Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports are back on top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Johnson finished ninth in this evening’s season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which was enough to claim his sixth career Sprint Cup championship by 19 points over Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth left almost nothing on the table in South Florida, leading the most laps en route to a second-place finish. But the Joe Gibbs Racing driver also needed a big stumble from Johnson in order to have a real shot at the title.
It almost happened. On a restart with 74 laps to go, Johnson fell from eighth to 23rd after being caught in a stack-up caused by his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon, spinning his tires.
Johnson picked up some slight left-front fender damage but Kenseth also lost ground in the fracas, which somehow did not end in a crash. A caution on Lap 206 of 267 then allowed Johnson’s No. 48 team to pull that damaged fender away from the tire during a pit stop.
The restart with 57 laps to go saw Johnson take the green in 17th, but he had risen back into the Top 10 by the time the yellow came back out again with 37 laps left after Paul Menard’s rear tire caught on fire and then exploded moments after his No. 27 car came to his pit box. Thankfully, neither Menard or anyone on his Richard Childress Racing crew was injured in the incident.
Following yellow-flag stops, Johnson was 13th after taking four tires but moved forward several spots in his final green-flag stint without any problems. A few moments after Denny Hamlin had taken the checkered flag for the first win in his tumultuous, injury-marred 2013 season, Johnson crossed the stripe in ninth position to start yet another championship celebration in South Florida.
“Yes, yes, yes!,” Johnson screamed joyfully at the end of the race over his team’s radio. “Thank you, guys. What a race team! You guys are amazing. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
On the other end, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, returned the good vibes.
“Thank you, my man – thank you,” Knaus replied back. “What a spectacular job this season.”
Knaus then thanked the entire team for their efforts before telling Johnson to “get a sip of that damn bottle you got in [the car] because that’s the last healthy liquid you’re gonna have for the rest of the night.”
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”