Petree: “I think you’re going to see a performance out of Jimmie Johnson like you’ve never seen.”
The NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES wraps the 2016 season this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano will battle for the championship. Below, FOX NASCAR analysts four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, and former crew chiefs Andy Petree and Larry McReynolds offer their perspective on this weekend’s race and championship scenarios.
FOX SPORTS: Do you see a clear-cut favorite to win the championship?
Gordon: “No, I really don’t, because Kyle Busch’s stats at Homestead aren’t that impressive, but he won at Homestead last year when he had to for the championship, and he’s been really strong all year. Carl (Edwards) has been strong and won at Texas, and Homestead is one of his best tracks. I’d probably rank Joey Logano the lowest because I haven’t seen as much speed out of them on the mile-and-a-halves recently as earlier in the year. But at the same time, I’ve seen him run really well at Homestead, and he has some momentum right now. Jimmie (Johnson) – those guys have been on fire lately, and even though Homestead probably isn’t his best track stat-wise, you can’t count those guys out when a championship is on the line. They’ve been so good in the Chase. I’d probably put them as a favorite, but it’s so close between Carl, Kyle and Jimmie. However, I’d give Jimmie a slight advantage.”
Waltrip: “Not this year. All four have shown good speed on mile-and-a-half tracks. But if I had to pick one, I’d go with Joey Logano. Jimmie Johnson has speed now, but dang it if they haven’t made a lot of mistakes this season, and Carl Edwards hasn’t shown enough speed until the last couple of weeks. But all four have something they want to prove. Johnson wants to prove he can win seven championships to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Kyle Busch wants to prove that although he made the Chase on a short season due to injury last year and won the championship, he can run the entire year and still win it all. Carl wants to avenge losing the title to Tony Stewart in a tie, and Joey wants another shot after being the odds-on favorite last year before getting taken out of the running by Matt Kenseth.”
FOX SPORTS: When you first helped bring Jimmie Johnson into the Hendrick Motorsports fold, did you foresee him being the next driver to have a shot at tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s seven-championship mark?
Gordon: “Certainly, when we hired him, I thought he had potential and talent and would do well, but I don’t think I foresaw him doing what he has done. But when they won five in a row, I knew anything was possible. It’s not that surprising he’s battling for a seventh championship. But since NASCAR changed the format to an elimination style, we’ve seen the No. 48 team have some challenges to get to the final round. But with Jimmie, Chad Knaus and the whole Hendrick organization, that’s a strong combination and I don’t see how you couldn’t look at them as the ones to beat.”
FOX SPORTS: Jimmie Johnson is on the verge of winning a record-tying seventh NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES championship. Did you ever think you’d see a driver tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s records?
Waltrip: “I never thought I’d ever see a seventh championship in my lifetime by any driver. At the time, what Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty did was sort of unheard of. No one has come close until Jimmie Johnson came along. The amazing thing about him is the success he’s had in the short amount of time he has been in the sport. His numbers are ones I never thought we’d see after Jeff Gordon retired, and they put Jimmie in a league all his own. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him win a seventh title, whether this weekend or in the future.”
FOX SPORTS: You were the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt when he won his seventh championship to tie Richard Petty. How do you compare Jimmie Johnson’s current situation to the one you and Earnhardt found yourselves in back in 1994?
Petree: “We won the sixth championship in 1993, and going into the next year, I could see in Dale’s eyes that this was big for him. He was very respectful of ‘The King’ and knowing that if he won that seventh championship, it would put him up on the same pedestal as him. He didn’t want to compare himself to the king of the sport, but he really wanted this. I see the same thing in Jimmie – he’s being very respectful to the champions who have won seven, but he really wants this. I think you’re going to see a performance out of Jimmie Johnson like you’ve never seen.” --on FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub
FOX SPORTS: Could Jimmie Johnson be considered in the “greatest of all time” conversation?
Petree: “He could very well be. There’s a good argument for that. A lot of people would vote with their hearts and go with the King and Earnhardt, but Jimmie carries himself with such class and is an unbelievable athlete. I think there could be a good argument for him being the best ever.” --on FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub
FOX SPORTS: Although your FOX NASCAR on-air duties have concluded for this season, do you wish you could sneak into the TV booth to call the Homestead race, given the fact your friend and former teammate, Jimmie Johnson, has a shot at tying the record?
Gordon: “Yes. Yes, I would. I was listening to the radio on the way to the office today and was at Hendrick Motorsports in the debrief the other day listening to what the teams are doing to gear up for the race. There are so many extraordinary storylines. Whether a non-Chaser who’s in the mix, like Alex Bowman at Phoenix, or just those four (Chase contenders), what they’ll have to do and all the pressure on them, I’d love to be a part of that.”
FOX SPORTS: Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards will be the first teammates to compete against each other for the championship at Homestead in the elimination-style format. Do you expect either to give the other more leeway than they would the other two drivers?
Gordon: “When you’re involved in a multi-car organization, you love having teammates when you go to Daytona and Talladega and love sharing information and figuring out how you can benefit the whole organization. But when it comes down to a championship, that can work against you because you want all that support on your side. That’s sort of what Hendrick has with three other teams that can support Jimmie, or Brad (Keselowski) can support Joey. Two teams are supporting Carl and Kyle, but those two are competing against each other. They’re really going to have to figure out how they’re going to race one another and be clear on communicating that. When a championship is on the line, you’ve got to race everybody hard, and I think teammates will go out the window when the green flag drops. If I was the car owner, I’d tell them, ‘Only one of you can win, but let’s make sure one of you wins.’”
Waltrip: “People often make a big deal out of teammates helping teammates, but when you get to the championship round, it’s the No. 18 versus the No. 19. They won’t do anything to help or hurt each other. It’s every man for himself, and they won’t cut each other a bigger break than they would Jimmie (Johnson) or Joey (Logano). You don’t have to work for me, but don’t work against me. They won’t go out of their way to help each other.”
McReynolds: “It’s the first time to ever have teammates in the Championship 4, and I couldn’t think of a more interesting group to have than two of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers. Let’s see – what did Carl Edwards do to Kyle Busch at Richmond?” --on FS1’s NASCAR Race Hub
FOX SPORTS: Will it take winning the race at Homestead to win the championship?
Gordon: “History will tell you yes. But you’ve got Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and the other two Joe Gibbs Racing cars that have been really strong all year long and could win. There’s a good chance a non-Chase driver will win this race. But I think you’ll see all four Chase drivers battling up front all day long, just like we saw at Phoenix.”
FOX SPORTS: What will you be watching for Sunday at Homestead?
Waltrip: “Penalties. We saw what happened with Elliott Sadler at the end of the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Phoenix with loose lugnuts costing him his crew chief this weekend. On Sunday, we saw NASCAR call a rule but isn’t flagged often – pulling up to pit – so, officials are trying to keep the playing field level in this championship battle. It’s going to come down to who makes a mistake, whether in the pits or on the track. Drivers and crew members have to be able to handle the pressure. You can play with emotion, but don’t let emotion play with you. If you make a mistake, shake it off and get back in the game. Time and time again, Jimmie Johnson is the best at that. He is the master at taking something adverse that happens to him and pushing on. Kyle Busch is a little vulnerable in that department, as is Joey Logano.”