(Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson overcomes adversity to get back on track with ninth-place finish at Kansas

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Another race, another failed attempt to reach victory lane.

But Jimmie Johnson showed in Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway that he’s not far at all from finally earning his first win of the 2014 season.

Johnson led 24 of Saturday’s 267 laps and ultimately finished ninth.

Now that may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but consider how many laps Johnson led in the previous four races combined: a total of just 10 (eight at Darlington and two at Talladega).

It’s also the most laps led by the driver of the No. 48 since he dominated at Martinsville, leading 296 of the 500 laps, only to finish second to Kurt Busch. What’s more, it’s Johnson’s best finish — and the sixth top-10 thus far in 2014 — since finishing third three races ago at Darlington (and then in the following two races finished 32nd at Richmond and 23rd at Talladega).

With teammate and the co-owner of Johnson’s car, Jeff Gordon, winning, you can bet Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will be doubling up on their efforts. Now that Gordon has gotten the winless monkey off his back, that monkey is now resting squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.

That’s a big positive, as Johnson heads to his third-most successful track, Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he’s earned six of his 66 career Sprint Cup wins.

And while Johnson has not won at Charlotte since the fall of 2009, Gordon’s win won’t only motivate his own team, it will also motivate Johnson and his team.

Johnson likely could and probably would have finished higher at Kansas had it not been for clutch failure early in the race. While other drivers and teams may have been happy to finish 30th or worse with a problem like that, Johnson’s No. 48 crew found a way to keep him on the track.

And the end result, while looking just like a typical ninth-place finish in the race results, was actually a win of sorts in and of itself.

“Overcoming adversity,” Johnson said when asked after the race what stood out the most in the 267-lap event. “We didn’t have a clutch in the car so pit stops were limited and track position was a big key.

“You just really had to grind it out today and then we did and we got a decent finish.”

Compounding problems is his car was running so low on fuel that Knaus and Johnson were unable to gamble on fuel mileage like they have done so many times in the past.

Rather, Johnson came into the pits 12 laps from the finish for a splash of fuel. And while he likely gave up perhaps a chance at a top-5 finish otherwise, that he was able to get on and off pit road so quickly – and add enough fuel to get him to the end of the race – was further testimony to just how good his overall effort truly was.

“We just didn’t have that optimism on the radio (to think he could make it to the end with the fuel he had remaining), so I don’t think so,” Johnson said.

“(But) by doing that (electing to stop for a splash of gas), we were able to get a top ten (finish).”

It may not have been the elusive win Johnson has been chasing, but doing what he did – and how he did it – only served to show that the No. 48 team will get to victory lane very soon. Perhaps as early as the next points-paying event, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on May 25.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.