Nothing’s certain but death, taxes, and Jimmie Johnson contending at Dover

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Jimmie Johnson’s emergence as the most dominant stock car racer of the last decade has no doubt been fueled in part by his success at Dover International Speedway.

Last fall, Johnson won at Dover for the eighth time and it proved critical in his ultimately successful bid for a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

What’s been impressive is that Johnson, along with crew chief Chad Knaus and his Hendrick Motorsports team, has been able to stay strong over the years at Dover through multiple generations of cars.

No matter the changes, no matter the rules package, they’ve always been at or near the front at this track. To Johnson, it all comes down to finding the proper feeling behind the wheel.

“Over time, as things change, I just pay attention to the feeling I’m looking for and we work through whatever challenges are thrown at us with different tires that are brought in and also [different] generations of car,” he said.

“This is still the Gen-6 car, but there’s a different rules package under it. [But] regardless of change, there are some tracks that just work well for you and you’re able to still find that feeling you’re looking for regardless of circumstances.”

Johnson figures to be a threat as usual in Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at the Monster Mile, where he not only has the all-time wins record but also leads active drivers in several critical “loop data” categories including average running position (6.8), fastest laps run (990), and laps run in the Top 15 (6,261, or 86.9 percent of the time).

Dover arrives in the middle of a traditionally strong set of tracks for Johnson, counting Charlotte Motor Speedway – where he won last weekend in the Coca-Cola 600 – and Pocono Raceway, where he’s won three times in his career (including last summer).

All three tracks are drastically different, with Charlotte as a standard 1.5-mile quad-oval, Dover as a concrete mile, and Pocono as a 2.5-mile triangle with three unique corners.

But in Johnson’s mind, they’re the “most technical tracks we go to” – which could be interpreted as a reason behind the 48 crew’s success at those circuits.

“Set-up is key, and communication between driver and crew chief is key,” he said. “Charlotte and Dover, you have such loading characteristics as you’re on the straightaway lunging off into the corner that you can draw some similarities between those two tracks.

“But Pocono – it’s so different, I don’t know how to even draw a parallel other than it’s tough to get around. Dover isn’t easy, Charlotte isn’t easy, and neither is Pocono.”

F1 2017 driver review: Carlos Sainz Jr.

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Carlos Sainz Jr.

Teams: Scuderia Toro Rosso (1-16), Renault (17-20)
Car No.: 33
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Best Finish: P4 (Singapore)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 54
Championship Position: 9th

Carlos Sainz Jr. has always been compared to Max Verstappen given their relative rise and stint together at Toro Rosso, but the Spaniard began to forge his own impressive path through 2017, securing himself a works drive with Renault in the process.

Alongside the struggling Daniil Kvyat for much of the season, Sainz led Toro Rosso’s charge, scoring 48 of its 53 points with a string of impressive drives. His headline moment came in Singapore when he matched Verstappen’s best result in Toro Rosso colors by finishing fourth, capitalizing on the start-line crash and the wet weather with a strong display.

Sainz’s displays led to a call from Renault, who announced just two days before his star display in Singapore he would be joining up for 2018 on loan from Red Bull. However, the deal was accelerated after a deal was brokered to secure Jolyon Palmer’s departure, allowing Sainz to join up from the United States GP onwards.

Sainz made an immediate impression, completing a perfect race en route to seventh on debut for Renault to secure six points that would prove crucial in the final constructors’ championship standings as the French team beat Toro Rosso to P6 in the standings at the last race of the year.

Red Bull retains an option on Sainz’s future beyond 2018, making him a candidate for a seat with its senior team should Daniel Ricciardo opt to leave. Failing that, Renault could offer Sainz the platform he needs to continue his rapid rise in F1 and establish himself at the front of the pack for many years to come.

Season High: Finishing fourth in Singapore after dodging the start-line drama.

Season Low: Crashing out in his final Toro Rosso appearance on the first lap at Suzuka.