Ford EcoBoost 400

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.

Petrucci set for MotoGP return at Le Mans

PHILLIP ISLAND, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Danilo Petrucci of Italy and Octo Pramac Racing rounds the bend during the 2016 MotoGP Test Day at Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit on February 18, 2016 in Phillip Island, Australia.  (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)
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Danilo Petrucci will make his comeback from injury at this weekend’s MotoGP race in Le Mans after missing the first four races of the season.

Petrucci underwent surgery on his right hand due to a recurring problem that meant he could not race in Qatar, Argentina, Austin or Spain for the Pramac team.

The Italian’s place was taken by Michele Pirro for the last three races, but Petrucci is now fit again and will race at the Circuit de la Sarthe this weekend.

“I trained a lot in the last few weeks. This time I did things more calmly, waiting for my body to give me permission to train,” Petrucci said.

“I’m happy to be back and I feel good. Of course we must see the reaction to the first impact with the track as the intense workout made at home certainly cannot be compared to a race weekend. But I’m very confident.

“I want to thank all the people who helped me, my trainer Marco Baglioni, Tommaso, Filippo, and my brother Francesco who have trained with me, pushing me every day.

“I also want to thank the Medical Team of Terni who provided me with all the tools for physiotherapy and Dr. Tarallo, from the team of prof. Catani, who operated me.

“Then a big thank to all my fans for their support. I can’t wait to be at Le Mans and I hope I can soon give to all of them so much satisfaction.”

The French Grand Prix takes place on Sunday May 8.

Magnussen named Driver of the Day for Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen has won Formula 1’s official Driver of the Day poll for the Russian Grand Prix.

Magnussen started 17th in Sochi after a difficult qualifying session, but made the most of the trouble at the first corner for many of the cars ahead to work his way into the top 10.

The Dane’s pace was impressive during the second half of the race to ensure he finished the race seventh, marking Renault’s first points as an F1 constructor since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The result was also Magnussen’s first top 10 finish in F1 since the penultimate race of the 2014 season when he raced for McLaren.

On Monday, the official F1 Twitter account confirmed that Magnussen had won the vote through its website.

Kvyat, Gutierrez, Sainz handed penalty points after Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo collide at the start during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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The Russian Grand Prix proved to be a busy race for the FIA stewards as a number of incidents resulted in three drivers receiving penalty points on their super licences.

Daniil Kvyat, Esteban Gutierrez and Carlos Sainz Jr. were all sanctioned by the stewards for actions during the race.

Kvyat’s antics on the first lap defined a number of drivers’ races as he hit Sebastian Vettel twice in a matter of seconds, the second hit punting the Ferrari racer into the wall and out of contention.

Kvyat said after the race that it was easy to attack him, but the rest of the paddock was less than impressed, leaving many expecting an apology from the Russian.

After being handed a 10-second stop/go penalty during the race, Kvyat was also given three points on his FIA super licence, taking his tally up to five for the 12-month period.

Gutierrez was also penalized for an incident on the first lap after he took out Nico Hulkenberg and sparked a multi-car melee at Turn 2. He too received a time penalty during the race, but was handed two penalty points afterwards by the stewards.

Finally, Sainz was found to have forced Jolyon Palmer off track between Turns 2 and 3 during the race. He had 10 seconds added to his race time and also received two penalty points.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium next to Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg saw his Formula 1 championship lead swell to 43 points on Sunday after winning the Russian Grand Prix, marking his seventh straight victory.

The German has not lost since the Mexican Grand Prix back in November, and will head to the start of the European season in Spain later this month full of confidence.

It proved to be a race full of intriguing storylines as Lewis Hamilton fought back from 10th on the grid to finish second, Romain Grosjean took Haas back into the points and everyone got angry with Daniil Kvyat for causing mayhem at Turn 2.

Following the race on Sunday, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you all of the latest news, interviews and insight in Paddock Pass.