Food City 500 - Qualifying

Jimmie Johnson on Bristol: “I just want to survive this place”

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Six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says he’s fine when it comes to racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. It’s just the matter of getting to the race itself that can be a grind on him.

“I just want to survive this place,” Johnson said this morning before qualifying 11th later in the day for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver has won at Bristol in the past (2010) but admits that it takes him a few extra laps around the high-banked half-mile to get himself sharp.

“This track really is difficult on me and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and the team through practice and qualifying,” he said. “Then in the race we seem to find our way.

“A lot of that falls on my shoulders. I feel like this track, for me, it just takes the repetition of laps to find a rhythm and to find the half a tenth or so that I need to really be in the game.”

Johnson was just 27th-fastest in the single practice before qualifying. However, Johnson was able to pick it up and make his way into the second round of quals to ensure himself a decent starting spot for Sunday.

“We leaned on our teammates and got some speed and made it to the second round,” he said post-quals. “We wished we could have been a little faster there. Still, starting 11th isn’t too bad for us here.”

And it’s not too much to convert into his first win of the young season. Wins definitely mean more now than they used to thanks to NASCAR’s Chase overhaul, but Johnson said this morning that he feels no pressure to make himself a virtual lock for the post-season.

While Johnson has not yet won, he has been competitive with finishes of fifth at Daytona, and a pair of sixths at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

That’s put him third in the standings and understandably confident that he’ll be alright, one way or another.

“I’m happy that we are third in points,” he said. “I feel like Vegas we had a shot to win. Midway through the race, the balance of the car changed and we found something wrong with the car that was pretty rare and unique for us, so we know where our speed went.

“And I feel like the [Daytona] 500 – we had a shot to win so we have had two chances to win and have had a bunch of Top-6 finishes. There is nothing to be concerned about yet, one because the year is early and two, I feel like at least one or two positions will go in via points.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.