Nikolas Cruz pleads guilty to 2018 Parkland school massacre

Johnson in hot pursuit of 7th Cup title

George Diaz
Orlando Sentinel

Jimmie Johnson is back!

What’s that you say? He never left?

Speculation that Mr. Six-Time is losing his grip as a front-packer has been greatly exaggerated. His No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy team won five races last year, which is not too shabby.

But that effort blew up in a hurry during the Chase, when he was eliminated in the first round.

“Five wins are hard to ignore,” Johnson said. “It’s a great year. Again the weirdness of being eliminated in that first bracket was tough for us. We had some trouble late that we didn’t anticipate on having. But it was still a good year. Statistically not our best year by any means, but we still found a way to get to victory lane and that made us proud as a team.”

Johnson has much to be proud of this season as well. He travels to Martinsville this weekend No. 2 in the points standings behind Kevin Harvick. Add a series-high two victories in five starts.

As a six-time Cup season champion, Johnson has set the bar incredibly high. Anything short of a championship may be labeled a failure. But the elimination rounds of the Chase have changed the dynamics of the game.

“The way I look at it today, it’s such a different way to crown a champion than it was when I won my six,” Johnson said. “And that’s my goal, to be one of the four in Homestead. And then it’s every man for himself.”

The 2014 season wasn’t a good one. “It was on us,” Johnson said. But the 2015 season fell under the “stuff happens” file. A $5 part in Dover took Johnson out of the Chase last season. The problem involved a rear-axle seal that popped up on Lap 104. Johnson would finish 41st, an odd spot for a driver who had dominated at Dover, winning a record 10 times.

The following week, his second consecutive mechanical failure ruined his day at Charlotte. Johnson was running in the top five until that point.

“We would have been one of the four if we didn’t have Dover and if we didn’t have the Charlotte thing,” Johnson said. “But if ands and buts or however that saying goes.”

Onward to 2016. Life is good. Johnson remains in pursuit of a record seven Cup titles. At 40, Johnson is in a competitive groove. He’s a veteran who isn’t on a downward trajectory.

“I feel like physically and mentally I’m the best that I’ve ever been in my career,” he said after winning in Fontana, his 77th Cup victory. “I’m in a great space and really enjoying going to the race shop, going to the racetrack, working with my team.

“So I’m in the space I want to be in, which tells me it makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years. There’s no guarantees about when you’re going to win and have success. I’ve been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things, which blows my mind on its own.”

But what if Cup title No. 7 never happens?

“My life sucks,” he said. “That would be terrible.”

He said so smiling and jokingly.

Mr. Six-Time is in a good place. Don’t count him out for another title, or maybe even a few more.

Logano-Kenseth return

Will there will be a little Martinsville Mayhem this weekend?

Stay tuned, kids, as Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth return to the scene of the crime. As you likely know, Logano still has skid marks on his back from last season when Kenseth, nine laps down, drove Logano’s car into the wall in November in retaliation for Logano knocking out Kenseth at Kansas earlier in the postseason.

Logano was leading the race at the time and was on course to make the Final Four in Homestead. After that scenario, things didn’t work out so well for either driver. Kenseth was parked for the rest of the race and suspended two races, and Logano got bumped out of championship contention.

And although all the main characters in this melodrama have said they have moved past that, you never really do.

“I feel we’ve had two championship seasons without a trophy,” Logano said at the start of the season. “You can define me however you want. I’m going to define myself the way I want to.”

Is Logano primed for a third try at a championship — this one ending with a trophy presentation — or is he obsessed with payback?

“You have to make a decision,” said Jeff Gordon, who had a history of contentious issues at Martinsville with Clint Bowyer a few years back. “How do I want to race this individual? Do I want to race this individual and keep this rivalry going or do I want to move on from this and earn their respect as a competitor? And that just happens on how you treat one another on the race track.”

Respect. Or revenge?

Stay tuned, kids.

Wood Brothers returns

One of NASCAR’s most iconic teams — the Wood Brothers — returns to Martinsville for the first time in 2011.

“It’s a huge thing,” Hall of Famer Leonard Wood told “We look forward to going to Martinsville. We used to run over there and have a lot of fun.”

Wood co-founded the team with his brother, driver and fellow Hall of Famer Glen Wood, in 1950. Martinsville is a natural fit for the Wood Brothers, whose family home in nearby Stuart, Va.

Ryan Blaney, 22, will be the man behind the wheel this weekend in Martinsville. Assuming Blaney completes 22 laps, it will mark 45,000 laps of Cup competition at Martinsville for the Wood Brothers.

As many teams have faced a financial pinch, the Wood Brothers have struggled to remain competitive on a regular basis. The last time they fielded a Cup Series ride full-time was in 2006 with Ken Schrader.

There was understandable friction at the beginning of the season when the Wood Brothers did not receive a charter under the new NASCAR business format because it had not attempted to qualify for all points races since the start of the 2013 season.

Sprint Cup

STP 500

Track: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (oval, 0.52 miles)

Schedule: Friday, qualifying (FS1, 4:15 p.m.); Saturday, practice (FS1, 10-10:55 a.m.; 1:50 p.m.); Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (FS1, 1-5 p.m.)

Distance: 500 miles (263 laps)

2015 winner: Denny Hamlin


Phoenix Grand Prix

Track: Phoenix International Raceway, (oval, 1.022 miles), Avondale, Ariz.

Schedule: Friday, practice (NBCSN, 1 p.m.); qualifying (NBCSN, 11:15 a.m.; 1:50 p.m.); practice, (NBCSN, 9:15-9:45 p.m.); Saturday, race (NBCSN, 8:30 p.m.)

Distance: 255.5 miles (250 laps)


Alpha Energy Solutions 250

Track: Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (oval, 0.52 miles)

Schedule: Friday, practice (FS1, 10-10:55, 3-3:50 p.m.); Saturday, qualifying (FS1, 11:15 a.m.; 1:50 p.m.); race, (FS1, 2:30 p.m.)

Distance: 131.5 miles (250 laps)

2015 winner: Joey Logano


Denso Spark Plugs Nationals

Track: The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Schedule: Friday, qualifying (4:30-6 p.m.), qualifying (7:30-9:45). Saturday, qualifying (4:10 p.m.), qualifying (7-8:05 p.m.); Sunday, final eliminations (FS1, 5-8 p.m.)

2015 winners: John Force (Funny Car), Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock)