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.

Marko tips Vettel to beat Hamilton to F1 world title

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Red Bull Formula 1 advisor Helmut Marko has backed Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to come back stronger from the sport’s summer break and beat Lewis Hamilton to this year’s drivers’ championship.

Marko played an instrumental part in Vettel’s rise to F1 under Red Bull’s umbrella, the German winning four straight drivers’ titles between 2010 and 2013 for the team ahead of his move to Ferrari.

Vettel has claimed four wins through the opening 11 races of the year to sit 14 points clear of Mercedes’ Hamilton in the standings heading into the second leg of the season, starting in Belgium next week.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Marko praised Vettel’s mentality when battling for a championship, backing him to take a fifth title in 2017.

“I believe in Vettel, because I know his mental strength, and Ferrari has raised its game,” Marko said.

“Silverstone, I would say, was an exception. Ferrari was clearly the stronger car in the first half of the season and only due to various circumstances could they not materialize all their chances.

“We have been 60 points behind before the summer break, and still won the title with him. Seb will use this summer break to come back even stronger. That’s how I know him.”

Vettel’s most impressive title comeback came in 2012 when he reversed a 42-point deficit to Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso heading into the summer break to take the title at the final round in Brazil.

IndyCar summer break roundtable, before final four races

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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has been a whirlwind thus far. Between nine different winners in 13 races, a championship battle that sees the top six covered by a mere 58 points and features a mix of cagey veterans and young hot shots, an always epic Indianapolis 500 that witnessed Fernando Alonso in the field, foregoing the Monaco Grand Prix to do, and the 2018 aero kit breaking cover are among a few of the noteworthy highlights so far.

The current two-week break ahead of the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) not only gives IndyCar drivers and teams a chance to catch our breath, but it also gives my MotorsportsTalk colleagues and I a chance to reflect on a busy summer stretch.

Of all the story lines from 2017, which one has stood out the most? 

Tony DiZinno

For me it’s the emergence of Josef Newgarden at Team Penske. His arrival will perhaps unfairly be compared to Simon Pagenaud’s – Newgarden stepping into an established, championship-caliber team while Pagenaud’s was a brand new fourth team out of the box. But consider that Newgarden’s won three races and is leading the points heading into the final month of the season, and it’s not something I would have predicted. We’re seeing a changing of the guard in NASCAR as a younger crowd moves into more seats but Newgarden’s success this year could provide the first swing to one in IndyCar too as he’d be the first champion under 30 in nearly a decade, if he can pull it off.

Luke Smith

This might be picking the obvious, but I have to go with Fernando Alonso’s shock entry to the Indianapolis 500 back in May. Alonso had long-stated that he would like to have a shot in the famous race, yet few could have seen it happening so long as he was still racing in F1 – let alone with McLaren, let alone to miss Monaco!

Alonso’s entry gave a real shot in the arm to the 101st running of the ‘500, given it was without any major storyline before then, and did much to take the race to a new, large audience. It really captured the imagination and attention of the entire racing world, which was really, really cool to see.

To make matters even better, Alonso delivered on-track too. Sure, he’s a two-time Formula 1 champion – but to turn up, qualify fifth, lead for a good stint and be in the mix at the front? That’s special. A story we will look back on for years to come, I am sure.

Kyle Lavigne

I can’t help but be impressed by Dale Coyne Racing. Fast out of the box, Sebastien Bourdais won the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg and was an early season championship contender before his brutal qualifying crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sidelined him with hip and pelvis fractures.

Rookie teammate Ed Jones quietly impressed from the outset, scoring consecutive top tens at St. Petersburg and Long Beach (the first rookie to start his career with back-to-back top tens since Nigel Mansell in 1993). He then announced his presence to the world with an excellent run to finish third at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, a run that might have even been better if his car hadn’t sustained a hole in its nose late in the day.

Esteban Gutierrez has adapted nicely to the IndyCar ranks, while James Davison (Indianapolis) and Tristan Vautier (Texas Motor Speedway) have also been fast in one-off rides with Dale Coyne’s operation.

Unfortunately, Dale Coyne Racing has incurred a lot of crash damage this year, its total far surpassing the seven figure mark. Nonetheless, the speed of Coyne’s cars has not gone unnoticed, and IndyCar’s lovable underdog has been a regular player near the front.

Which Silly Season story do you find the most intriguing?

Tony

I find it fascinating that this year might be the last year for the pair of 40-year-old Brazilians and longtime friends, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, both will be in IndyCar full-time. And it’s weird how it’s played out. With Kanaan advertising his “TK20” from the start of the year and embracing the fact he’s been near the end, it seems as though it’s shown on-track. Compared to last year, Kanaan’s not been as consistently strong or on top of the Honda package as the Ganassi team has changed. Quite by contrast, Castroneves has been a title contender all year, may yet pull it off, finally, tried to downplay the 20-year number on his end and may be shifted out of IndyCar through no fault of his own.

Luke

As is often the case in racing, it seems the driver market will be largely led by the engine market for 2018, with much hinging on whether or not Andretti Autosport will make the switch to Chevrolet power and ditch Honda.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is locked in on a long-term deal and Marco is Marco, but Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato – particularly in the latter’s case – are big, big favorites of Honda. If Chevrolet did come in, Honda may push to get both out of Andretti for 2018, opening up two hot seats that many would clamor for.

Outside of Penske, it seems like things could be very fluid indeed with the driver market for 2018. Once the wheel sets in motion and Andretti makes an announcement, things should move from there.

Kyle 

Luke and I are in sync on this one. Because of the dominoes it could set in motion, whether or not Andretti Autosport moves back to Chevrolet may be the most compelling of all the Silly Season rumors. If they stay as a Honda team, it seems likely their lineup remains stable. If they switch, then it could set in motion a number of different moves.

With Alexander Rossi a favorite of Honda’s and Takuma Sato tied to Honda at the hip, each would likely be looking for another IndyCar ride, and a number of options would be on the table for each. On the Andretti side, suddenly having one, or likely two vacant seats, would see their phone ringing off the hook from drivers looking for rides in 2018.

Other teams, such as Chip Ganassi Racing, face several unknowns as the off-season approaches. But the biggest domino might be which manufacturer Andretti Autosport signs with.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 aero package?

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Tony

It looks great at first glance. The reports I’ve heard are almost 100 percent positive – which is rare in IndyCar circles – and the fact the top-end speed is up, the braking power is even better as IndyCar is now fully unified with PFC rather than the split PFC/Brembo package as was in play this year, and the cars have so much less downforce means we’re going to see a return of wicked slideways action in 2018. The look and the feel of the new package looks proper; futuristic while also capturing enough from the past to recall the heralded “good ‘ol days.”

Luke

It’s fantastic. It’s simple, sleek, sexy – it’s everything that aero should be. We don’t want endless numbers of elements spurning off the car at every angle, regardless of the boost they may offer. The 2018 package proves that it is possible to deliver an effective, good look while still offering high levels of performance, with the noises coming out of the tests being very positive indeed.

Kyle

Quite simply, the 2018 aero package has been a home run so far. Good looking and sleek, it has also been a high performer. For example, the original test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was scheduled for two days. But, things progressed so well on the first that the second day was deemed unnecessary. A subsequent test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course also was deemed a success.

Remembering the teething problems that surfaced during initial testing of the DW12 during the 2011 offseason, the current car being so strong out of the box is quite a boon for the series.

And as much as test drivers Oriol Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya have been beaming about its performance so far, things bode well for a racy package next year.

Who wins the 2017 championship?

Tony

A tough one to say the least with four races to go, and with the lottery of double points at Sonoma still keeping a couple others outside the top four – who at the moment are only covered by 17 points – still within shouting range.

Preseason I picked Will Power to pull it off, but he’s had too many lost points in crucial moments this year – and now has too many drivers to climb over – to recover from 52 points down in four races. The same problem applies for Graham Rahal, who’s been statistically the best driver in the series since the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but had a nightmare opening four races that’s left him playing catch-up all year.

That leaves the top four, in Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, to vie for the crown. I’m torn on Newgarden because for the series’ longer-term health, it behooves them to have a young American star win the title. But there’s just something that doesn’t feel right about him winning it in his first year when Castroneves never has, Pagenaud did in his second year and Power did in his sixth. And with Newgarden now fully ensconced in his first late-season title fight as opposed to on the fringes, it’s hard to see him winning it in his first crack.

Pagenaud’s title defense year has been a very weird one. He’s lacked the pace from last year by leaps and bounds, but he’s been the king of picking up under-the-radar top fives. I don’t think he has enough speed to overcome the gap.

Which leaves Castroneves and Dixon. Is it worth picking the driver who’d be the sentimental choice of the two? Castroneves has had two rough races at the worst time the last two, while Dixon has made up points he otherwise could have lost in Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

Dixon won the title in 2013 and 2015, both times coming from behind. I think the “Ice Man” coolly denies the Penske quartet once again in his latest chapter written in a storybook career, even if a fifth title somehow would find a way to get overlooked in the national consciousness.

Luke

This is so, so hard to pick, given just 52 points separate the top five drivers in the championship. The bullets may be loaded in Team Penske’s favor, given all four of its racers are in the mix, but I’m going to go for the fifth man: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.

Dixon has been his usual, consistent self through much of the campaign, even if things have dipped off a little since his victory at Road America. The Honda package has been strong on ovals this year, and if his demolition job of last year’s race at Watkins Glen is anything to go by, Dixon could be in a very good position come Sonoma.

A fifth title would only add to the legend of Scott Dixon. For the sake of the narrative, let’s hope it’s a ‘veteran versus youngster’ showdown with Josef Newgarden also in with a shot of a maiden crown.

Kyle

With double points on the docket for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (September 17, NBCSN), it’s conceivable that the six current title contenders (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Graham Rahal) all enter Sonoma with at least a mathematical shot at a championship, making any prediction somewhat of a toss-up at the moment.

What’s more, the variety of tracks left on the schedule only complicate matters. Gateway Motorsports Park is a short oval, Pocono Raceway a super speedway, and Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway natural terrain road courses. That’s three different types of circuits in the final four races.

While my colleagues have both selected Dixon as their champion, I’ll go a different route. The last time a driver won a championship in his first year with Team Penske was in 2000, when Gil de Ferran captured that championship in the CART FedEx Championship Series. This year, Josef Newgarden repeats de Ferran’s feat and wins the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship.

 

Sainz: ‘No intention’ of breaking Red Bull F1 contract for 2018

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Carlos Sainz Jr. says he has “no intention” of breaking his Formula 1 contract with Red Bull for 2018 despite previously suggesting he could leave its Toro Rosso B-team.

Sainz made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso in 2015 after climbing the racing ladder with Red Bull backing, and has since become one of the sport’s brightest young talents.

Sainz said over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend that a fourth year with Toro Rosso in 2018 was “unlikely” as he pushed for a move up the grid, only for his bosses to hit back hard.

Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner and Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost stressed Sainz remained under contract for next season, prompting the Spaniard to clarify his comments and clear the air.

Speaking to Spain’s SoyMotor, Sainz professed his happiness racing for Toro Rosso under the Red Bull umbrella and said he was not looking to break his contract for next year.

“As in life itself, a contract has a lot of importance in Formula 1,” Sainz said.

“Looking at my situation, I am happy where I am. I have no intention of breaking any contract.

“I think everything was taken out of context, both my statements and maybe the reaction on their part.

“We are all much calmer and happier now.”

While Sainz may not be looking to break out of his contract, Red Bull is willing to listen to offers for his services in 2018 should a rival team look to sign him.

Rosberg: Bottas’ mentality makes him ‘perhaps the perfect driver’

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Outgoing Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg has praised the mentality of Mercedes replacement Valtteri Bottas, saying his ability to concentrate solely on himself makes him “perhaps the perfect driver”.

Rosberg retired from F1 five days after winning his maiden world title with Mercedes in 2016, leading to Bottas’ arrival.

Since joining Mercedes, Bottas has claimed two race wins and charged to third place in the drivers’ championship, making himself a contender against teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the title.

Speaking to Sport Bild, Rosberg praised Bottas’ approach and mentality in the championship fight, having himself struggled with mind games against Hamilton in their battles between 2014 and 2016.

“I’m really impressed. Mentally, he is perhaps the perfect driver because he can concentrate on himself,” Rosberg said.

“That makes him consistent and fast.”

Bottas has surprised many with his performances at Mercedes so far this season, stepping out of the expected number two shadow and challenging Hamilton on a number of occasions.

While Mercedes is yet to make a firm decision about Bottas’ future with the team beyond the end of the season, contract discussions have been opened, with at least a one-year extension to the end of 2018 expected to be agreed on.