Can Jimmie Johnson become fifth different winner of 2014?

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With five previous victories at Auto Club Speedway, a lot of eyes are on defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson this weekend as the series returns to the two-mile oval in Southern California.

Johnson has yet to win so far in this young Sprint Cup season, but last weekend at Bristol (where he finished 19th after an early tire failure), he said he felt no pressure whatsoever to effectively lock himself into the Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win.

Today before practice began for Sunday’s Auto Club 400, Johnson reiterated those beliefs when asked if he was getting antsy about the matter.

“It’s not even close to time yet,” he said. “When you look at the stats, 16 different winners in a year is a rare occurrence. I still think that points are every bit as important as they’ve been until you get to Homestead.

“Even when you get into the Chase itself, the top guy in points will advance in every scenario – even the final one for the race at Homestead. Points are still the focus and we’ve been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mindset. I’m not going to chase home runs.”

Only twice in NASCAR history have there been more than 15 winners in a season’s first 26 races. And that particular feat has never occurred during the Chase era, which started in 2004.

So while Johnson’s mindset may run counter to the “win and your in” mentality that’s being emphasized more this season, he can be easily forgiven for having it.

It may all be a moot point anyway if Johnson can continue his mastery at Fontana, a place that has become one of NASCAR’s top tracks in regard to on-track action.

Johnson’s won eight times at both Dover and Martinsville, but Fontana is next up in terms of success for the six-time Cup champ. In addition to five wins, he’s earned 12 Top-5s and 14 Top-10s in SoCal over the course of his career.

The track has become a tricky one over time, but in Johnson’s mind, he believes that’s been a good thing for him and his team.

“I think our team has done well on low-grip level race tracks and this track’s in that category,” he said. “…The character in the track continues to change and the bumps, last year especially, are as big as I’ve ever seen them.

“The paving seams are very sensitive for running the right-side tires on – we’ve seen that in the NASCAR vehicles and also in IndyCar. So, I think those challenging elements are good for the 48.”

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.