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The “6-Pack” is on ice, but Johnson still must close the deal

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If you believe the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup effectively ended yesterday, you can’t be blamed for that.

One day after Jimmie Johnson appeared to put a stranglehold on the championship while Matt Kenseth struggled futilely, it does seem like the game is up and that in six days’ time, Johnson will get his hands on Sprint Cup No. 6 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

You’re probably thinking the fat lady’s sipping her hot tea and honey right now, looking over her sheet music, preparing for her performance on Sunday.

But Johnson knows better. And you know better.

And we all know that in racing, seeming inevitability can transform into utter madness in the blink of an eye.

There’s still 400 miles to go. 28-point lead over Kenseth be damned – the prize may be in sight, but Five-Time knows it’s not yet his. Homestead is the final hurdle.

“It’s far from over,” said Johnson, who finished third yesterday at Phoenix International Raceway after charging from 26th following a Lap 163 incident with Carl Edwards that nearly put him in the wall.

“You’ve got to finish that race. Although we have a nice cushion, we still have to go down there and take care of business.”

And in last year’s season finale at Homestead, Johnson couldn’t do that.

He entered South Florida down 20 points to Brad Keselowski after crashing at PIR the week before, but still found himself with a chance to win the championship in the second half of the race.

But after pitting on Lap 214, Johnson was forced to come back after he pulled out of his pit box with a loose lug nut. Then, on Lap 226, a rear end gear broke on his car and he went to the garage, basically handing the championship to Keselowski with around 40 laps to go.

Johnson finished 36th and dropped to third in the standings, while Keselowski claimed the Cup with a 15th-place result. That episode from one year ago – not to mention Kenseth’s problems yesterday at PIR – illustrates the importance of being perfect in the Chase.

It may not be the most popular way to crown champions, but it certainly provides the pressure-packed environment that breeds champions.

“There’s so many variables in one of our races – I think, more variables than any pro sport out there,” Johnson said. “We have all 43 teams playing, driving, racing, all the mechanical components on the race car, pit stops, other issues on other cars that can take you out, tires…We don’t take any of these weekends lightly.

“Even with a nice points lead, I’m not going to take any week any differently. There’s still a lot of pressure to get the job done, and it’s no lay-up at all.”

And so, while he only needs to finish 23rd or better at Homestead, Johnson is not planning to ease off the throttle and play conservative. He and his Hendrick Motorsports camp recently had a test session on the 1.5-mile oval, and he’ll be back soon enough with the intent to make a statement.

“We’re going to go down there and race as hard as we can,” he said. “…I would love to win the race and win the championship, but we’ll just have to see how things develop in the race and where we are relative to [Kenseth].

“The big prize at the end of the day is what we’re focused on, it’s not so much that individual win, but we need to go down there and be prepared and treat Friday and Saturday like we need to win the race so we can make the car as comfortable and as fast as possible to give us all our options on Sunday.”

Doesn’t sound like a guy that believes the title is all sewn up, does it? If Johnson doesn’t believe it, then you shouldn’t either. At least, not yet.

A lot can happen in 400 miles. This is far from finished.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.