Jimmie Johnson has monster-like performance, dominates for 9th career win at Dover’s Monster Mile

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To borrow a line from the 1960’s Herman’s Hermits song, “Henry the Eighth,” the outcome of Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks was a case of “Second verse, same as the first” for Jimmie Johnson.

The six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion won his second consecutive race of the season, adding Sunday’s triumph at Dover International Speedway to last Sunday’s victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Johnson becomes the all-time winner at Dover, as Sunday’s was his ninth career Sprint Cup triumph there. He also is the third multiple winner this season, joining Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with two wins apiece.

“It is incredible,” Johnson told Fox Sports. “This race car was awesome. I just have so much to be thankful for. “Chad (crew chief Chad Knaus) told me I’d love the car, and sure enough, from the time we unloaded the car, he was right.”

Just like he did at Charlotte, Johnson once again dominated at Dover, leading 272 of the 400 laps on the one-mile, all-concrete track.

With his back-to-back wins, Johnson is now a lock to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup as he pursues his bid to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers in NASCAR history to earn seven Cup championships in their respective careers.

While the rest of the field had one last gasp to catch Johnson (who did not pit) when a caution was called eight laps from the finish due to debris from Casey Mears’ car, the driver of the No. 48 had a great restart on Lap 396 and hung on to finish off a masterpiece of a performance for his 68th career Sprint Cup win.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin.

“We just had an up and down day,” Keselowski said. “We made a lot of adjustments and about halfway, the car just woke up. I was able to run from 13th to second. We just ran out of laps at the end to have a crack at getting (Johnson).”

Sixth through 10th were Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard. Kyle Larson was the highest-finishing rookie, just missing a top 10 finish by winding up 11th.

To say it was a strange race at times is an understatement.

On Lap 159, a piece of concrete broke free from the racing surface at the end of Turn 2 on the one-mile, all-concrete racetrack.

The roughly softball sized piece made a direct hit to the lower part of the front end of Jamie McMurray’s Chevrolet, putting a sizeable dent in the bumper and splitter, causing NASCAR to red flag the race so that track workers could repair the resulting pothole that was about the size of a football.

NASCAR would not allow McMurray’s team to work on the car during the red flag conditions, but it will be able to do so once the event switched back to yellow flag caution conditions.

It was subsequently learned that when McMurray hit the chunk of concrete, parts of it flew up and struck the glass of the crossover walkway above the track at the exit of Turn 2. It did not appear anyone was injured in that incident.

And we hadn’t even gotten to halfway at that point, either!

Working backwards through the rest of the race:

A.J. AllmendingerGreg Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were all involved in a wreck on Lap 135 that also temporarily brought out a red flag condition.

Biffle’s and Stenhouse’s cars both suffered heavy damage. While it’s likely Stenhouse is done for the day, Biffle’s team is attempting to repair the damage to get him back on the racetrack.

Allmendinger, meanwhile, was able to continue.

* Then, 10 laps before that on Lap 125, Kyle Busch’s hopes for a weekend sweep came to an abrupt end when the right front of his Toyota made contact with the rear of Clint Bowyer’s Toyota.

The incident apparently cut down Busch’s right front tire as just seconds later he piled into the outside retaining wall.

Busch initially refused to come onto pit road, remaining on the racetrack – even with a flat right front tire and the damage to his car – and appeared as if he was going to retaliate to Bowyer.

Even though the track was under yellow flag caution conditions, Busch accelerated and looked as if he was going to get into Bowyer’s rear end, but eventually took his car to the garage after pleading from crew chief Dave Rogers over the team radio.

At the same time, Bowyer also accelerated to try and avoid Busch, who ultimately gave up his pursuit and drove to the garage.

After the race, Bowyer, who bounced back to finish fourth, regretted how things played out.

“What a day, frustrating day, hated that with Kyle, obviously,” Bowyer said. “(He and Busch) are teammates, so to speak, with the manufacturer (Toyota). It was a bad deal. Obviously, I thought I was clear and he kind of got up there. I thought he was going to give it to me (room), and he didn’t. Ruined his day for sure and it certainly didn’t help ours.”

To add insult to injury, Busch, who finished 42nd, was forced to wait to get into the garage because a track sweeper was blocking the entrance to the garage area.

Busch was attempting to become only the second driver in NASCAR history to win all three major races on the same weekend. Busch is the only one to have done that previously, having won all three at Bristol in August 2010.

* It was a very quick race for Michael Waltrip Racing driver Brian Vickers, who was forced to retire after just 73 laps due to a blown motor. Vickers finished last in the 43-car field.

* Sprint Cup rookie Alex Bowman brushed the wall twice in the first quarter of the lap, bringing out the caution flag once.

Josh Wise also sustained right rear damage when he also brushed the wall, but was able to get to pit road without a caution flag.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Notable drivers still looking for wins in 2017

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Counting this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), four races remain in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. And while the season has seen nine different winners, there remain a handful of very prominent drivers who have yet to grace Victory Lane this year, with some even enduring winless streaks that go back several years.

Perhaps most prominent in this group is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. The 42-year-old fan favorite has not signed with a team for 2018 and beyond, meaning he’ll be keen to make an impression in the final four races of 2017.

Currently ninth in the championship, Kanaan’s best 2017 finish is second at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, and given that he was also strong at the Indianapolis 500, perhaps Pocono represents Kanaan’s best chance for a victory, which would end a winless streak that dates back to Auto Club Speedway in 2014, before the year closes.

“Pocono is definitely the type of track that I normally thrive at, and the ‘Tricky Triangle’ is such an interesting place to race with the three completely different corners,” said Kanaan, who has led 115 laps in his four prior starts at Pocono. “You have to get so many little things right to suit each corner, before you can really be successful. The No. 10 NTT Data Honda is definitely due for a win and Pocono would be a great place for that to happen.”

However, Kanaan is hardly alone as a driver with something to prove before the year ends. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has enjoyed an uptick in form over last year, and his speed has been evident on Friday and Saturday practice sessions quite often in 2017.

Yet, Andretti’s strong practice pace has rarely translated into strong race results. A fourth-place finish at the Honda Indy Toronto remains his only top five of 2017, with sixth at Texas, seventh at St. Petersburg, and eighth at the Indianapolis 500 his only other top ten finishes, leaving him 13th in the championship.

Marco Andretti has shown better speed in 2017, but race results have still been hard to come by. Photo: IndyCar

With Pocono his home race, and one he has previously excelled at (he sat on the pole in 2013 and led 88 laps before fuel strategy left him in tenth at the end), the 30-year-old Andretti is keen to break through at the 2.5-mile triangular oval.

“Pocono is an important race to me as it is a home race, and I will have a lot of family and friends at the track cheering us on,” said Andretti ahead of the weekend. “United Fiber & Data is also based nearby, and it would be great to have a good result for Bill (Hynes), Chad (Taylor) and the whole UFD family. We’ve sat on the pole at Pocono but (have not finished) on the podium, so I can’t help but feel like I have unfinished business in Long Pond.”

Teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, head into Pocono looking for race wins, which would end long winless droughts for both drivers.

Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay have run better than their results would indicate. Photo: IndyCar

This season, Hunter-Reay has been riddled with bad luck and mechanical problems that leave him languishing in 12th in the standings with only five finishes in inside the top ten, a pair of third-place finishes being his best results and only podium results so far.

Hunter-Reay won this race in 2015 and may have repeated the feat last year if not for a mysterious electrical problem that surfaced late in the race. He eventually rebounded to finish third.

As a result, Hunter-Reay enters the weekend with something of a chip on his shoulder. “I’ve really been looking forward to getting back to Pocono. There’s no doubt the DHL Honda has been very strong here the past few years. Last year’s unfortunate electrical issue that occurred while (we were) leading sent us to the back of the field, yet we were still able to come all the way back through the field to finish third. As a team, we feel like we have unfinished business at Pocono. Certainly, one of our best chances at a victory over the past year slipped away, so we’re looking for redemption,” he asserted.

Rossi, meanwhile, has not won a race since winning the last year’s Indianapolis 500. However, finishes of second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course see him building momentum late in the year, and place him eighth in the standings at the moment.

He showed impressive speed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway as well, meaning Pocono offers a strong possibility of Rossi battling for a win.

“Pocono is one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, and it is a special one with the whole Andretti family being from the area. We have some unfinished business to take care of this weekend from last year when our day ended prematurely after we felt like we had a car to win. This team always has something special for the superspeedways and since it is our last one of the year, we want to make sure to close this portion of the schedule out with a win for the No. 98 team,” Rossi said of his chances.

As previously mentioned, IndyCar has seen nine different winners in an already ultra-competitive 2017 season. And given the prowess of the four aforementioned drivers – or say if the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, or another surprise first-time winner this year emerges –  it would hardly be a surprise if that number hit double digits at the end of the weekend.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Horner: F1 could follow IndyCar’s lead, use V6 twin-turbo engines

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Formula 1 could be set to follow IndyCar’s lead and introduce V6 twin-turbo engines upon the planned regulation change in 2021, according to Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

F1 has raced with V6 turbo hybrid power units since 2014 in a bid to make the sport more road-relevant and efficient, with cars racing on 30 per cent less fuel and recording faster times than ever.

However, the reduced sound of the power units compared to their V8 and V10 predecessors, combined with their complexity and cost has led F1’s bosses to push for a change in specification for 2021.

Meetings have already taken place with a number of manufacturers both inside and outside of the sport in a bid to define F1’s future engine direction, with various avenues being explored.

While Horner would like to see F1 return to normally-aspirated V8 or V10 engines used in the past, he believes a more realistic option could yield inspiration from IndyCar.

“I doubt we will go back to normally aspirated, despite it being my wish. We will end up with a V6 twin-turbo I believe,” Horner told reporters in Hungary, as quoted by crash.net.

“But the acoustics are a key aspect of what has been put on the table because when this engine was introduced the costs or the attractiveness by noise were fundamental parts of what the engine should be.”

The FIA has outlined its main criteria for F1’s future power options, centering on four areas:

  • a desire to maintain F1 as the pinnacle of motor sport technology, and as a laboratory for developing technology that is relevant to road cars
  • striving for future power units to be powerful, while becoming simpler and less costly to develop and produce
  • improving the sound of the power units
  • a desire to allow drivers to drive harder at all times.

IndyCar introduced its current engine specification back in 2012, and, in a rather neat coincidence, is also able to revise its power options for 2021.

Marko tips Vettel to beat Hamilton to F1 world title

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Red Bull Formula 1 advisor Helmut Marko has backed Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to come back stronger from the sport’s summer break and beat Lewis Hamilton to this year’s drivers’ championship.

Marko played an instrumental part in Vettel’s rise to F1 under Red Bull’s umbrella, the German winning four straight drivers’ titles between 2010 and 2013 for the team ahead of his move to Ferrari.

Vettel has claimed four wins through the opening 11 races of the year to sit 14 points clear of Mercedes’ Hamilton in the standings heading into the second leg of the season, starting in Belgium next week.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Marko praised Vettel’s mentality when battling for a championship, backing him to take a fifth title in 2017.

“I believe in Vettel, because I know his mental strength, and Ferrari has raised its game,” Marko said.

“Silverstone, I would say, was an exception. Ferrari was clearly the stronger car in the first half of the season and only due to various circumstances could they not materialize all their chances.

“We have been 60 points behind before the summer break, and still won the title with him. Seb will use this summer break to come back even stronger. That’s how I know him.”

Vettel’s most impressive title comeback came in 2012 when he reversed a 42-point deficit to Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso heading into the summer break to take the title at the final round in Brazil.

IndyCar summer break roundtable, before final four races

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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series has been a whirlwind thus far. Between nine different winners in 13 races, a championship battle that sees the top six covered by a mere 58 points and features a mix of cagey veterans and young hot shots, an always epic Indianapolis 500 that witnessed Fernando Alonso in the field, foregoing the Monaco Grand Prix to do, and the 2018 aero kit breaking cover are among a few of the noteworthy highlights so far.

The current two-week break ahead of the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) not only gives IndyCar drivers and teams a chance to catch our breath, but it also gives my MotorsportsTalk colleagues and I a chance to reflect on a busy summer stretch.

Of all the story lines from 2017, which one has stood out the most? 

Tony DiZinno

For me it’s the emergence of Josef Newgarden at Team Penske. His arrival will perhaps unfairly be compared to Simon Pagenaud’s – Newgarden stepping into an established, championship-caliber team while Pagenaud’s was a brand new fourth team out of the box. But consider that Newgarden’s won three races and is leading the points heading into the final month of the season, and it’s not something I would have predicted. We’re seeing a changing of the guard in NASCAR as a younger crowd moves into more seats but Newgarden’s success this year could provide the first swing to one in IndyCar too as he’d be the first champion under 30 in nearly a decade, if he can pull it off.

Luke Smith

This might be picking the obvious, but I have to go with Fernando Alonso’s shock entry to the Indianapolis 500 back in May. Alonso had long-stated that he would like to have a shot in the famous race, yet few could have seen it happening so long as he was still racing in F1 – let alone with McLaren, let alone to miss Monaco!

Alonso’s entry gave a real shot in the arm to the 101st running of the ‘500, given it was without any major storyline before then, and did much to take the race to a new, large audience. It really captured the imagination and attention of the entire racing world, which was really, really cool to see.

To make matters even better, Alonso delivered on-track too. Sure, he’s a two-time Formula 1 champion – but to turn up, qualify fifth, lead for a good stint and be in the mix at the front? That’s special. A story we will look back on for years to come, I am sure.

Kyle Lavigne

I can’t help but be impressed by Dale Coyne Racing. Fast out of the box, Sebastien Bourdais won the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg and was an early season championship contender before his brutal qualifying crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sidelined him with hip and pelvis fractures.

Rookie teammate Ed Jones quietly impressed from the outset, scoring consecutive top tens at St. Petersburg and Long Beach (the first rookie to start his career with back-to-back top tens since Nigel Mansell in 1993). He then announced his presence to the world with an excellent run to finish third at the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, a run that might have even been better if his car hadn’t sustained a hole in its nose late in the day.

Esteban Gutierrez has adapted nicely to the IndyCar ranks, while James Davison (Indianapolis) and Tristan Vautier (Texas Motor Speedway) have also been fast in one-off rides with Dale Coyne’s operation.

Unfortunately, Dale Coyne Racing has incurred a lot of crash damage this year, its total far surpassing the seven figure mark. Nonetheless, the speed of Coyne’s cars has not gone unnoticed, and IndyCar’s lovable underdog has been a regular player near the front.

Which Silly Season story do you find the most intriguing?

Tony

I find it fascinating that this year might be the last year for the pair of 40-year-old Brazilians and longtime friends, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, both will be in IndyCar full-time. And it’s weird how it’s played out. With Kanaan advertising his “TK20” from the start of the year and embracing the fact he’s been near the end, it seems as though it’s shown on-track. Compared to last year, Kanaan’s not been as consistently strong or on top of the Honda package as the Ganassi team has changed. Quite by contrast, Castroneves has been a title contender all year, may yet pull it off, finally, tried to downplay the 20-year number on his end and may be shifted out of IndyCar through no fault of his own.

Luke

As is often the case in racing, it seems the driver market will be largely led by the engine market for 2018, with much hinging on whether or not Andretti Autosport will make the switch to Chevrolet power and ditch Honda.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is locked in on a long-term deal and Marco is Marco, but Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato – particularly in the latter’s case – are big, big favorites of Honda. If Chevrolet did come in, Honda may push to get both out of Andretti for 2018, opening up two hot seats that many would clamor for.

Outside of Penske, it seems like things could be very fluid indeed with the driver market for 2018. Once the wheel sets in motion and Andretti makes an announcement, things should move from there.

Kyle 

Luke and I are in sync on this one. Because of the dominoes it could set in motion, whether or not Andretti Autosport moves back to Chevrolet may be the most compelling of all the Silly Season rumors. If they stay as a Honda team, it seems likely their lineup remains stable. If they switch, then it could set in motion a number of different moves.

With Alexander Rossi a favorite of Honda’s and Takuma Sato tied to Honda at the hip, each would likely be looking for another IndyCar ride, and a number of options would be on the table for each. On the Andretti side, suddenly having one, or likely two vacant seats, would see their phone ringing off the hook from drivers looking for rides in 2018.

Other teams, such as Chip Ganassi Racing, face several unknowns as the off-season approaches. But the biggest domino might be which manufacturer Andretti Autosport signs with.

What are your thoughts on the 2018 aero package?

Photo: IndyCar

Tony

It looks great at first glance. The reports I’ve heard are almost 100 percent positive – which is rare in IndyCar circles – and the fact the top-end speed is up, the braking power is even better as IndyCar is now fully unified with PFC rather than the split PFC/Brembo package as was in play this year, and the cars have so much less downforce means we’re going to see a return of wicked slideways action in 2018. The look and the feel of the new package looks proper; futuristic while also capturing enough from the past to recall the heralded “good ‘ol days.”

Luke

It’s fantastic. It’s simple, sleek, sexy – it’s everything that aero should be. We don’t want endless numbers of elements spurning off the car at every angle, regardless of the boost they may offer. The 2018 package proves that it is possible to deliver an effective, good look while still offering high levels of performance, with the noises coming out of the tests being very positive indeed.

Kyle

Quite simply, the 2018 aero package has been a home run so far. Good looking and sleek, it has also been a high performer. For example, the original test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was scheduled for two days. But, things progressed so well on the first that the second day was deemed unnecessary. A subsequent test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course also was deemed a success.

Remembering the teething problems that surfaced during initial testing of the DW12 during the 2011 offseason, the current car being so strong out of the box is quite a boon for the series.

And as much as test drivers Oriol Servia and Juan Pablo Montoya have been beaming about its performance so far, things bode well for a racy package next year.

Who wins the 2017 championship?

Tony

A tough one to say the least with four races to go, and with the lottery of double points at Sonoma still keeping a couple others outside the top four – who at the moment are only covered by 17 points – still within shouting range.

Preseason I picked Will Power to pull it off, but he’s had too many lost points in crucial moments this year – and now has too many drivers to climb over – to recover from 52 points down in four races. The same problem applies for Graham Rahal, who’s been statistically the best driver in the series since the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but had a nightmare opening four races that’s left him playing catch-up all year.

That leaves the top four, in Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, to vie for the crown. I’m torn on Newgarden because for the series’ longer-term health, it behooves them to have a young American star win the title. But there’s just something that doesn’t feel right about him winning it in his first year when Castroneves never has, Pagenaud did in his second year and Power did in his sixth. And with Newgarden now fully ensconced in his first late-season title fight as opposed to on the fringes, it’s hard to see him winning it in his first crack.

Pagenaud’s title defense year has been a very weird one. He’s lacked the pace from last year by leaps and bounds, but he’s been the king of picking up under-the-radar top fives. I don’t think he has enough speed to overcome the gap.

Which leaves Castroneves and Dixon. Is it worth picking the driver who’d be the sentimental choice of the two? Castroneves has had two rough races at the worst time the last two, while Dixon has made up points he otherwise could have lost in Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

Dixon won the title in 2013 and 2015, both times coming from behind. I think the “Ice Man” coolly denies the Penske quartet once again in his latest chapter written in a storybook career, even if a fifth title somehow would find a way to get overlooked in the national consciousness.

Luke

This is so, so hard to pick, given just 52 points separate the top five drivers in the championship. The bullets may be loaded in Team Penske’s favor, given all four of its racers are in the mix, but I’m going to go for the fifth man: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.

Dixon has been his usual, consistent self through much of the campaign, even if things have dipped off a little since his victory at Road America. The Honda package has been strong on ovals this year, and if his demolition job of last year’s race at Watkins Glen is anything to go by, Dixon could be in a very good position come Sonoma.

A fifth title would only add to the legend of Scott Dixon. For the sake of the narrative, let’s hope it’s a ‘veteran versus youngster’ showdown with Josef Newgarden also in with a shot of a maiden crown.

Kyle

With double points on the docket for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (September 17, NBCSN), it’s conceivable that the six current title contenders (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Graham Rahal) all enter Sonoma with at least a mathematical shot at a championship, making any prediction somewhat of a toss-up at the moment.

What’s more, the variety of tracks left on the schedule only complicate matters. Gateway Motorsports Park is a short oval, Pocono Raceway a super speedway, and Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway natural terrain road courses. That’s three different types of circuits in the final four races.

While my colleagues have both selected Dixon as their champion, I’ll go a different route. The last time a driver won a championship in his first year with Team Penske was in 2000, when Gil de Ferran captured that championship in the CART FedEx Championship Series. This year, Josef Newgarden repeats de Ferran’s feat and wins the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series Championship.