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Friday 5: The ‘best-kept secret’ in NASCAR is champion’s journal few have seen

Denny Hamlin catches up with Marty Snider to discuss why this year's Daytona 500 may be "harder than ever," his quest for a three-peat, learning on the fly as an owner and preparing for 23XI Racing's debut.

The NASCAR Cup Series championship is forever. The memories are special, but there is one thing about winning a Cup title that makes Joey Logano’s smile stretch a bit wider.

“The coolest part about winning the championship,” he tells NBC Sports of the journal passed from one champion to the next. “It is the best-kept secret in our sport. That’s the best part about this is that nobody even really knows what it is. Nobody knows ... what’s written in it.”

The journal’s existence was hidden until 2017, when Jimmie Johnson posted a picture on social media handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr., the series champ that year. Johnson started the tradition in 2011 after a chat with NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton about how nothing was passed from one champion t the next.

The tradition continued in December. Kyle Busch gave the journal to reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott when both competed in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

Elliott said he is waiting to find the right time to go through the book.

“That’s been one of the coolest things about this whole deal is taking possession of it and getting to read it,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “It makes you wish that somebody had started that back 30-plus, 40 years ago to just see what some of those guys would have to say or even when NASCAR was started. I think it would be really cool.

“On the flip side, I think about the guy or the girl who wins the championship in 2050 or 2060. How cool is that going to be to look back to see what Tony Stewart had to say or what Jimmie Johnson had to say, two legends of our time. Really cool tradition and proud to be a part of that.”

Busch said he spent a good bit of time thinking about what to write to Elliott. Busch wrote multiple drafts before penning the page-long note.

NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - MAY 31: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Skittles Toyota, talks with Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Getty Images

“I ran out of space,” Busch told NBC Sports. “I filled a whole page. I probably could have done a page and a half on the backside if I kept going. I tried to keep it to a page because it seems everybody was keeping it to a page, so I didn’t want to be the guy to screw it up.”

What did he need all that space to say?

“Just that, to me, it’s the growth of Chase Elliott,” Busch said. “I’ve seen him at such a young age and as a young driver and race against guys much older than him, much more experienced than him.

“He grew up with a famous father. He grew up on TV. His dad was friends with Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. He was in pictures with Dale Sr. all the time and stuff like that.

“I guess I just was kind of explaining like, ‘Hey, this is new territory for you, but this is a territory where you can not necessarily change the sport or change the world, but man, just live it up and enjoy it and know that you’re Chase Elliott and now that you’re a champion, you’ve made it in this sport.’”

While Busch needed a few drafts before writing, Martin Truex Jr. needed more time before giving the journal to Logano. Truex did so a few months after Logano bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win the Martinsville playoff race and advance to the championship in Miami. Logano beat Truex for the 2018 title.

“When it came time for me to write mine, it was tough,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I had to wait a little while, because I didn’t want to write something that just kind of came out, a knee-jerk reaction. I wanted to make sure I wrote what I should write, which is take the heat-of-the-battle things out of it and write important things that somebody would enjoy reading after I’m done racing and this stuff doesn’t matter anymore.

“Jimmie gave it to me at the banquet (the previous year). I couldn’t give it to Joey until the next season started. I feel like I did it for the right reasons. In the end, I meant what I wrote and felt he deserved to have something written to him that meant something.

“It’s a big enough honor to ignore your feelings of hate or resentment or being mad about any race and talk about more what it means to pass on a championship, to pass the torch in something that is really bigger than you are.”

Logano said fear was among the emotions he felt when he received it from Truex.

“The first thing you think is, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to be the guy to lose this,’” Logano said. “First thing, I put it in a safe.

“It’s so much fun to take this step back. Jimmie started it and you start reading. They’re one page most of the time, a letter to the next champ. Some of them are pretty deep. Some of them are very quick. ‘Here you go, whatever.’

“There’s usually a story that goes behind it. It’s really fun to just read through it. It’s something that I thought was very special. I thought it was the coolest part of winning the championship just because of the uniqueness of the book and seeing people’s stories and their feelings about maybe their championship season or whatever it may be to the next champion.

“I hope to get it again. I’d love to see kind of where it’s gone over the last couple of years.”

When his reign ended, Logano presented the journal to Busch. They’ve had their issues and Logano sought to address that.

“I wrote a letter to Kyle,” Logano said. “Obviously, Kyle and I have had our run-ins on the racetrack and there’s no secret to that. At the same time, I think we respect each other as competitors. I think we’re very different people, but I think as competitors, we’re probably more similar than he thinks. It’s just kind of connecting at a different level and then handing it off.”

How did Busch feel about Logano’s note?

“I can admit I was not touched by what Joey wrote to me,” Busch said. “I felt as though he was trying to explain something or why our differences were. He was giving his side of the story and not necessarily understanding both sides of the story.

“He can say he put a lot of effort into it and thought into it and that’s great. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. But under different interpretations, it could come off a little bit differently. That’s all. I think the champion’s journal is pretty cool. It’s got some unique touches to it.”

2. New owners coming to NASCAR?

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, hinted Thursday to reporters that new ownership groups could be coming to NASCAR.

“I’ll say candidly that we’re talking to no less than two potential owners that are not racing today — that are outside the sport entirely — because of (the) Next Gen (car), because of circumstance, because of the relationship we’ve been building,” he said.

“They’re interested in taking a shot potentially. That’s exciting when you get new ownership that comes from the business world that is well funded, that’s credible. I think the sport is going to be rocked. Stay tuned.”

The Next Gen car, which is scheduled to debut next season, has been cited as a reason for raising the interest in team ownership. While costs will be high the first year as teams change from the current car to the new one, the Next Gen car is anticipate to help reduce costs to team owners by year three or four. That makes the financial model for team ownership more viable for more owners.
Wilson said he is interested in adding another, as he calls it, “top-tier” Cup team to the Toyota family.

“I’d love to see three organizations that are relatively independent and are healthy from a sponsorship standpoint and have top-tier driver talent,” he said. “We’re counting 23XI (Racing) as one of those three teams (along with Joe Gibbs Racing).”

Denny Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan, has made it known that the organization wants to expand to a multi-car team at some point.

The 23XI Racing team is one of three new Cup teams this season. Trackhouse Racing is in the Chevrolet camp, and Live Fast Motorsports is a Ford team.

3. New look

One of the challenges in starting a season with the Daytona 500 is that new spotter/driver combinations don’t have much time to work together before one of the year’s biggest races.

That’s critical because Daytona and Talladega are among the tracks that spotters matter the most to drivers. Ensuring that the spotter feeds the driver what they want and how they want it is something that can take time.

Brad Keselowski experienced the adjustment in 2019 when Coleman Pressley became his spotter.

Keselowski said that Pressley “was up to speed right away. Still, there’s a comfort level that comes with who you are working with. Those reps take time. You can’t really simulate them.

“I look at 2016 where Matt Kenseth didn’t have his normal spotter and it probably cost him the 500.”

Denny Hamlin won that race, passing Kenseth in Turn 3 on the last lap. Kenseth went high to block and Hamlin cut underneath. Kenseth did not counter Hamlin’s move quick enough. Hamlin went on to edge Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Truex and Michael McDowell are among the drivers with new spotters this season.

Truex has Drew Herring as his spotter to help get better at speedway racing. Truex is winless in 16 Daytona 500s.

“Drew’s been working really hard in the offseason to prepare for this, and as a driver himself, he knows the things that I need to hear and want to hear,” Truex said. “It will be a work in progress for sure. It will take a little time to get on the same page and just to be able to understand exactly what he means when he says something.”

Truex’s former spotter, Clayton Hughes, will be McDowell’s spotter. McDowell has finished in the top 10 in two of the last three Daytona 500s.

“Having Clayton up on top of the roof gives me a lot of confidence,” McDowell said. “He’s won a lot of races and won a championship and has worked with Martin for a long time and worked with a lot of great drivers, so he’s a huge asset that we’re very fortunate to bring to Front Row.

“But, like you said, it’s tough to come to Daytona not working with somebody and getting that communication down, so (Wednesday) in practice, we jumped right out in the draft and tried to get in the pack just so we could kind of get used to each other a little bit. Everything has gone pretty smooth and then (Thursday) with the Duels, that will give us an opportunity to race and then debrief afterwards and talk about what I need different, what he can do different, what I can do different.”

4. Changes to make

While the last-lap contact between Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney made for a thrilling finish with Kyle Busch winning Tuesday’s Clash, it overshadowed a key issue in the race.

Dirt and mud were kicked up on the track in the backstretch chicane known as the “bus stop.” Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick each spun after hitting the dirt and mud. Truex hit the wall and his race was over.

While the Clash was an exhibition race, the series holds a points race on the Daytona road course on Feb. 21, a week after the 500.

Drivers said some sort of adjustment needs to be made in that area of the chicane before next weekend’s race.

“I think we need some sort of curbing,” Kurt Busch said. “It needs to be a mid-range style height. The big yellow curbs that are on the front straightaway chicane are a bit too abrupt for the speed that we run back there. The paint, where it was, once we rubbered that in on the curbing, you couldn’t tell where the curbing ended and the grass started.”

Said Truex: “The biggest thing is that was the first time we’ve raced here at night. It was a lot darker. It was really hard to see. It was really hard to distinguish where the grass was, where the curb started. Then when guys started going through the mud, track conditions changed lap to lap. I think we need some kind of visual that is not just flat. The rumble strips in the bus stop are even with the grass and the pavement. With it being that dark, you can’t distinguish it.”

Next weekend’s race is scheduled 3 p.m. ET, so darkness shouldn’t be an issue.

“When we were here in August, you could see the sand and the dust pick up and be on the racetrack,” Truex said. “But it wasn’t mud. I definitely think we could do something better.”

5. Offense is the best defense

Aric Almirola admits that his tactic at the end of his qualifying race might not work all the time, but it was a move he felt he had to make to win the race.

Entering Turn 3, Joey Logano was second to Almirola. Logano was backing to Christopher Bell, who was third, to get a push to get by Almirola. That’s when Almirola made his move.
“I just knew I wanted to try to move around before he started his run to try and mess up his run or get him off on thinking which way he was going to go,” Almirola said. “I was able to do that to where I could at least get him going in a direction that I knew he was going to go opposite of me rather than me guessing where he was going to go.

“I felt like I did everything I could. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop his run. I wasn’t going to be able to just blatantly block him. That would probably cause a wreck. Our race car was way too fast. I wasn’t going to concede the win, but I certainly wasn’t going to get my really fast Smithfield Ford Mustang tore up trying to be overly defensive.

“I made a move one way, then I blocked the top. He got to my inside. I was able to just side draft him and pull him back to where he couldn’t clear me.”

That’s one way drivers have to counter the runs trailing cars get. Blocking those runs can lead to wrecks.
“You still can get wrecked if you block too much,” said Austin Dillon, who won the second qualifying race. “I noticed that. There’s some that you don’t want to step in front of, then there’s some if you time it early enough, you can step in front of. You got to be careful.”