Jimmie Johnson looks to stop skid and earn first win of ’14 at Darlington

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Jimmie Johnson has been on a heck of a ride the last three races.

He dominated at Fontana, leading 104 laps, only to suffer a tire issue and finish a disappointing 24th.

The following week at Martinsville, where he has eight career wins, Johnson again dominated, led 296 laps, only to come up one position short, unable to hold off eventual winner Kurt Busch and ultimately finishing runner-up.

And then there’s what happened in this past Monday’s rain-delayed race at Texas. Johnson was following Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., heading into Turn 1 on Lap 13 when Earnhardt mistakenly hit water-logged infield grass and turned right into the retaining wall.

Because Johnson was so close behind Earnhardt, his car suffered damage when struck from debris from Junior’s incident. That included grass across the front end and a dented windshield – including a bent windshield mounting bracket – caused by rubber from Earnhardt’s tire that was destroyed when it hit the grass and bounced off the edge of the track.

How does Johnson analyze what’s happened to him in the last three races?

“There’s definitely an ‘ouch’, but it’s more from a position where we hate to see opportunities slip away,” Johnson said during Friday’s weekly media session at Darlington Racway. “It doesn’t hurt our confidence. For us, and I think most teams, when you’re that close and have a shot to win, and know that you have fast race cars and you don’t pull into Victory Lane, it’s a confidence booster.

“The end result isn’t what you want or what you like, but you know your cars are fast and your pit stops are good. You have all the pieces there and it’s just about running the distance of the race and getting the job done.”

It’s hard to believe that Johnson, who has won six Sprint Cup championships and 66 races, has yet to win a race in 2014.

He has a good chance to accomplish that at Darlington Raceway in Saturday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 Sprint Cup event, a race he’s won three times.

“I’ve been through various challenges in my Cup career and one marker I always look for is clearly fast cars and ultimately top 5 finishes,” Johnson said. “And I firmly believe that if you’re running in the top 5, you’re going to have your shots at winning races.

“And even a step further, top 3’s. But our goal, since I’ve started, has been if we can run in the top 5 all day long, we’ll have a shot to win the race. And it’s led to a lot of victories for us.”

With that kind of mindset, could career win No. 67 be on Saturday night?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

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Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.