• 48°

NASCAR claims victory just for getting to finish line

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

AVONDALE, Ariz. — NASCAR will take the checkered flag on its season, one of the longest in professional sports, celebrating its ability to work through the pandemic and close its year.

The season was suspended March 13 after just four of 36 races had been completed. The shutdown lasted 10 weeks, a hectic time in which the industry wasn’t sure it could survive.

Nobody makes any money unless NASCAR runs its races and the sport was desperate to get back to work. NASCAR was one of the first sports to resume in May, one of the first to get fans back at its events, and used a crammed and overhauled schedule of doubleheaders and midweek races to get to today’s season finale.

When the Cup champion is crowned at Phoenix Raceway, all three of
NASCAR’s national series will have completed their full season.

“I would suggest this is the single most difficult year that we’ve faced as a sport,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said Saturday in the annual state of the sport — held for the first time over Zoom.

“What we have done during this global pandemic is I think nothing short of remarkable,” Phelps added. “I believe we’re stronger as a sport today than we were pre-COVID. We showed this year as a sport that we did as good or a better job than any sport did, frankly, getting back early and often.

“As of now, as of tomorrow, we’re the only major sport that finished a full season. Certainly proud of that.”

Phelps spent almost a full hour addressing how NASCAR handled the pandemic, the direction the sport is headed and Kevin Harvick’s stunning failure to advance to today’s championship race.

NASCAR in 2014 introduced elimination rounds in the playoffs and a winner-take-all finale that Harvick won in that debut season. He seemed certain to be headed back to the final four after winning nine races and the regular season title, but he was eliminated last week after a mediocre third round of the playoffs.

Phelps noted the system was designed to create excitement and the best team doesn’t always win.

“I think this system, how the playoff system worked… gave fans what they wanted, which was intense drama and really this just amazing competition,” Phelps said.

7-time champs Knaus, Johnson exit together

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — There will never be another NASCAR combination like Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. They built the No. 48 together and dominated the sport for more than a decade.

Johnson and Knaus won a record-tying seven championships, including a stretch of five straight, and Johnson’s 83 Cup victories rank sixth all-time. Although they were split at Hendrick Motorsports in 2018 after an unprecedented 17 seasons, they both retire after today’s season finale.

Johnson will run a partial IndyCar schedule next season and find new forms of competition. Knaus is moving into an executive role at Hendrick Motorsports.

“It’s a legacy and you want it to go on and on and it just can’t,” Rick Hendrick said.

Johnson was a little-known California driver who somehow convinced Jeff Gordon to vouch for him with Hendrick. He had won next to nothing of importance at the time.

Knaus was a highly motivated crew chief developed inside the Hendrick factory under Hall of Famer Ray Evernham on Gordon’s celebrated “Rainbow Warriors” crew. He left Hendrick for four seasons to continue climbing into his dream job, but Hendrick summoned him back before the 2001 season to build the No. 48 around Johnson.

Johnson and Knaus were the longest paired driver and crew chief of their generation, sticking together even after bickering between the two nearly led to a 2005 split. Hendrick ordered them to air their grievances over milk and cookies because he believed both were acting like children.

They lasted through the 2018 season, two years after they won the record-tying seventh championship.

“They were like brothers. In the very beginning, Chad had that drive to push Jimmie. And then Jimmie became a champion and it wasn’t the same relationship,” Hendrick explained. “Jimmie was like ‘OK, I’m a seven-time champion. I want to run this team now.

“They had success and they had a friendship.”

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