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

Rahal, Kanaan left wanting for more at Pocono

Photo: IndyCar
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LONG POND, Pa – In the second half of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, Graham Rahal and Tony Kanaan simply put on a show. Between laps 123 and 150, the two swapped the lead no fewer than 17 times, often doing so entering Turn 3.

It was a masterful display of overtaking from two of the sport’s best drivers, and helped define a day that saw the Verizon IndyCar Series set a record for lead changes at Pocono (42) and record more than 500 on-track passes for position.

However, despite battling for the lead and running strongly all race long, neither driver got the finishes they were looking for. Rahal in particular faded over the last two stints, with fuel strategy from others also dropping him down the order. Rahal could do no better than ninth at the checkered flag.

“We just fell back a bit there,” Rahal lamented while speaking with NBCSN’s Anders Krohn afterward. “We had a really good race car. A little too draggy on downforce. We never got (to take wing out) out at the pit stops. Unfortunately as people saw, we lost a bit of time, then we (pitted) in the middle of a group. It was all about trying to recover.”

Despite the disappointment, Rahal, who led nine laps on the day, remained upbeat and complimentary of the effort from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

“Everyone did a great job on the (No. 15 team). Strategy, we’ll see if we could be better. It’s certainly capable of running in the top 3. I didn’t have (Alexander Rossi’s) pace. When we were up with (Tony Kanaan), if that train could’ve kept going, I would’ve been perfectly cool with that. That was a lot of fun.”

Kanaan, who led for 32 circuits, was able to fare better at the finish, coming home fifth. However, he also lamented that a broken wing hampered his efforts.

Tony Kanaan led 32 laps during the ABC Supply 500 before finishing fifth. Photo: IndyCar

“That battle with Graham (Rahal) was the highlight of my race – exchanging positions back and forth for the lead,” said Kanaan. “We found out after the race that we had a broken front wing that we didn’t know about. We don’t know how it happened or when it happened. We were so strong at the beginning of the race and I couldn’t understand why we were falling back, but now we know why. Regardless, it was a great battle.”

Rahal remains sixth in the championship, but now trails leader Josef Newgarden by 76 points with three races remaining in a race that quite likely has ended his championship chances for 2017. Kanaan sits ninth in the points standings.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Hunter-Reay finishes eighth at Pocono after brutal qualifying crash

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LONG POND, Pa. – Ryan Hunter-Reay woke up this morning not 100 percent sure he would be driving today at Pocono Raceway after suffering a brutal crash in qualifying, registered at 138Gs.

Although he was treated and released from Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest on Saturday night, he remained very sore ahead of Sunday’s race and was not officially cleared to drive until Sunday morning.

He then made the race for fans and onlookers worth the price of admission nearly entire on his own.

Starting from 21st, Hunter-Reay was immediately on the move and a lightning fast pit stop from the No. 28 DHL Honda team put him in sixth, following a lap 21 caution for debris off of Esteban Gutierrez’s car.

Hunter-Reay remained a staple at the front of the field for much of the race, taking part in what was a thrilling battle for the lead throughout, leading 12 laps in the process.

However, jumbled pit strategy late in the race saw him fall back from the front of the field and deeper into the top ten. Hunter-Reay eventually salvaged eighth.

Though exhausted, Hunter-Reay told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt afterward that it was a good result given everything that happened.

“It was a great run. We started with a lot of downforce. Took a while to get (the) balance, no warmup. getting the right downforce level, we thought ‘Hey, we have something’ leading at halfway. Didn’t get enough downforce out of it,” he said of the effort on race day.

Hunter-Reay added that he was also just happy to be racing after sustaining such a heavy accident. “Really happy to get back in the car, get a good showing in. It was a test. A mental test no doubt… physical as well. Glad to roll it back in pit lane and move forward. All told a good showing to end the weekend.”

Though some may have been surprised to see Hunter-Reay excel the way he did, teammate Alexander Rossi was not one of them.

“It’s vintage Ryan Hunter-Reay,” Rossi said of his teammate’s effort. “We’ve seen him do it time and time again. In my opinion he’s one of the best drivers on the grid. It was no surprise to me. 40 laps in, to see him behind me, I was like ‘Damn, here we go again.’ But it’s to be expected. It really shouldn’t be a shock for anyone.”

Hunter-Reay now sits 11th in the championship, five points behind James Hinchcliffe for tenth.

Podium for Rossi caps all-around statement weekend in Pocono (VIDEO)

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The importance of Alexander Rossi to both his Andretti Autosport team and the Verizon IndyCar Series as a whole was properly on display this weekend at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, as the sophomore driver from California made his mark in several key ways.

Ending third today in what may have been his best drive this season – in a year filled with candidates – stands as a disappointment because of how good he was otherwise.

The driver of the No. 98 MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda for the Andretti-Herta Autosport outfit was unlucky to qualify only sixth. Rossi battled understeer on his opening lap, then turned in what would have been the fastest single lap of qualifying on his second before Takuma Sato eclipsed it as the last driver to run.

“A lot more understeer than this morning! It really took off,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt Saturday after his run. “I was fortunate it wasn’t a worse situation.

“We have the fastest single lap which is some sort of consolation prize, like the participation medal when you don’t win anything,” he deadpanned.

But Sato’s pole was made possible in part by Rossi’s sprint from pit in to pit out to give Sato an update on track conditions after his run (more here from Indianapolis Star reporter Jim Ayello). That the run occurred mere moments before Ryan Hunter-Reay tattooed the wall hard off Turn 3 and could have left Sato in a fragile mental state made it all the more impressive.

Sato couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise of Rossi.

“We see Ryan’s moment. Really made my nervous because he was just in front of me. We share a lot of parts and philosophy on the car. So it’s directly expecting what he has is what I have,” Sato said in the post-qualifying press conference.

“Alexander came me before the qualifying, he give me what he felt in Lap 1 to Lap 2, Turn 1 to Turn 3. Because here it’s a lot of downshift. We had to deal with the weight jackers, had to really work on that. Everything was proactive.

“I was able to put down a great lap, and I really have to say thank you to all my team.”

Photo: IndyCar

Sunday’s race for Rossi was, like others he’s had this year, excellent if not outright fulfilling from the overall standpoint.

Rossi led only 23 laps in 2016 including 14 in the Indianapolis 500, which he won, and then 23 laps this year, only at Indianapolis.

On Sunday, he led eight times for 44 laps, nearly doubling his career total of 46 in one race.

He was rarely outside the top five, battling any of Tony Kanaan, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe for the lead more often than not throughout the race. But he wasn’t able to maintain full pace in the final stint owing to a weird issue – his fuel mixture knob came off.

He described the struggle at the end after an otherwise banner day to Hargitt.

“Nothing changed; but the fuel mixture knob came off about two-thirds of the way through, so we didn’t have full power at the end,” Rossi told NBCSN. “We know these Honda engines have something for the competition.

“The car was stellar all day. It’s a really good result. When you come so close to the win it’s difficult to swallow. But looking back at Pocono where we were last year, we didn’t finish. To be on podium is a testament to Andretti Autosport and the entire team and the work they’ve done all year.”

With Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti as teammates, Rossi said they’ve been instrumental to his growth in 500-mile races.

“I’m getting more comfortable. A lot of it that is because of the team. Amazing to work with. My teammates are fantastic. I can’t go on enough about how much they’ve gotten me up to speed on these tracks, that are very daunting for first-comers. Very fortunate to drive for this team.”

Photo: IndyCar

Rossi expanded on the final stint of the race in the post-race press conference, as he wasn’t quite able to make enough of a run on Team Penske teammates Will Power and Josef Newgarden, who finished first and second.

“I don’t want to take away from what Team Penske did and Will and Josef,” he said. “They were very strong at the end, and I don’t think we could have trimmed as much as they were. We just didn’t have the balance to take that.

“I was trying, but like Josef didn’t have the speed for Will, I didn’t really have the speed for Josef. I thought we were pretty strong in Turn 3 at times, but I didn’t have enough to really pull alongside, and I think that was truly down to the mixture. But it’s racing. That’s the way it goes.

“Like I said before, those two cars were pretty strong, and it was easy to make a mistake behind them, and I knew I had to push really hard to stay in their tire tracks. That’s part of what makes IndyCar racing so great. To win here, you have to be perfect for an entire race, and Will did that today.”

Even though Rossi admitted leading – and thus burning more fuel – wasn’t an ideal scenario, it was hard to wipe the smile off his face after his second podium of the year (was second in Toronto) as he sits eighth in points.

“I had a smile on my face the whole race. It’s rare that you don’t driving IndyCars, especially at a track as awesome as this. I had fun for the entire race, and any time you’re leading, there’s some satisfaction that goes with it.”

Newgarden extends IndyCar points lead as Power shrinks top-5 gap

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Entering the day 52 points back of Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden in fifth place in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, Will Power was actually six points closer to the lead than he was at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway last year compared to when he was second in points behind Simon Pagenaud, 58 points back.

Power won, Pagenaud crashed, and the gap was 20 points after this race last year between the two of them.

Fast forward 12 months and Power won again, but this time, his Penske teammate that was leading the points didn’t have a nightmare day and instead nailed down a critical result for his own title hopes.

Courtesy of a rally from several early race issues, Power leapfrogged to a surprise second straight Pocono win while Newgarden finished second.

What was a seven-point lead for Newgarden over the fourth Penske driver, Helio Castroneves, turned into an 18-point lead over new second place man Scott Dixon in today’s race.

Newgarden was understandably disappointed to lose his third straight win, but very happy with the result in the big picture standpoint.

“Will deserves the win. He had the car to beat. He was the class of the field the second half of the race,” Newgarden told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“I did everything I could to beat him. But I’m second, Dixon’s behind us, Helio’s behind us, Simon… you don’t want to wreck your teammate or give up where you’re at. It’s a 1-2 for all of us. I’m disappointed for all of us but I can’t be disappointed for where we are.”

Power’s win, meanwhile, saw him close the gap down to just 42 points behind Newgarden, albeit still fifth in points.

Dixon moved into second with a sixth place finish and is now 18 points back. He started the day eight behind Newgarden.

Castroneves advanced from 20th on the grid up to seventh and is third in points, 22 back, yet still lost 15 points to Newgarden.

The incredibly consistent Pagenaud nailed down his 11th top-five finish of the season in 14 starts, yet somehow still ranks fourth in points, 26 back, having lost nine points on the day.

With ninth, Graham Rahal saw his slim title hopes fade – he’s not mathematically out of it but at 76 points back he’s in a tough spot after starting 58 behind. Similarly Takuma Sato, who started 71 out after winning the pole position, fell to 95 back in seventh – just five points ahead of Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi, who finished third.

Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe remain ninth and 10th in points.

With three races to play, after Pocono, it is now clearly a five-horse race for the championship with each of the top five within one race’s worth of maximum points (54).