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

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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

Ricciardo: Rosberg has given someone an amazing Christmas present

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Daniel Ricciardo says that Nico Rosberg has given someone “an amazing Christmas present” by announcing his shock retirement from Formula 1 and opening up a seat at Mercedes for the 2017 season.

Ahead of Friday’s FIA prize giving in Vienna, Rosberg announced his retirement from F1 with immediate effect less than a week after winning his first World Championship.

The news sent shockwaves through F1, as well as sparking speculation as to who will replace him at Mercedes, the team that has won every championship in the past three seasons.

Following the FIA gala where he received his trophy for finishing third in the drivers’ championship, Ricciardo spoke about the news in a video posted to his Instagram account.

“We had the FIA gala last night, the end of year awards. It was good, it was really beautiful, but I think the big news was Nico announcing his retirement,” Ricciardo said.

“That was pretty unexpected I guess. He’s given someone an amazing Christmas present, whoever gets that seat, I hope they appreciate what they’re getting.

“But good on him for having the nuts to say that’s enough, he achieved what he wanted. Fair play.”

👋🏼🇦🇹

A video posted by Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) on

Ecclestone shocked by Rosberg exit, thinks Alonso could move to Mercedes

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 16:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talk in the Paddock during previews ahead of the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 16, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)
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Bernie Ecclestone was shocked to learn of Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire with immediate effect, announced on Friday.

Rosberg clinched his first drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, ending Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton’s reign as World Champion.

Ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna on Friday, Rosberg announced that he would not be defending his title in 2017, retiring from racing with immediate effect.

The racing world has been shellshocked by the news, with F1 CEO Ecclestone revealing that he had no idea that the sport would be without its champion for next season.

“It was just as big a shock to me as you,” Ecclestone told Reuters.

“I had dinner with Toto [Wolff, Mercedes team boss] last night and he obviously couldn’t say anything to me.

“[Rosberg] needs more time to spend his money, that’s all.”

Following Rosberg’s announcement, speculation has been rife regarding a possible replacement at Mercedes for 2017, with names such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein being linked with the seat.

Ecclestone was open to the idea of Alonso leaving McLaren with one year to spare on his contract, suggesting that the recent management changes could allow the Spaniard to walk away.

“It’s possible I suppose, let’s see,” Ecclestone said.

“They’ve got new management now at McLaren. Maybe he’s fed up being there and they’re fed up having him.”

When asked if Vettel might be an option for Mercedes, Ecclestone said: “I think not. I don’t think Seb would want to be with Lewis.”

2017 will be the first year since 1994 that the defending World Champion has not raced in F1, with Alain Prost retiring at the end of his championship year in 1993.

Strategist shuffle set to take place in Andretti’s 2017 lineup

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda Dallara, poses with team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta during a photoshoot after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With the four-car lineup confirmed for Andretti Autosport’s Verizon IndyCar Series program following Takuma Sato’s official announcement, attention turns to the personnel fielding those cars.

With the signings of Eric Bretzman and Jeremy Milless to bolster the overall engineering side of the team, and with Milless replacing the departed Tom German as Alexander Rossi’s race engineer, there’s also a strategist shuffle that appears set to take part.

Although team principal Michael Andretti stopped short of formally confirming he’ll step off the box for son Marco in his No. 27 hhgregg Honda next year, he said barring any unexpected changes that’s what’s going to happen.

Since Andretti Autosport has multiple race programs in other series – the team has won the last two Red Bull Global Rallycross titles with Volkswagen, then has a two-car FIA Formula E and at least three, possibly four-car Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires effort – Andretti said he needs to be available to miss IndyCar weekends occasionally if there’s conflicts.

“It hasn’t been 100 percent confirmed, but it looks like it’s going that way,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“It’s been a real challenge being a strategist and team owner; not only being a team owner in other series, but it never gave me the flexibility to miss an IndyCar race. There were a couple times where I couldn’t get to other events. It’s important for the overall team.”

As a case in point even though this isn’t directly IndyCar-related, the FIA Formula E new season opener was in Hong Kong the weekend of October 8-9, while the Red Bull GRC season finale was in Los Angeles the same weekend.

Andretti opted to be in LA there to watch Scott Speed edge Tanner Foust for his second straight Red Bull GRC program, while JF Thormann was Andretti’s lead team representative in Hong Kong at FE. Andretti expects to attend the next FE round in Buenos Aires, which isn’t until February 18, 2017.

With FE’s season shifting into the spring and summer of 2017, there are several IndyCar/FE conflicts. Red Bull GRC is yet to release its 2017 calendar.

Anyway, with Andretti set to step off the strategist box, he all but indicated Bryan Herta will move over to Marco Andretti’s car, and that Rob Edwards (director of race operations and engineering) would move to Rossi’s No. 98 car. Edwards was on the No. 26 car for Carlos Munoz this year, and his departure there, if it’s confirmed, would leave a vacancy on the No. 26 box for Takuma Sato.

“I love having Bryan on board,” Michael Andretti said. “Having him there, if it works out that way, is that he and Marco are very close. It’d be really positive. I know Bryan would be up for the challenge in trying to improve that side.

“If that happens… then where we’re leaning is that it could be Rob on Rossi. That’d be good. Rossi would seem to be happy.”

Andretti said one of the challenges in being a strategist is that it’s one of the most important positions on a race weekend, and being split between strategist and team owner roles causes something of a loss of focus.

The rise of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing the last two years can be attributed to multiple things, including the fact Rahal’s dad Bobby Rahal stepped off the box in 2015 and let Ricardo Nault take over in that role.

“What would I miss about it? Not a lot, quite honestly!” Andretti admitted.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But I think, because of my experience, you can feel and see a race. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of guys out there that do that. We’re grooming guys to be in that place.”

Andretti did hail the immediate input Milless and Bretzman are having on the overall program. The team’s best road course performance of the year came at the Sonoma season finale in September, and it appears strides are following from there.

“It’s been great. I’m so excited and bullish on next year,” Andretti said. “In our first test with them, we’ve seen big results. There’s a lot more to come. I truly feel we’ll be a lot more competitive.

“We think we’re onto some things. We were onto some things going into Sonoma… and that wasn’t by mistake. We had found some things. We had the sense of where we needed to go. Getting these two in there, backed up where we were going, so that was a positive. I feel good about it.”

Takuma Sato formally confirmed with Andretti Autosport

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 27: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara Honda sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston at NRG Park on June 27, 2014 in Houston, Texas (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Takuma Sato will join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and complete the team’s four-car full-season lineup.

The 39-year-old Japanese driver will begin his eighth season in IndyCar next year, in arguably his deepest opportunity yet driving the team’s No. 26 Honda.

“I am extremely excited that we were able to work out a deal with Michael and Andretti Autosport,” Sato said in a release. “With Honda an integral part of Andretti Autosport, it seemed like a great fit. The team has proven year after year that they are ultracompetitive on all types of circuits.

“Particularly the speed that team has shown in recent years at the Indy 500 were just incredible. I am also very impressed on how aggressively they have addressed their needs for 2017, and am really looking forward to working with my new environment and can’t wait to get started.”

Sato spent his first two seasons with the KVSH Racing team (then called KV Racing Technology), a year at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the last four at A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Sato delivered Foyt its first win in more than a decade when he won at Long Beach, 2013, and also has scored five poles in his career. While he’s yet to finish better than 13th in points, Sato has long been one of the more enjoyable drivers to watch in the series for his aggressive, “no attack, no chance” style.

Sato joins the returning trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi within the team.

Team principal Michael Andretti said Sato’s results over his IndyCar career to date really haven’t done his talent, ability or development work justice.

“We’re excited to have Takuma; we think he’ll surprise and turn some heads,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think he’ll be in a situation that should help him a lot.

“With three good teammates, I think he is personally excited. This will be his best chance to get results since being in IndyCar.

“To me I really believe he’s one of the fastest guys in the paddock. When it comes to qualifying… it’ll help us in that area. It’ll be good in that feedback. I’m real happy with having him on board. He’s such a great kid, he won’t upset the chemistry. It’s a positive all the way around.”

Andretti also noted how key it was to have all four full-time entries confirmed this early in the offseason. The Rossi car with Andretti-Herta Autosport was only finalized in late February last year.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done since I’ve owned the team,” Andretti admitted. “Where we have all four cars this early, it helps us in terms of putting it together. It’s not a last-minute thing. That makes it a better effort.”

Garrett Mothershead, who worked with the departed Carlos Munoz at Andretti last year, will be Sato’s race engineer. Munoz now replaces Sato at Foyt next season.

Andretti said he expects to see commercial partnerships for Rossi and Sato’s cars announced in mid-January.