atlanta had, what, three total yellows? A green flag run of 200-plus laps simply adds insult to injury if your car isn’t quite right. More yellows (for organic — not intentional — reasons) will allow struggling teams a better chance to make things right and become more competitive.
Henderson: Once everyone figures it out, it will be interesting to see if there are any new players at the top of the game. Casey Mears was absolutely impressive at Atlanta, while Hamlin and Kahne struggled. Drivers could certainly make up ground and pass if they were faster, so there is definitely a possibility that you’ll see some different faces in the top 15 now and then, which would be great for the sport — at least, if they got any coverage while doing it.
Albino: I think early on the field will be more evenly matched. Just look at qualifying last week; Roush Fenway Racing earned two top-5 starting positions. When the race started, they performed well; Stenhouse ran in the top 10 all afternoon. I believe by Charlotte we will know who is a real threat for the remainder of 2016.
With Daytona and Atlanta done, the series now heads west for three straight weekends. What should fans watch for in the West Coast swing?
Gable: The next few races should give us a taste of who can perform well week to week. Auto Club has hosted some entertaining races lately, but the recent events at Las Vegas and Phoenix have been duds, so I am anxious to see how the new aero package affects the racing at those tracks. Expect a Harvick win somewhere in the West Coast swing, but Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and the Team Penske drivers should be fast as well.
Finley: Atlanta is a pretty unique track with how much tire fall off there is. The only track with a more aged surface is Fontana, the final race of the West Coast swing. It’s always interesting because this swing as the three types of speedway ovals- the 1.5 miler in Vegas, the intermediate 1-1.5 miler in Phoenix and the 2-2.5-mile high-speed ovals like Fontana. It’s the real test to see if this package will work week to week.
Allaway: Fontana will likely see fewer tire failures due to less downforce (and, by extension, less pressure being exerted on the left side tires). That might be the most interesting of the three races. Also, nearly 20-year-old pavement should play a role as well. I really don’t think Phoenix is going to be that much different. Perhaps the groove will widen out a little. Next weekend will be the 10th race on the current version of PIR, and it’s still pretty narrow. However, Las Vegas this weekend is the most important of the three for the package. If this can create side-by-side racing and properly entertain, then I’ll be happy because it’ll mean the other 1.5-mile tri-ovals will work out fine.
Howell: Fans should remember two names: Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. Going west tends to agree with these two locals, and I expect nothing less over the next few weeks. As long as the weather cooperates and these two can manage their tire wear, I’m thinking we’ll be adding them to the Chase by April.
Pugliese: Kevin Harvick winning for the umpteenth time at Phoenix, Kyle Busch in Las Vegas and another victory by the No. 48 in California.
Fesko: Fans should enjoy some good racing, but really watch for Kevin Harvick. He won Phoenix and Vegas during this swing last year and is a recent winner at Auto Club. Will he be able to win all three races or will his team self destruct once again en route to the victory?