Johnson keeping an eye on Chase rivals going into Charlotte

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Jimmie Johnson drew within three points of Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Matt Kenseth following last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, but the five-time Cup champion is cognizant of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon behind him as well.

Harvick staked his claim as a legit contender with his triumph last weekend at Kansas, which enabled him to pull within 25 points of Kenseth in third place.

As for Gordon, Johnson’s teammate, he hasn’t broken through for a win yet but has not had a big slip-up either with finishes of sixth, 15th, fourth and third so far this post-season; he’s 32 points behind Kenseth at fourth in the championship.

On Thursday, Johnson maintained that he was still focusing on getting by Kenseth for the Chase’s top spot. However, he also noted the recent efforts of Harvick and Gordon, which have proven how tough they could be to deal with should the points situation tighten further.

“I certainly have to be aware of [Gordon] and the consistency they have had and the fast cars and great performances – and the same thing with [Harvick],” Johnson said.

“Kevin has got it all. He’s won championships, he understands the pressure. He is a hard-nosed racer – things don’t rattle him. He’s got that all there and the cars have been trending faster and faster and he showed that last week with a dominating weekend. [I’m] looking forward but I certainly know who is behind us.”

Charlotte has been a traditional stronghold for Johnson and the No. 48 gang but they’ve only celebrated in Victory Lane there once since the 2006 season.

A major repave has had a negative effect on their recent performances at the 1.5-mile oval, but Johnson remains confident that while he may not be able to put up a win in tonight’s Bank of America 500, he can still net a solid result.

“…It’s a little different than it was five or six years ago when they resurfaced the track, so we’re still trying to find that magic where we can separate ourselves each time we come back,” Johnson said. “But I still feel like we’re in that Top-3 or Top-5 group, week-in and week-out.

“As long as Matt [Kenseth] isn’t winning, then Top-3 or Top-5 wouldn’t be too bad this weekend.”

MRTI: Barber Recap

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The weekend at Barber Motorsports Park for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires was a tale of two completely different days.

Saturday was a picturesque Spring day for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, with bright sunshine and temperatures above 70 degrees. Sunday, however, was much cooler and wetter, with rain hitting both the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights races.

Still, the packed weekend for both series produced plenty of drama, and each now sees its championship picture beginning to take shape.

Major stories to surface from the weekend at Barber for both series are below.

Indy Lights

  • Pato O’Ward has been, by a considerable margin, the fastest driver after four races in 2018. A winner of three races – which easily could be four if not for a mistake while leading Race 2 in St. Petersburg – and a polesitter for two, O’Ward has asserted himself as the early-season man to beat in the title chase, leading Santi Urrutia with 110 points to 94. O’Ward already has big-league championship to his name – he was a co-champion of the Prototype Challenge class in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship last year, and he is poised to add to that in 2018.
  • Victor Franzoni is starting to get his arms around the IL-15. Last year’s Pro Mazda champion gets better with every race, and he earned his first Indy Lights podium in Race 2 at Barber, finishing second. It would hardly be a surprise if Franzoni breaks into the win column soon.
  • Aaron Telitz’s run of hard luck continued in Race 1 on Saturday, as he was collected by a spinning Dalton Kellett and retired from the race with a damaged right-front. That meant through three races, Telitz had completed a combined four corners. Race 2 finally produced a clean day for the 2016 Pro Mazda champion, as he ran all the laps on his way to finishing fourth.
  • Colton Herta scored a double-podium at Barber, with finishes of second and third. Sitting on 83 points, he is 19 back of leader O’Ward. He’ll need to break into the win column to make up ground, but consistently finishing on the podium will also help his efforts, and prevent O’Ward from making big leaps away from him.

Pro Mazda

  • Although he might be disappointed to miss out on sweeping the weekend, Parker Thompson has lots of reasons to smile leaving Barber, as he overtook Rinus VeeKay for the championship lead by four points, 102 to 98. Thompson has had two strong weekends to open the Pro Mazda season, with finishes of second, fifth, first, and second after four races. He and VeeKay have emerged as possible title combatants after the opening two weekends.
  • Speaking of VeeKay, the 17-year-old Dutchman had a quiet weekend at Barber, with finishes of fourth and fifth after lacking pace in qualifying – he qualified seventh and ninth for Race 1 and Race 2. After dominating at St. Pete, VeeKay’s lack of pace was somewhat puzzling, though it could be indicative of a Pro Mazda field that is deep with talent. Expect him to rebound at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.
  • Oliver Askew’s troublesome start to the 2018 season only got worse at Barber, with finishes of seventh and 12th on a weekend in which he never factored into the outcome. The struggles of him and Cape Motorsports is mystifying given their prowess in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda on their way to winning the championship last year. Getting into championship contention at this point is a tall task – he is 46 points behind Thompson – but righting the ship will be priority No. 1 for him and Cape heading to Indianapolis.
  • Harrison Scott enjoyed a great rebound after struggling in St. Pete, where he finished ninth and 12th. He took his first Pro Mazda podium in Race 1, finishing second, and then survived a chaotic and rainy Race 2 to take his first victory. The successful weekend also vaulted him into fourth in the championship.
  • David Malukas has also put together a solid season through four races, with finishes of seventh, second, third, and fifth. The BN Racing driver sits third in the championship, and may well end up challenging for race wins soon.

All three series of the Mazda Road to Indy will be in action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course during the weekend of the INDYCAR Grand Prix (May 11-12), with USF2000 returning after a two-month break following the season opener in St. Petersburg.

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