Coke Zero 400 - Qualifying

Jimmie Johnson: “I’m just not going to put my guard down”

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Two races remain in the 2013 Sprint Cup season and Jimmie Johnson is atop the standings. But he knows that nothing is settled as he and title rival Matt Kenseth prepare to continue their duel for the championship this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson’s bid for a sixth Sprint Cup effectively collapsed last fall at PIR, when he suffered a late-race tire failure and hit the wall. Brad Keselowski logged a Top-10 finish to leapfrog Johnson for the points lead, and one week later, he clinched his first Cup crown in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

This past March, Johnson finished second at PIR to Carl Edwards. But that was then and this is now.

“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” Johnson said in a teleconference this afternoon. “We need to go into Phoenix and race well. We finished second there in the spring, so I feel strong about our set-up and the performance we should have there. But that doesn’t guarantee us anything and we need to go out and have a good, strong, clean weekend.”

Johnson has claimed four Cup victories at PIR, the most of any active driver. However, all of those wins came before “The Desert Jewel” was reconfigured and given more progressive banking in 2011.

That runner-up result in March has Johnson believing that he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are figuring out how to unlock performance at the “new” PIR. Nonetheless, he admitted to having less confidence at PIR than he did in seasons past.

“If there was one guy sad to see the old configuration and asphalt go away, it was me,” he said. “We just had something that worked there and fit my driving style, and we were able to win a lot of races.

“A part of our sport is dealing with change, and we have cars changing and surfaces changing, and I feel like we’re going in the right direction with the race track. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that this weekend.”

And should he do so and pull off a second consecutive victory, that could provide him with the points cushion he needs going into the last race of the year at Homestead.

But Kenseth has been a more-than-worthy adversary for Five-Time during the post-season, and the two of them will likely be close to each other throughout Sunday’s Advocare 500.

This year, Johnson is battling for title No. 6 against a driver that, like him, has earned the title of Sprint Cup champion – whereas, last year, Johnson faced a driver that hadn’t raced for a Cup title prior to then.

When asked about how the experiences compared, Johnson didn’t say which was a less stressful situation to handle for him, only saying that he’s “found a lot of peace” in expecting the best from his rivals.

However, he noted that there’s something different about going for a first Cup title.

“It’s really hard to know the truth in it all, but I do feel a driver and team competing for their first is dealing with stress and pressure that someone that’s racing for their second, third, fourth, that they just don’t have that same pressure,” he said. “I only know that from my own experience. My first was far more stressful than anything I’ve done in my life.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.