Johnson within striking distance after two Chase races

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All that fretting about Jimmie Johnson’s performance going into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup appears to have been over nothing.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 1-2 punch of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch may be atop the championship after two Chase events, but Johnson has been no slouch either with finishes of fifth at Chicagoland Speedway and fourth yesterday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Yesterday’s performance didn’t have Johnson rallying from pit road problems as he did at Chicagoland, but it was the kind of consistent effort that has been he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team’s calling card over the years – especially during Chase time.

“It was better than we thought it would be,” Johnson said. “I felt like we were really going to have to scrap for a Top-10, maybe a Top-5. I truthfully feel like we had a shot to win this race, if not run second or third.”

The final few restarts were enough to keep him from mounting a charge to the front, however, as he found himself on the inside lane that proved problematic in those situations.

On the last restart of the day, Johnson was caught behind Martin Truex Jr. when the Michael Waltrip Racing pilot spun his tires, causing him to have to recover some lost positions in the remaining laps.

But all in all, Johnson knows he’s still in decent shape despite the torrid start from Kenseth and Busch, his rivals at JGR. He’s in third place in the standings, and only 18 points behind Kenseth heading to Dover (where he’s won seven times in his career).

“To open [the Chase] with a 5-4 [finishing positions] is great,” Johnson said. “1-1 like Matt has is a lot better, but we’re in a good spot. We haven’t given up too many points, and we’re going to one of my best race tracks next week in Dover…

“…We are getting into the meat of the Chase and where there are some great tracks for this Chevrolet that I am driving and all these Lowe’s guys are working so hard to make it fast.”

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

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