Jimmie Johnson faces end of Sprint Cup title reign after 17th-place finish in Charlotte

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NASCAR’s current king, Jimmie Johnson, may be losing his throne very soon.

Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion, desperately needed a strong result last night at Charlotte Motor Speedway following a crash in the Contender Round opener at Kansas.

And it appeared the champ would rise to the occasion with a Top-5 finish that would at least improve his outlook heading to next Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega.

But after the caution came out with seven laps to go in the Bank of America 500, Johnson abandoned fourth position and went to the pits under yellow for right-side tires while the rest of the leaders stayed out.

The decision put Johnson in 10th for the restart with two to go, and the final rush to the checkered flag went badly as Johnson faded to 17th at the finish.

It was a poor conclusion to an up-and-down night that saw Johnson make significant progress from 21st on the starting grid but also have some tense radio conversations between himself and crew chief Chad Knaus.

The end result won’t make matters better for Johnson, who’s now 26 points behind the Top 8 cutoff for the Eliminator Round at 11th on the Chase Grid.

Johnson cracked the Top 10 on the track shortly after the restart at Lap 100 of 334, and with the help of good pit stops, he was able to stay in that bracket through the middle stages of the race.

A two-tire stop under yellow with 65 laps to go enabled Johnson to move up to third position behind Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. He slipped back a couple of positions in the early parts of this stint, but was able to remain in the Top 5 after a final round of green flag stops with less than 25 to go.

Then came the caution with 7 to go for Brian Vickers blowing an engine. Eventual race winner Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Hamlin were ahead of Johnson at the time, but instead of staying out with them, Johnson was called in – a decision that, in hindsight, appeared to backfire severely.

Now, he’s down to what is effectively a win or bust scenario at Talladega, the most unpredictable track in NASCAR.

It’s a situation that Johnson clearly wanted no part of after the end of the Challenger Round at Dover, saying then that such a situation would have drivers “on pins and needles and stressing like crazy.”

However, now that’s he in the spot he’s in, it would appear he’s trying to embrace it. He tweeted the following this morning:

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.