It’s not panic time yet for still winless Jimmie Johnson, but there is cause for concern even this early in the season

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Jimmie Johnson’s magic number is now down to 18.

Still winless in 2014, Johnson isn’t in panic mode yet, but he knows what will happen if by some fluke he fails to win at least two races in the remaining 18 regular season races: he’ll likely miss the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

What’s more, he’ll fail in his bid to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven career Cup championships this season.

It’s doubtful that Johnson won’t win between now and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond in early September. After all, this IS Jimmie Johnson we’re talking about. A win, if not two or more, is almost a given for him in the next 18 races.

Plus, that would assure he makes the Chase for sure.

But for whatever reason, Johnson keeps coming up short of victory lane in 2014. He had the race won at Fontana, only to suffer tire issues.

He had the race won at Martinsville, only to be outraced to the finish line by Kurt Busch.

He had the race won Saturday at Darlington, only to get a bad jump on the final restart and then – almost embarrassingly – having Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. be pushed to the lead by eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

While Johnson would likely give anything to be in Harvick’s place – especially since it would have been Johnson’s fourth career win at the Track Too Tough to Tame if things had worked out as he hoped – finishing third wasn’t all that bad, either.

“Yeah, (I’m) just very happy to finish there in the top three,” Johnson said. “I thought we had a shot at a win. I think if things stayed green after our last pit stop, we had a good chance at it, good shot at it. I’m happy with Chad’s decision to go with two (tires), and there were enough cars that took two that it gave us a little bit of a cushion, maybe enough of a cushion to make it four or five laps there.

“Solid performance, granted we struggled in qualifying. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old-fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop, so proud of the hard work.”

While Johnson didn’t question crew chief Chad Knaus’s decision to go with just two tires on that final pit stop, there likely is going to be a lot of second-guessing by others, particularly since Harvick was one of the few drivers near the front of the field that took four tires.

And if there’s one thing to be singled out that won it for Harvick, it was that four-tire call.

“I definitely think he has been the fastest car all year long,” Johnson said of Harvick. “You look at the races that he didn’t finish, Vegas, Texas, some tracks where they’ve been the fastest car and had issues.

“I think that Rodney (crew chief Rodney Childers) and Kevin both, they’ve really been on it to start the season, and I think we all have been chasing them, honestly.”

So where does Johnson go from here? With the upcoming off-weekend for Easter, it’ll give him and Johnson time to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going.

To hear Johnson say it, they’re very close to winning, perhaps as soon as when the series reconvenes in two weeks at Richmond.

“For us, it’s just unloading closer,” Johnson said. “We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and honestly have a shot to win some races.

“But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We’re really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we’ve learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we’ve had to continue to work on it each week. That’s really our goal is to show up closer.”

Johnson isn’t worried about getting that first win soon, or even a second win before September’s race at Richmond, which would pretty much assure him of making the Chase.

It’s good to have that kind of confidence and winning attitude.

But stranger things have happened, too. Go back to 2011. If this year’s “win to get in” changes to make the Chase were in effect back then, think of what would have happened:

* Tony Stewart would not have won the championship. Sure, Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races, but he had zero wins heading into the Chase. If the new format was around back then, Stewart wouldn’t have even made the Chase.

* What’s more, we would have been deprived of the closest championship finish in NASCAR history. Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the regular season tied for first place. But because Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one, Stewart was granted his third career Sprint Cup championship, while Edwards is still seeking his first.

And then there’s Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who is in the same winless boat as Johnson. Gordon is also likely starting to wonder what the next 18 races hold in store for him, and how he can win two races in that period as well. Consider the following:

* If Gordon doesn’t win a couple of races between now and September, being in the points lead now will ultimately mean nothing.

* Also, look at Gordon’s record over the last six seasons: in 2011, he won three races. In 2012, he won two. In 2013 and 2009, he won just one race. And in 2008 and 2010, Gordon didn’t win any races. If the new changes to the Chase format would have been in effect those last six years, Gordon would have missed the Chase at least twice and possibly as many as four times.

That’s a pretty sobering thought. And don’t think Johnson hasn’t thought about all those scenarios. While he and Gordon aren’t in a state of urgency yet, with each race that goes by, their magic number to miss the Chase will grow smaller and smaller.

And what would that do to NASCAR if its defending champion – and six-time overall champion – as well as a four-time champ both miss what NASCAR has designed to become the ultimate Chase?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”