Jimmie Johnson: Kevin Harvick winning Sprint Cup title was “the right thing”

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Jimmie Johnson’s bid for a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was cut short in the Contender Round of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. Although he would win later in the Chase at Texas, he was left to essentially watch as Kevin Harvick emerged as the new champ.

During a Thursday function in Charlotte, North Carolina for his foundation, Johnson indicated that the final outcome was fine with him.

“I feel like Kevin winning was the right thing when you look at the winners and the dominant cars throughout the year,” Johnson said to reporters of Harvick, who won five times in 2014 and completed his run to the title with back-to-back victories at Phoenix and Homestead.

However, it could have all been different had Ryan Newman managed to defeat Harvick at Homestead in the final laps. Leading up to the championship finale, many observers pondered the prospect of Newman perhaps securing the Cup without a single race victory.

As the finale played out, it became clear that Newman would indeed have to beat Harvick to win the race and the title, and thus could not become the “winless champion.” But Johnson feels that had Newman won, it still wouldn’t have sat completely right.

“Ryan had every right in the world to be the champion – the rules were laid out that way – but if the 31 [Newman’s team] wins the championship, I think that would have been tough to swallow for the sport,” Johnson said.

“That’s not taking anything away from [team owner Richard] Childress or Ryan – they had an awesome year and collected a ton of points. [But] there’s some danger for the sport with this format.”

Before Homestead, NASCAR Chairman Brian France said that while the sanctioning body reserved the right to make tweaks, he put the possibility of tinkering with the Chase for 2015 at “very modest to zero.”

However, that did not stop Jeff Gordon from calling for a separate points system for all drivers involved in the post-season stretch. Additionally, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, a former Cup champion himself, proposed that should a Championship 4 driver be winless, he/she would have to win at Homestead to earn the title.

On Thursday, Johnson said perhaps a more radical change for the sport in general was needed – a format change for race weekends.

“Maybe we qualify on Saturday and that’s televised, and then we run some heat races and a feature on Sunday,” he said. “That fits in a four-hour time window. It sticks to our roots, sticks to what we’ve always had and done, gives some natural pauses for the show for the social element at the track.

“I think there’d be some good momentum with that personally. We’d still get 500 miles between practice, qualifying and all of that. I think that would be a pretty entertaining format.”

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500