Denny Hamlin raring to go for Chase’s Eliminator Round

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Denny Hamlin has been excited about his chances to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship Race, and for good reason: He’s won at all three of the Eliminator Round tracks – Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix – over the course of his career.

The question was if he would be among the final eight Chasers involved in said Eliminator Round.

Now that it’s been answered in the affirmative, Hamlin’s looking more and more like a proper sleeper to get in that final battle at Homestead next month.

He can make the leap from sleeper to true championship contender with a fifth career Cup victory at Martinsville Speedway in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500.

“Really, these tracks are statistically my best race tracks in this Chase,” Hamlin said today. “I’m pretty excited about our chances. We’ve got a big obstacle ahead of us this weekend at Martinsville. We’re just going to enjoy it, have fun and see where we all stack up.”

Hamlin and his fellow Chaser from Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth, may not have as much speed as some of the others within the Eliminator 8. But consistency up front can trump that speed if a faster driver has something go wrong for him.

“One loose wheel, one crash pretty much takes you out of it. If you can’t finish these races in a good finishing position, then it doesn’t matter how fast your cars are,” he said. “You have to have all the pieces to the puzzle together now that you’re part of the final eight, because the four that move on will be the four that stand out I think in this round.

“It’s not going to be about surviving or backing your way [in]. I don’t think anybody other than the [Martinsville and Texas] race winners will be going into Phoenix thinking, ‘Okay, let’s just have a solid week here and move on to Homestead.’ There is no more hanging back and trying to be conservative from here on out. You’ve got to be fast.”

As for who he considers his stiffest competition, Hamlin naturally chose Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, both of whom have won eight times at Martinsville.

Gordon can also punch his ticket to South Florida with a win on Sunday. But Johnson, despite being eliminated from the Chase in the Contender Round, can still have an impact by winning himself as it would take away one of the automatic berths for the Championship Race.

Hamlin figures he may always be fighting Gordon and Johnson on this particular track.

“In the end, you’re still going to be racing the same guys in my opinion, no matter what the changes are because they have a technique to get around this race track that is going to make them successful whether they’re driving a Cup car or a truck,” he said. “It’s worked for them for so many years, there’s no turning back.

“They’ll never be bad at this race track ever again – it don’t matter what tire, what car – eventually they’ll figure it out. It’s just a matter of if you have one of those off weekends or not.”

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”