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

NHRA: Alexis DeJoria returns from injury at this weekend’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis

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Fans heading to Indianapolis this weekend for the NHRA’s biggest race of the year, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, will get a very pleasant surprise.

Funny Car driver and fan favorite Alexis DeJoria, who has missed the last two races recuperating from a fractured left pelvis suffered in a race crash a month ago in Sonoma, California (see video above), will be back behind the wheel of her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry.

The Sonoma wreck was the worst of her career and the first time she has been injured in a drag racing wreck. She had a hard wreck in 2009 at Englishtown, New Jersey, but was uninjured.

DeJoria, who won the Funny Car class in the U.S. Nationals in 2014, comes into this weekend not only looking forward to returning to the Funny Car wars, but also to hopefully lock herself into the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Even with missing the last two races at Seattle and Brainerd, Minnesota, DeJoria still has a 87-point lead over Chad Head, her closest rival for the 10th and final Countdown spot, which will be determined this weekend.

But Head isn’t the only competitor DeJoria has to worry about. Former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon is 115 points behind DeJoria, and is a four-time winner at the U.S. Nationals.

MotorSportsTalk spoke with DeJoria recently about how she’s feeling, her return behind the wheel and her hopes to make the Countdown.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Q.) How do you feel physically?

DEJORIA: “I feel really good. It’s been about five weeks now and I’ve done all the physical therapy I could possibly do and all the treatments they have for fractured bones and what not, lots of rest and healing in general.

“I’ve let my family take care of me. My husband (noted motorcycle builder Jesse James) took real good care of me while I was home. He works from home, so it’s easy to do that. So, just everything combined, I feel really good. I’ve missed two races so I’m eager to get back out there.”

NHRA Drag Racing

Q) Even with such a bad injury, what makes you eager to climb back into the race car?

DEJORIA: “You have to understand that this is part of what you do, part of your job, you’re racing cars that are over 10,000 horsepower. They’re very fast, very powerful and can be very evil at the same time. You always have to know that (crashing) is a possibility. And if you don’t think that way, then you’re absolutely crazy.

“Some people are just real lucky. I’ve been in a lot of accidents and have never got hurt. From the outside, you’d think she definitely has to be hurt, look at the car. But I’ve come out unscathed up to now. This was a little different.

“So for me personally, and I can only speak for myself but I’m sure a lot of professional athletes and drivers feel the same way, it’s that drive and that sheer tenacity and the ability to keep fighting in the face of adversity or that challenge that you constantly have.

“We’re all going to make mistakes at some point, we’re all going to fall at some point, but what makes us different is we’re the ones that keep getting up and keep fighting. Those are the ones that really succeed in life in these professional jobs we have.

“You have to be able to do that, to get back up and fight again. That’s the kind of person I was raised to be and that’s one of the reasons why I chose NHRA drag racing. It’s a very humbling sport. Not every day is going to be a good day. You’re not always going to make it down the track. There’s so many variables that can take you out. But I love the challenge. I love that. I love the ability to charge ahead no matter what the circumstances are, I absolutely love it.”

Drag Racing

Q) You want to win a championship and if you do that, you would become the first female Funny Car champion in NHRA. How important are both those aspects for you?

DEJORIA: “They’re both very important in a very unique way. For me, coming into the sport, I want to succeed. I’m a very competitive person and I didn’t come here just to make some quick passes down a track in a race car. I came here for the big picture, the big win, the ultimate win of winning a championship, and not just as a competitor but also because there are so few female women out there in the NHRA professional categories.

“Obviously, we want to be this the first this or first that, and being one of only two females, it is kind of a unique thing. It’s like a relay race. Courtney and I just pass the baton back and forth. This week, you’re the faster female and maybe next week I’ll be the fastest female. There’s only two of us, it’s kind of crazy, we kind of laugh at it when they make a big deal of the fastest female, when there’s only two of us. It’s not that big of a deal.

“But ultimately the championship, overall, that speaks volumes. It’s not just me and Courtney, it’s every woman that’s ever competed in Nitro Funny Car. And that’s something unique. A woman has done it in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, but that hasn’t happened yet in Funny Car. My ultimate goal would be to win a championship.”

Q) You’re in 10th place and are trying to clinch a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. Can you talk about the pressure to not only make the Countdown but also the pressure to win the championship?

DEJORIA: “There’s a lot of pressure coming back. Obviously, it’s my first race back after an accident, I haven’t been in the car for a long time and Indy is the biggest race of the year. It’s a fight to get to stay in the Countdown to the Championship.

“So, there’s a lot on the table, but for me, I just have to keep it simple. I’m just so thrilled to just get back there and see my team, who I miss incredibly so much, because they’re my family away from home. We have a special bond. We’re on the road together so much, we see each other more than we see our own families at times. It’s a special bond. I miss my teammates and I also miss my competitors, too. I know that sounds crazy, but I just miss the whole circus out there.

“I’m just thrilled to get back there. I’ve won Indy before, so there’s a little bit of pressure off my shoulders – it’s like an I did it before, we can do it again kind of thing. I’m going to have my friends and family there, my dad’s coming out, my daughter will have her birthday on Sunday of the race. So, there’s a lot of good, positive things and I’m just going to focus on that, keep it simple and hopefully we can get some very consistent runs under our belt, qualify well and get some bonus points.

“We’re in the Traxxas Shootout (a special exhibition race held during the U.S. Nationals for Funny Car and Top Fuel teams) because we won early on in the season (Las Vegas). So that’ll be nice, too.

“There’s lots of good things to look forward to. Those pressures are going to be there, but I’m going to choose not to focus on them and focus on the positives and am just grateful to be in this position and that I get to race another day.”

DRAG RACING

Q) Your friend, fellow Funny Car driver Courtney Force, had her own wreck one week after yours, but did not suffer as severe an injury as you did. You immediately took to Twitter to offer your support for Force. How hard was it to watch her wreck so soon after your own wreck?

DEJORIA: “I was resting in bed, my husband were watching the race live on television, and it was absolutely surreal watching her go through very similar circumstances. And when she didn’t get out of the car right away, I started getting teared up. It was like watching my own accident from a different perspective.

“She came out and was hurt as well, couldn’t put weight on her right foot and it was just so difficult to watch. It was incredible, I just couldn’t believe it happened again in the race right after mine, and the only other female in the class. All that tied together, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’ I’m very glad, though, that she didn’t have any bone damage. She had some soft tissue damage around her knees when they hit the steering wheel like mine did.”

Q) What changes will you make to your Funny Car to improve its safety and help reduce any chance of reinjury to you?

DEJORIA: “We’ll be having a lot more padding around me inside the seat of my race car at Indy where we obviously didn’t have it before. If I had it, maybe I wouldn’t have had a fracture, then again, maybe I would have. I had a very hard lateral hit into the retaining wall, and the barrier walls I hit didn’t move, so I think that added to the excessive damage I had vs. what Courtney went through.

“The barrier wall at Seattle actually moved three or four feet when she hit it, so I think it absorbed some of the blow. I’m very glad she’s okay. She’s my buddy and I hate to see anybody go through that, be it a friend or competitor. At the end of the day, we’re all a family. We’re all very close, we’re a traveling circus. We all want the same thing at the end of the day (to win) but we also don’t want to see each other get hurt.”

Q) Where are you at percentage-wise physically?

DEJORIA: “Physically, I feel good. No crutches, I actually worked out at the gym tbe other day. I’m slowly getting back into my normal routine. A fracture usually takes about six to eight weeks to completely heal.

“So, Indy, when I make my first run on Friday, will be about five weeks. I should be about 85 to 90 percent healed. But again, we’re changing the whole interior of the cockpit and with padding and so much more that I didn’t have before, so I should be fine. My doctors are giving me the okay to go.”

Q) How do you not think about the accident when you climb back behind the wheel for the first time since your crash on Friday?

DEJORIA: “I’ve been through a couple other wrecks. This wasn’t my first time. If it was the first time, I think I might be a little bit more concerned, but this is not my first rodeo.”

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Williams clinches F1 DHL Fastest Pit Stop award with eight races to spare

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24: Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo makes a pit stop during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Williams has won Formula 1’s DHL Fastest Pit Stop award with eight races to spare after boasting the fastest pit crew for the 11th time this season in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix.

The DHL Fastest Pit Stop award was established in 2015 to reward the team with the quickest pit crew. Ferrari won the inaugural award, enjoying the fastest pit stop in seven races.

Williams placed a great deal of attention on its pit crew heading into the 2016 season, with the results being evident in first half of the year.

The Williams pit crew was the fastest in all of the first nine races of the year, before Mercedes finally broke its streak at the British Grand Prix in July.

Mercedes was fastest once again in Hungary before Williams struck back in Germany, putting the Fastest Pit Stop award in reach at Spa.

A turnaround of 2.14 seconds for Valtteri Bottas on lap seven was enough to give Williams a 11th pit stop win of the season, making its lead insurmountable with eight races to go.

The fastest pit stop of the season so far also comes courtesy of Williams. Felipe Massa’s service during the European Grand Prix took just 1.92 seconds.

Hamilton wins Belgian GP driver of the day

during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium
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Following his run from the back of the Belgian Grand Prix to the podium, Lewis Hamilton has won the fan vote for driver of the day at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.

The voting from Formula One’s official website pegged it as a close battle between Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, but the Mercedes driver prevailed.

Alonso was one of several other drivers to have standout drives; race winner Nico Rosberg, runner-up Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg who finished fourth were also drivers we considered in our own F1 on NBC poll.

But Hamilton was still leading that one with several hours to go.

Giovinazzi takes third GP2 victory in Spa sprint race

Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA, PREMA Racing) 
2016 GP2 Series Round 6
Spa-Francorchamps, Spa, Belgium
Sunday 28 August 2016

Photo: /GP2 Series Media Service
ref: Digital Image _SBB6155
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Antonio Giovinazzi breathed fresh life into his GP2 Series title bid by scoring his third win of the season at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday.

Giovinazzi claimed pole position for the feature race on Saturday, but never recovered from a poor start that resigned him to a sixth-place finish.

The Italian started third on Sunday by virtue of the reverse grid, and made a good start to jump up into second behind Rapax driver Gustav Malja.

In a near-repeat from Saturday, Malja held the lead for an extended period before the Prema driver behind – on Saturday it had been Pierre Gasly – lined up a move. Giovinazzi swept around the outside of Les Combes on lap seven to seize a lead that he would never relinquish.

Giovinazzi managed to open up a gap to Malja that amounted to 2.3 seconds at the checkered flag to score his third win of the season following his double dip at Baku in June.

“I was really disappointed yesterday because I started on pole and made a bad start,” Giovinazzi said. “I ended P6 in the feature race so it was not what I had expected.

“But last night, Prema worked really hard to find what went wrong and this morning I made a good start. We knew we had a good pace with the car so I just waited for the DRS to be enabled to overtake Malja after four or five laps. Then I just remained focused to keep the tires alive.

“I would like to thank Prema again for their amazing job race after race. Next round will be my home race so obviously I hope we will be able to repeat our good form from this weekend and from the start of the season.”

Malja kept his cool to score his first podium finish in GP2, crossing the line second ahead of Luca Ghiotto in P3.

Championship leader Gasly fought from P8 on the grid to finish fourth, ensuring that he heads to this weekend’s round at Monza with a 17-point lead over Giovinazzi in the drivers’ championship.

Former Ferrari junior Raffaele Marciello was fifth ahead of Oliver Rowland, while Sergio Canamasas and Norman Nato picked up the final points for P7 and P8 after Alex Lynn and Jordan King were hit with post-race penalties.