Jimmie Johnson still winless in 2014, but isn’t fretting yet

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Kurt Busch said after winning Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” referring to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who came into the race with eight wins apiece on the .526-mile track.

With both drivers having Hendrick Motorsports power under the hood, Busch beat Johnson to prevent the six-time Sprint Cup champion from earning his ninth career win at NASCAR’s oldest Cup racetrack.

Had Johnson won, he would have overtaken HMS teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins at Martinsville by an active driver (NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty holds the all-time record with 15 wins there).

Johnson yielded the lead to Busch on lap 473, but regained it 10 laps later. With just 17 laps remaining, Johnson felt his tires going away and couldn’t hold off Busch, eventually relinquishing the lead for good with 11 laps remaining.

“Man that is all I had, that is all I could do,” Johnson said. “I got back by him and then he got back to me and I was really, really loose in the closing stages of the race.

“Once he got back to me and put the pressure to me, I couldn’t keep the back under me. I put all the front brake in it that I could and was just hoping I could hold him off, but just wasn’t able to.

Having led 296 of the race’s 500 laps, Johnson appeared headed towards yet another dominating win at Martinsville, but will have to wait again until at least this year’s fall Chase race there to get that elusive ninth win.

“This track is in the Chase, so we’ll come back a lot smarter and try to prevent running second again,” Johnson said. “You just learn from the situation.

“I’m not saying there was a mistake today, but you learn from this weekend and carry it forward. This is a brand new car and a lot of stuff to figure out, so I know in the coming months the car’s setups will be a lot different, and we’ll just keep evolving and try to prevent running second.”

It marked the first time Johnson has ever lost at Martinsville after leading more than 271 laps in the scheduled 500-lap event. Johnson ultimately led 296 laps, only to come up short and finish second.

“(I had) just a very strong race car,” Johnson said. “We unloaded off the truck fast and qualified well and had an awesome car here in the race today.

“Of course, we’re disappointed not to get to victory lane, but there wasn’t anything else I could do. Man, I got back by (Busch) and I thought that we had control of the race then.

“I felt like since I hadn’t seen him through really any part of the day that he might have me on short-run speed but he would fall off. He stayed in my mirror and found a way back by me and then got a car length or so on me and did an awesome job. … I came up a little short, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.”

Johnson is still winless after the first six races, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned, given that he now has four top-six finishes.

“I’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said. “Hopefully I’ll win a race soon or a championship. To be truthful, last year I felt like some (potential wins) got away that I definitely had control of and was disappointed in myself on some of that.

“Some of the stuff circumstances got me, but we left a lot of wins on the table last year for sure. Today, I couldn’t have done any more. I just got beat. You’re going to have those, too, and you’ve got to recognize when you get beat and you’ve got to recognize when you make mistakes, and today we just got beat.”

While he came so close, Johnson isn’t really fretting. A win Sunday would have been great, but there’s no shame in finishing second.

“We’re definitely in a good place, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “I think today was very representative of that.”

In addition to what he hoped would have been his ninth career Cup win at Martinsville, Johnson was also seeking to give team owner Rick Hendrick his 220th career Sprint Cup win and 22nd Cup triumph at Martinsville.

The 30th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports’ first Sprint Cup win is April 29, when Geoff Bodine gave Hendrick his first career win as an owner in just the team’s eighth race together.

“We had a very fast race car,” Johnson said. “I wish we could have gotten this for Rick’s 30th anniversary.”

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Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.