NASCAR immortality now in reach for Jimmie Johnson

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Jimmie Johnson couldn’t be blamed for wanting to truly savor his sixth Sprint Cup championship on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He wanted to enjoy it for what it was, and not simply as another stepping stone toward seven-time Cup champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

But he also seemed to know that the debate of ‘greatest NASCAR driver ever’ that has centered for several decades around The King and The Intimidator will intensify further now that he’s made his way into it.

“I have six, and we will see if I get seven,” he said after winning Title No. 6 by 19 points over Matt Kenseth via a ninth-place finish in the season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400.

“Time will tell. I think we need to save the argument until I hang up the helmet – then it’s worth the argument. If people want to argue and fight about it right now, then they can. But let’s wait until I hang up the helmet before we start thinking about this.”

Those words will surely not be heeded by the sport’s diehards, who now must consider Johnson among the greatest stock car drivers of all time.

He continues to thrive in one of, if not the most competitive age in NASCAR history – constantly setting the bar higher and higher. And this dominance seems to have no end in sight.

Johnson would appear to have at least a good decade still ahead of him in the cockpit and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, led by crew chief extraordinaire Chad Knaus, remains the model of consistency even as its core has changed considerably.

“We’ve taken a group of new individuals, new engineers, mechanics, pit crew members; they’ve all evolved into a pretty spectacular team,” Knaus said. “I don’t think we’re even close to the potential of the team yet. That’s exciting for me.”

How heart-breaking, soul-crushing, and utterly deflating must those words mean to those forced to battle Johnson every week – not to mention those NASCAR fans who feel Johnson is simply benefiting from being part of the best team in the garage?

For his part, Knaus credited team owner Rick Hendrick for giving Johnson and the team all the resources they need to contend at every race. But that doesn’t take away from Johnson’s pure talent.

“He can do things with a race car that most mortals can’t,” Knaus said. “He’s very into what it is we’re doing. He’s very studious, very intuitive of what’s happening around him, what’s going on when we’re testing or racing. He feeds us great information.

“He’s pretty spectacular. I mean, he really, really is.”

Indeed, he is. But how much more spectacular can he become? Let’s face facts: From this point forward, Johnson will be expected to eclipse both Petty and Earnhardt.

The pieces appear to be in place for an assault on the record books – a driver who is physically and mentally on top, a crew chief that pays a tremendous level of attention to the details, and a team that will only grow stronger over time.

All of them bonded by the hunger to win.

“I think we just are very competitive,” said Hendrick, now an 11-time Sprint Cup owner’s champion. “When we show up, we want to do the best we can.  Everybody in every department, they push each other to go to the next level.”

That’s where the No. 48 went in the Chase. Going into the post-season, Johnson suffered four consecutive finishes outside the Top 25 – 40th at Michigan, 36th at Bristol, 28th at Atlanta, and 40th in the regular season finale at Richmond.

But in the final 10 races, Johnson scored two wins, seven Top-5s and nine Top-10s. The average finish? 5.1.

“I can look back on a few tracks and think we could have had a few more points, but it really was a strong 10 weeks,” Johnson said of finishing the season with a flourish. “Last year, we had eight great weeks, didn’t come up with it. [This year,] Matt had nine.

“You have to have 10 great weeks to be the champion and we got it done this year.”

“We got it done this year.”

How many times do you think we’ll hear Johnson say that again before his career ends and, according to him, it’ll be time to have the argument over who is the greatest NASCAR driver ever? By then, there could be no argument at all.

Richard, Dale…You have company coming.

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

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Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

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Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.

MRTI: Barber weekend digest

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Here’s some thoughts following the second weekend of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this season, at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend (additional notes from Tony DiZinno in his post-weekend column here).

Askew-se me While I Play Through?

It was not a perfect weekend for Oliver Askew. Calvin Ming did pip him for fastest lap during practice.

Okay, that line was entirely sarcastic. Simply put: Askew crushed the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda field at Barber Motorsports Park. He claimed pole in both races, led every lap in both races, and won both races.

Askew was dominant at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In the grand scheme of things, it is not surprising that Askew swept the weekend and has claimed three victories in a row, dating back to Race 2 in St. Petersburg (for reference he was second in Race 1 that weekend, making his average finishing position a staggering 1.25 through four races). Cape Motorsports has won every USF2000 championship since 2011. With Askew, a 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipient and winner of the inaugural USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in December at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, joining the fray, everything on paper indicated another championship run was likely.

But, a new chassis, in this case the Tatuus USF-17, often provides a reset button, allowing other teams a chance to close the gap. And while the likes of Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing Services, and Exclusive Autosport have all been featured on the podium, Cape Motorsports and Askew have distinguished themselves as title favorites four races into the season.

My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno called the weekend’s performance an “Ask-kicking,” and there can be no arguing the dominance of Askew and Cape Motorsports at the moment.

Kaylen Frederick a “Baby Face” on the Rise

Outside of Askew, 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the youngest driver on the circuit, was the shining star at Barber Motorsports Park. The young Frederick pushed Askew in the final laps of Race 1 to finish second and backed it up with a consistent Race 2 to again finish second.

Frederick (right) finished second in both USF2000 races at Barber. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

While winning is the ultimate goal, Frederick was more than happy with the weekend’s results. “I took advantage of what I could today – the Cooper tires wore well so I could just keep my head down and focus,” he said following Race 1. “It took a while to get comfortable with all the high-speed corners and the compressions. It was hard for me to get the confidence to go into those corners with that much speed but it’s all clicked now.”

Along with Rinus Van Kalmthout, with whom Frederick is currently tied for second in the championship, Frederick may be emerging as the biggest threat to Askew in the championship chase. It’s early days for the season, but Frederick is beginning to establish himself as a title contender.

Hertamania 2.0 Weathers the Barber Storms

The rain wasn’t the only storm the drivers of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series had to weather at Barber. A chaotic start to Race 1 saw officials wave it off, and carnage ensued. Perhaps the most notable driver impacted was points leader Colton Herta.

The 17-year-old clipped the left-rear of polesitter Kyle Kaiser after the aborted start, damaging his front wing and forcing an emergency pit stop. He then suffered a penalty after failing to maintain pace car speed, which put him at the back of the field when the race restarted.

However, his quiet though impressive charge to tenth helped limit the damage. Further, he caught a lucky break when Race 2 qualifying was rained out on Sunday morning. The rule book dictates the field is set by points in such circumstances, which put championship leader Herta on the pole. He immediately rocketed away when the race started and led all 35 laps on his way to winning by more than nine seconds.

What’s more, his win was marked with historic significance, as it was the 400th event in Indy Lights history. “I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” Herta said following his Sunday triumph.

All told, he took a weekend that looked to be going badly and completely turned it around. He now leads Kyle Kaiser by 16 points ahead of another double-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

The Unlucky Pato O’Ward

The 2017 season got off to a dream start for the soon-to-be 18-year-old Pato O’Ward. Class wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring were buoyed by a strong opening Indy Lights weekend at St. Petersburg, where he recorded finishes of fifth and third.

However, Lady Luck was not on his side at Barber. O’Ward was one of several drivers to suffer damage after the Race 1 start was aborted, as he actually drove over the back of Santi Urrutia’s machine. O’Ward pitted to replace the front wing, but was able to climb back up to eighth at race’s end.

Sunday’s Race 2, however, was a different story. A first-lap collision with Zachary Claman De Melo sent him spinning into the gravel. Though he was able to return to the pits, damage was too severe to continue, relegating to a 15th-place finish.

For a driver who has enjoyed a memorable 2017 so far, O’Ward’s weekend at Barber Motorsports Park was one to forget.

The Mazda Road to Indy now takes a three-week break before all three series resume action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on May 12-13.

Pippa Mann adds Lamborghini ST to schedule in all-female entry

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Pippa Mann, who will seek to make her sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 a little over one month from now with Dale Coyne Racing, will have additional races on her plate this year in an all-female driver entry in this year’s Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America championship.

Mann and Jackie Heinricher, herself a sports car veteran with some Lamborghini ST experience, are among a four-car entry for the Prestige Performance team in the IMSA-sanctioned series, which is operationally run with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship powerhouse team Wayne Taylor Racing.  They’ll share the team’s No. 57 Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in the pro/am division.

“I am thrilled to be joining Prestige Performance and Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2017 Super Trofeo season. Learning a new car, a new team, a new series, and new tracks will be a big learning experience for me, and I’m extremely excited not only to have this opportunity, but to have this opportunity with such a great team,” said Mann, who’s already had a couple tests in the car.

Heinricher added, “I am excited to be involved with Prestige and Wayne Taylor Racing in the season effort and for the incredible opportunity in joining a professional team for long-term growth in sports car racing.”

The other lineups see rising sports car star and a couple-time IMSA series champion Trent Hindman (in both Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Lamborghini) with Riccardo Agostini in the No. 1 car, and Alex Popow and Michele Beretta in the No. 10 car – both of those are pro/pro entries.

A fourth car, the No. 11 entry, has a lineup still to be determined and not yet confirmed. However, sports car aces Dion von Moltke and Stevan McAleer were posted on the No. 11 car for the Circuit of The Americas entry list.

“Wayne Taylor Racing is excited to step into the 2017 season with such a great list of drivers and to have David Wagener returning on our engineering side,” said Travis Houge, Team Manager, Wayne Taylor Racing.

“We are looking forward to continuing the success of last season. Similar to our other racing endeavors, we have worked hard to build a program that not only wins races but also builds lasting and successful partnerships. We feel we have found that with the Lamborghini Group.”

The Lamborghini ST season begins next weekend at COTA in Austin. The 12-race calendar is spread over six venues: COTA, Watkins Glen International in early July, Road America and VIR in August and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, before the season finale and World Final run in Imola, Italy (former site of the San Marino Grand Prix) in November.