Jimmie Johnson happy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘awesome start’ in 2014

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Jimmie Johnson has seen a big change in Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, particularly in confidence.

When things weren’t going so well for Earnhardt in his early tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson would notice who Junior would withdraw and quietly lament his lack of success, particularly wins.

“I feel that and we are all guilty of it, when things aren’t rolling well and you go multiple races without winning or seasons whatever it might be,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of people look within and kind of shut down and get quiet. I certainly feel like Junior is in that category and maybe more so than a lot of people.

“Just guessing that pressure from fans, pressure that he puts on himself, pressure of his father’s success – a lot of those elements weigh on him heavy and heavier than what a lot of other drivers deal with. Getting to know him so well now, being in the same shop, I could see that effect on him and I have always tried to lighten things up and try to help keep him open and having fun.”

But Junior isn’t withdrawn or quiet any longer, much of which Johnson credits to Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief.

“Steve Letarte is greatly responsible for keeping him open and having fun,” Johnson said. “When stuff is not right, Steve does a nice job of, ‘Hey this sucked, let’s move on and do something different.’ That has worked very well for him and has kept his confidence high.”

Johnson said his HMS teammate is as excited and confident as he’s ever seen him, especially after winning the season-opening Daytona 500 and finishing runner-up last week at Phoenix.

“The last couple of races certainly show where his confidence is and what comes with it,” Johnson said. “I can say that throughout all of last year, and even into part of the season the year before were when things really started turning around for him. That success leads to confidence.

“That circle started and they have been building ever since and we have all seen it in his stats and performance. This year he is off to an awesome start.”

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Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.