Jimmie Johnson

It’s not panic time yet for still winless Jimmie Johnson, but there is cause for concern even this early in the season


Jimmie Johnson’s magic number is now down to 18.

Still winless in 2014, Johnson isn’t in panic mode yet, but he knows what will happen if by some fluke he fails to win at least two races in the remaining 18 regular season races: he’ll likely miss the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

What’s more, he’ll fail in his bid to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven career Cup championships this season.

It’s doubtful that Johnson won’t win between now and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond in early September. After all, this IS Jimmie Johnson we’re talking about. A win, if not two or more, is almost a given for him in the next 18 races.

Plus, that would assure he makes the Chase for sure.

But for whatever reason, Johnson keeps coming up short of victory lane in 2014. He had the race won at Fontana, only to suffer tire issues.

He had the race won at Martinsville, only to be outraced to the finish line by Kurt Busch.

He had the race won Saturday at Darlington, only to get a bad jump on the final restart and then – almost embarrassingly – having Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. be pushed to the lead by eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

While Johnson would likely give anything to be in Harvick’s place – especially since it would have been Johnson’s fourth career win at the Track Too Tough to Tame if things had worked out as he hoped – finishing third wasn’t all that bad, either.

“Yeah, (I’m) just very happy to finish there in the top three,” Johnson said. “I thought we had a shot at a win. I think if things stayed green after our last pit stop, we had a good chance at it, good shot at it. I’m happy with Chad’s decision to go with two (tires), and there were enough cars that took two that it gave us a little bit of a cushion, maybe enough of a cushion to make it four or five laps there.

“Solid performance, granted we struggled in qualifying. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old-fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop, so proud of the hard work.”

While Johnson didn’t question crew chief Chad Knaus’s decision to go with just two tires on that final pit stop, there likely is going to be a lot of second-guessing by others, particularly since Harvick was one of the few drivers near the front of the field that took four tires.

And if there’s one thing to be singled out that won it for Harvick, it was that four-tire call.

“I definitely think he has been the fastest car all year long,” Johnson said of Harvick. “You look at the races that he didn’t finish, Vegas, Texas, some tracks where they’ve been the fastest car and had issues.

“I think that Rodney (crew chief Rodney Childers) and Kevin both, they’ve really been on it to start the season, and I think we all have been chasing them, honestly.”

So where does Johnson go from here? With the upcoming off-weekend for Easter, it’ll give him and Johnson time to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going.

To hear Johnson say it, they’re very close to winning, perhaps as soon as when the series reconvenes in two weeks at Richmond.

“For us, it’s just unloading closer,” Johnson said. “We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and honestly have a shot to win some races.

“But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We’re really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we’ve learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we’ve had to continue to work on it each week. That’s really our goal is to show up closer.”

Johnson isn’t worried about getting that first win soon, or even a second win before September’s race at Richmond, which would pretty much assure him of making the Chase.

It’s good to have that kind of confidence and winning attitude.

But stranger things have happened, too. Go back to 2011. If this year’s “win to get in” changes to make the Chase were in effect back then, think of what would have happened:

* Tony Stewart would not have won the championship. Sure, Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races, but he had zero wins heading into the Chase. If the new format was around back then, Stewart wouldn’t have even made the Chase.

* What’s more, we would have been deprived of the closest championship finish in NASCAR history. Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the regular season tied for first place. But because Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one, Stewart was granted his third career Sprint Cup championship, while Edwards is still seeking his first.

And then there’s Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who is in the same winless boat as Johnson. Gordon is also likely starting to wonder what the next 18 races hold in store for him, and how he can win two races in that period as well. Consider the following:

* If Gordon doesn’t win a couple of races between now and September, being in the points lead now will ultimately mean nothing.

* Also, look at Gordon’s record over the last six seasons: in 2011, he won three races. In 2012, he won two. In 2013 and 2009, he won just one race. And in 2008 and 2010, Gordon didn’t win any races. If the new changes to the Chase format would have been in effect those last six years, Gordon would have missed the Chase at least twice and possibly as many as four times.

That’s a pretty sobering thought. And don’t think Johnson hasn’t thought about all those scenarios. While he and Gordon aren’t in a state of urgency yet, with each race that goes by, their magic number to miss the Chase will grow smaller and smaller.

And what would that do to NASCAR if its defending champion – and six-time overall champion – as well as a four-time champ both miss what NASCAR has designed to become the ultimate Chase?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Toto Wolff: ‘Early days’ in deciding 2017 F1 plans for Wehrlein, Ocon

(L to R): Esteban Ocon (FRA) Manor Racing with team mate Pascal Wehrlein (GER) Manor Racing.
04.09.2016. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 14, Italian Grand Prix, Monza, Italy, Race Day.
© Manor Racing
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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says it is “early days” in deciding the racing programs for junior drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon in 2017 as both look to move up the grid.

Wehrlein moved into F1 for 2016 after winning the DTM title with Mercedes last year, joining backmarker team Manor.

The German driver scored just its second top-10 finish in seven seasons at the Austrian Grand Prix in July, finishing 10th.

Ocon was drafted into the second seat at Manor after Rio Haryanto’s backing fell through, the Frenchman having also tested and completed practice runs with Renault earlier in the season.

Following Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Renault for 2017, a seat at the Mercedes-powered Force India team has now opened up, with both Wehrlein and Ocon being linked with a move up the field.

However, Wolff said that no firm decisions have yet been taken as options continue for both drivers to be explored.

“It’s still pretty much in coming together,” Wolff said.

“It’s a very interesting competition they are having within Manor and we are still evaluating the future and talking with a couple of teams, and working together for next year.

“But it’s still very early days.”

Ocon has been linked with a full-time race seat at Renault for 2017 alongside Hulkenberg, but would need to be released from his Mercedes contract should such a move take place.

Manor is likely to be the last team to decide on its driver line-up for 2017, with the likes of Haryanto and Jordan King also in contention for a seat should Wehrlein or Ocon move and free up a position.

Circuit of The Americas to honor late Lon Bromley on Saturday

14 Oct 2001:  Lon Bromley walks along with the rest of the Simple Green Safety Team during the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California.Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey  /Allsport
Bromley (lead) in 2001. Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Allsport (Getty Images Archive)
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AUSTIN, Texas – The late Lon Bromley, who was instrumental in racing safety and served a major role in the traveling CART Safety Team, will be honored today before Sunday’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas.

Bromley died earlier this month in a boating accident; a good tribute from a couple of my old colleagues, Anne Proffit and David Malsher, is filed here for Motorsport.com.

After his time with CART, Bromley was Director of Safety at Circuit of The Americas.

The FIA issued a press release Saturday morning confirming there’d be a commemorative minute of noise to honor his memory.

That release is posted below in its entirety:

Following the recent passing of Lon Bromley, Director of Safety at Circuit of The Americas, and to honour his memory, today at 12.30pm all cars crewed by circuit officials and all fire trucks will blow their horns in a commemorative minute of noise.

The remembrance is designed to signify Lon’s passion for racing, his love for a sport characterised by noise and power.

Prior to working at COTA, Lon acted as Director of Safety for the Champ Car series from 1987 to 2008. He was much in demand as an advisor and trainer on safety issues and will be sadly missed by all at the Circuit of The Americas and by the wider motorsport community in the US and internationally.

Matteo Bonciani
FIA Formula One Head of Communications & Media Delegate

Verstappen heads up Red Bull 1-2 in final USGP practice at COTA

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Max Verstappen closed out Formula 1 practice for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas at the top of the timesheets, finishing two-tenths of a second clear of the field at the Circuit of The Americas ahead of qualifying.

Verstappen headed up a Red Bull one-two in FP3 as Mercedes failed to get in a qualifying simulation for either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, leaving them fourth and fifth respectively in the timesheets.

Verstappen put in a fastest lap time of 1:36.766 with over 10 minutes remaining in the session, although the Dutchman did appear to exceed track limits at both Turn 19 and Turn 20 in the process.

Nevertheless, Verstappen’s time stood, giving him P1 come the end of the session despite a late charge from Hamilton.

The Briton crossed the line to start his final flying lap with one second left on the clock, but backed off through the final sector and told his team it was “really poor timing”.

Rosberg also failed to get in a flying lap, setting the fastest middle sector of any driver before abandoning his effort and coming into the pits with a minute left.

Daniel Ricciardo finished the session second for Red Bull, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was half a second off Verstappen in third place. Teammate Sebastian Vettel followed the Mercedes duo in sixth place.

Nico Hulkenberg continued his streak of top-10 finishes in practice at COTA, ending FP3 in seventh place ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. The McLaren pair of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso rounded out the top 10.

The session was red flagged after 20 minutes when Pascal Wehrlein’s Manor snapped off the track at Turn 19, becoming beached in the gravel. The German waited for the marshals to arrive at his car in the hope of being pushed back onto the track, but was ultimately forced to switch his car off and end his FP3 running.

Carlos Sainz Jr. was another driver to hit trouble in final practice, suffering two separate punctures in the hour-long session that limited him to just six laps in total.

The qualifying show for the United States Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12:30pm ET today, including a full re-run of FP3.

Mercedes’ Suzuka protest over Verstappen down to ‘miscommunication’

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 09: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo locks a wheel under braking as he tries to overtake Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 9, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff has revealed that the team’s brief protest over Max Verstappen’s second-place finish in the Japanese Grand Prix was the result of a “miscommunication”.

Mercedes contacted the FIA following the race at Suzuka on October 9 to lodge a protest against Verstappen, believing his on-track defence from Lewis Hamilton in the closing laps to have breached the sporting regulations.

Verstappen finished less than a second clear at the checkered flag, meaning a time penalty would gain Hamilton a position and three extra points in his bid for the drivers’ championship.

The FIA stewards informed Mercedes that a decision could not be made at Suzuka as both Hamilton and Verstappen had already left the track, postponing a hearing to the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin.

Mercedes withdrew its protest not long after, making the result of the race official and leaving Verstappen in second place with Hamilton third.

Ahead of this weekend’s race in Austin, Wolff explained what caused the mix-up over the protest, saying that Mercedes had to make a split decision before leaving Japan.

“It was a miscommunication,” Wolff said.

“When we left the circuit, I said that the Verstappen manoeuvre was a hard manoeuvre but probably what we want to see in Formula 1. He’s refreshing and I think that the drivers need to sort that out among themselves on track.

“And we decided not to step in and then it was an unfortunate coincidence that we took off, we left. The team had a minute to decide whether to protest or not and that’s what they did.

“Once we were able to communicate again, which was 30 minutes after take-off, we decided to withdraw the protest.”