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

3 Comments

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

Sirotkin takes first GP2 win of 2016 in Hungary

2016 GP2 Series Round 6
Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary.
Sunday 24 July 2016.
Sergey Sirotkin (RUS, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBB8505
© GP2 Series
Leave a comment

Sergey Sirotkin battled from sixth place on the grid to pick up his first victory of the 2016 GP2 Series season for ART Grand Prix.

Sirotkin entered 2016 as one of the favorites for the title, but a luckless start to the year meant he arrived in Hungary far behind series leader Oliver Rowland.

The Russian finished third in Saturday’s feature race before a scintillating start saw him rise from P6 to P2 in the opening stages in Hungary.

The safety car was deployed on the first lap following a clash further back sparked by a spin for Arthur Pic that eliminated four cars.

Racing Engineering’s Jordan King headed the pack after starting from reverse grid pole, but a mistake when coming back to the green flag allowed Sirotkin to close up.

The ART driver perfectly positioned his car as he went side-by-side with King through the opening complex of corners, eventually pulling ahead at Turn 4.

From there, Sirotkin managed to pull clear and hold on to his lead through to the end of the race, picking up his first GP2 victory in over a year.

King held on to second ahead of teammate Norman Nato, who rounded out the podium positions ahead of Artem Markelov and Mitch Evans.

Oliver Rowland salvaged some points from his difficult weekend in P6, while Saturday winner Pierre Gasly extended his championship lead in seventh, also chalking up the fastest lap in the process. Raffaele Marciello picked up the final point for P8.

The GP2 Series continues next weekend in support of the German Grand Prix.

Ericsson to start Hungarian GP from pit lane

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 22:  Marcus Ericsson of Sweden driving the (9) Sauber F1 Team Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 22, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Marcus Ericsson will start Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix from the pit lane after Sauber changed the survival cell on his car following a crash in qualifying.

Ericsson crashed out midway through a frenetic Q1 session marred by rain and red flags, sustaining enough damage to warrant repairs overnight.

Sauber was forced to break parc ferme conditions to fix Ericsson’s car, meaning he will now have to start from the pit lane

“As the survival cell has been changed the competitor is required to start from the pit lane and should follow procedures laid out in Article 36.2 of the FIA Formula One sporting regulations,” a statement from the race stewards in Hungary reads.

Rio Haryanto has also been given a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox overnight. However, the Manor driver actually gains a place from his qualifying position thanks to Ericsson’s penalty, rising from P22 to P21.

The Hungarian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET, with lights out at 8am ET.

WATCH LIVE: Hungarian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Top three qualifiers Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing wave to the crowd from parc ferme during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

With Formula 1’s summer break rapidly approaching, the title fight between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Just a single point separates the Silver Arrows at the top of the drivers’ championship, the momentum having swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favor over the past five races.

Saturday saw Rosberg snatch pole position away from Hamilton in the final minute of qualifying, although the result was not confirmed until almost five hours after the session finished.

Rosberg completed part of his lap under yellow flags, leading to an investigation from the stewards. They eventually deemed him to have slowed enough in respect of the caution.

The post-qualifying drama did not stop there as questions were asked about five drivers’ laps during the downpour in Q1, as a grey area in the 107% rule was found.

The FIA stewards decided to let Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas keep their positions under “exceptional circumstances”.

After all that drama, the grid for the race was set as it was six hours earlier: Rosberg on pole, Hamilton P2, and the Red Bulls lurking just behind – the stage set for a thrilling battle at the front of the pack.

You can watch the Hungarian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at the Hungaroring providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Hungarian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the post qualifying press conference during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
Leave a comment

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are poised to renew their fierce rivalry in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix after locking out the front row of the grid for Mercedes.

Hamilton went into qualifying chasing a sixth pole position at the Hungaroring, and looked to have clinched it when a yellow flag was shown at the end of Q3 following a spin for Fernando Alonso. All drivers were forced to slow down, the majority abandoning their lap altogether.

Rosberg was the exception. After lifting through the yellow flag zone, the German lit up the timesheets over the rest of the lap to edge out Hamilton and snatch pole away.

The stewards did investigate Rosberg’s lap later that evening to ensure he had slowed down enough, before ultimately deciding he had.

Another post-qualifying drama followed after a grey area in the regulations emerged regarding the 107% rule, threatening five drivers with grid drops. The stewards opted to let the affected drivers keep their grid slots, citing “exceptional circumstances”.

On a weekend that has already offered plenty of drama, Sunday’s race is likely to follow suit. Be sure to tune in from 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app for all of the action.

Here’s what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Rosberg, Hamilton up for a fight once again

Relations between Rosberg and Hamilton have been frosty throughout 2016, and with the summer break approaching, the next two race weekends are particularly crucial. Back in 2014, a dispute in Hungary resulted in Rosberg stewing over the summer and hitting Hamilton on-track in Spa in what was arguably the turning point in the title race. Might we see a similar incident this weekend?

Starting from the front row, we may be set for another on-track fight between the two Mercedes drivers – something that has been all too scarce throughout 2016. Austria ended with contact – can they keep it clean on Sunday?

Mercedes bids to complete the set

Hamilton may be a four-time winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, but this is actually the only race on the 2016 calendar that Mercedes has not won in the hybrid era. 2014’s event was won by Daniel Ricciardo in stunning fashion, while Sebastian Vettel dominated last year.

Mercedes’ bid to complete the set on Sunday is far from academic. On the contrary, with Ricciardo and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen lurking just behind on a track, and the tight confines of the Hungaroring playing to the strengths of the RB12 car, Mercedes has a fight on its hands today.

Ferrari looks to ignite its season

After taking a huge stride towards Mercedes in 2015, hopes were high at Ferrari for this season. However, it has proven to be a frustrating campaign, with the brief glimmers of victory passing by. With Red Bull now appearing to move ahead in the pecking order, a big result is needed to ignite its season.

Hungary appears to be make or break for Ferrari’s 2016. Victory would justify the repeated claims that it is capable of challenging Mercedes for the title. Anything less would surely push a greater focus onto 2017.

Opportunity knocks for the lower field

The Hungarian Grand Prix has a knack of shaking up the field, with safety cars and races of attrition offering possible gains to those lower down the field.

Haas will be hoping to make the most of another double-Q2 appearance, particularly with Romain Grosjean starting P11, while Renault and Sauber are both in desperate need of points.

Throw in some safety cars and – after Saturday’s sudden downpour – maybe even a sprinkling of rain, and the lower pack could benefit.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Fernando Alonso McLaren
8. Jenson Button McLaren
9. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
10. Valtteri Bottas Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Sergio Perez Force India
14. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
15. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Jolyon Palmer Renault
18. Felipe Massa Williams
19. Kevin Magnussen Renault
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Rio Haryanto Manor