Johnson: Chase pressure set to ramp up in Contender Round


For defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the favorites in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the goal of the Challenger Round was simply to avoid being eliminated.

But with the Contender Round beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway – and said round ending with an elimination race at the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway – Johnson figures the pressure to win races and advance to the next round will go up from here on in.

“I feel like for a lot of the Chasers in that first round of the event, you just really kind of had to be ahead of that bottom four,” he said today at Kansas Speedway. “And then we all moved on. And as we get closer to Homestead, I think the intensity for the Chasers is going to start multiplying a bunch as we go.

“I think it starts here. With Talladega at the end of this block, I think the pressure is really going to start ramping up for everybody.”

From the end of last weekend’s Challenger Round finale at Dover, Johnson has stressed how important it will be for himself and the remaining Chasers to score a win either at Kansas or next weekend at Charlotte to avoid the stress of having to survive Talladega in order to reach the Eliminator Round (Top 8).

Johnson feels confident that he can accomplish that mission, which isn’t unreasonable of him considering that he won the Coke 600 at Charlotte back in May. As for Kansas, he expects track position to play a major role in the outcome due to a racing groove that isn’t as wide as some other tracks.

“It puts a huge importance on today in qualifying and the pit road pick,” Johnson said of this afternoon’s qualifying session, slated to begin around 5:45 p.m. ET. “And then when you get in the race, the strategy. We saw a lot of two-tire stuff when we were in the spring and I would imagine it would be the same. So, track position is really going to be the name of the game.”

Johnson is also helped by a decent mental outlook when it comes to Kansas. He’s had a lot of success there and while some drivers may despise the tricky 1.5-mile oval, he usually enters the heartland with a good idea of where he wants to be over the course of the weekend.

“I think we’ve had examples of tracks and drivers over the years that some people just don’t like going to them and that black cloud follows them around and they have a bad day,” he said. “It’s one small piece, I think, of our success and our championships is that the races in the Chase have been good tracks for us. And we show up with smiles on our faces and we kind of know what we’re looking for if we’re off base.”

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).