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With Chad Knaus at the ‘best point of my life,’ there may be no stopping Jimmie Johnson and No. 48 team

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Two week ago, fans and media were fretting and worrying that Jimmie Johnson had forgotten how to win and that his chances to make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup were in jeopardy.

Looking back now, didn’t we all seem and sound kind of silly back then?

If you ever needed an example of how quickly fates can turn in NASCAR, Johnson is the perfect example.

Two weeks ago, he was winless but not in as much of a panic mode as his fans and the media was.

Two weeks later, Johnson is tied with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with two wins apiece and is unquestionably a solid lock to make the Chase.

What’s more, Johnson is ranked higher than Harvick and Logano in the standings, moving into fourth place with his win Sunday at Dover, his second straight win in as many races.

In addition, Johnson is now the winningest driver in Dover history, with nine Cup victories there. He’s also now just 27 points behind new points leader Matt Kenseth, who knocked Jeff Gordon out of the top spot in the standings after Dover – but not by much, just two points.

While Johnson has been the guy who has taken the checkered flag in the last two races, the groundwork for both those wins rests with crew chief Chad Knaus.

There was little doubt in Knaus’ mind that Johnson had the right car to win a second race in a row on Sunday. From the moment the car unloaded at the track on Friday, Knaus was confident that with a few breaks, Johnson would emerge with a good finish.

Johnson didn’t just get a few breaks, he dominated the race, leading 272 of the event’s 400 laps, just like he dominated last Sunday en route to his win in the Coca-Cola 600.

“We had come in here with high expectations obviously after winning the 600 last weekend,” Knaus said after Sunday’s win at Dover. “We came here with a brand new race car and things went really well for us straight out of the gate.

“Jimmie made his first laps on Friday, and he was very happy with the race car, and we were pretty optimistic at that point. Qualifying went really well, and then race practice Jimmie was very happy with the race car, and we were posting very good lap times, so we were pretty excited to get into the event today.”

Johnson joked on the team radio after the race that Knaus had told him “I knew you would love this car,” a fact that Knaus laughed about while acknowledging that conversation.

“Going into the 600 last weekend, I told Jimmie we were taking his favorite race car to the racetrack for the 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and I told him that his new favorite car was going to be going to Dover the following week, and then I told him his next favorite car was going to be going to Indianapolis,” Knaus said. “So far I’m doing pretty good, and hopefully we can keep it true.”

Knaus and Johnson heard all the things fans and media said when they were still winless before Charlotte. But rather than let the negativity and pessimism get in their heads, they used it as an inspirational tool.

“We’ve worked really hard,” Knaus said. “The one thing I’m really impressed with at Hendrick Motorsports is when we do get behind, which we feel like we’ve been just a pinch behind this year, everybody digs down really, really deep and they work hard.

“From the pit crew, from the guys that hang the bodies to the guys that build the chassis to the guys that build the engines, they try to find an advantage.”

And now that Johnson and the No. 48 team have put together back-to-back wins and have locked themselves into the Chase, what’s next?

Something that the other 40-plus Cup drivers don’t want to hear: Knaus predicts his team is only going to get even better from here on out, with a good likelihood of a third straight win next Sunday at Pocono.

“When we do finally start to hit our stride, all those things that everybody worked on starts to culminate, and we can get out there and really start to make things happen,” Knaus said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of the fruit of a lot of people’s labor right now at the racetrack, and definitely looking forward to getting to Pocono.

“I’ve said it time and time again, Pocono is one of my favorite racetracks. I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s very difficult. So from a driver standpoint, this is definitely a tough racetrack. From a Pocono standpoint, it’s definitely difficult crew chief’s tough track, so I’m looking forward to getting there.”

To say Knaus is enjoying the last week’s success is an understatement. But it’s also a reflection of where Knaus is at in his career, too. While so much attention has been focused on Johnson’s bid to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven Cup championships, Knaus is just going about doing what he’s done for the last decade-plus.

“If you ask Jimmie, I was a jerk three weeks ago,” Knaus laughed, before reverting back to serious reflection.

“Quite honestly I’m at the best point in my life,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have been in this sport for a long time. I’ve seen it grow and change, and it’s been a weird circuitous route to get to where we are now.

“But quite honestly, I’ve never been happier in my life with my personal life, my performance at the racetrack, what we’ve got going on, and Jimmie has helped a lot with that. So has Mr. Hendrick as far as making me understand that I’ve got to take time away from the facility and understand that there’s life outside of motorsports.

“I’ve tried for a long time to deny that fact, but I’m really, really enjoying it all the way around. It’s fun. Trust me, we’re going back to Charlotte tonight and we’re heading up to Loudon, New Hampshire, tomorrow evening, and then we go race Pocono and go we go back home from Pocono and then we head out to Chicago to tire test the week after that. It’s busy as ever, but we’re in a good spot right now. Everything is great.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

McLaren releases audio of first MP4-31 fire-up

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez  on November 1, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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As the countdown to the beginning of Formula 1 pre-season testing in Barcelona continues, McLaren has followed Ferrari’s lead by releasing an audio snippet of its 2016 car being fired up for the first time.

McLaren enters the new year hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2015 campaign that was marred by struggles with its Honda power unit, limiting drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button to just 27 points across the course of the season.

The crew at Woking has been working tirelessly over the winter to get the new car, the MP4-31, ready for the new season, and everything now appears set for the first pre-season test in Barcelona.

On Sunday, McLaren released a short audio snippet of the car being fired up at its base ahead of its official unveil on February 21.

Pre-season testing begins at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on February 22, with the eighth and final day of running taking place on March 4.

NHRA: Parachute fails on Gary Densham’s career-best Funny Car run (video)

Densham crash
(Photo courtesy NHRA's official Twitter account)
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Veteran NHRA Funny Car driver Gary Densham has been hurtling down drag strips for more than 30 years.

Saturday, the 69-year-old Densham had the best day of his career — and one of the worst, at the same time.

The Southern California native was making a qualifying run during the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

The good news for Densham: he ran a career-best 4.050 seconds in his Dodge Charger, qualifying 11th in the 16-car field for Sunday’s eliminations.

The bad news: the parachutes on his Funny Car failed to deploy and Densham ran head-on into a catchfence at the end of Auto Club Raceway’s short runoff area. While Densham’s car was destroyed, he walked away uninjured.

And that’s the best news of all.

Check out the video and then some tweets about the incident and the day, including visits by former IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Tommy Lee of rock group Motley Crue:

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Haas confirms F1 pre-season testing running order

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Haas F1 Team logos during the press conference for their driver announcement on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Haas Formula 1 Team has confirmed its running order for the upcoming pre-season test sessions in Barcelona, Spain.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas’ new F1 team will grace the grid in 2016 after two years of preparation, with the covers being taken off its car on the morning of the first test on February 22 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Romain Grosjean will be the first driver to head out on-track in a Haas F1 car, completing all of the running on February 22.

Teammate Esteban Gutierrez will then get his first taste of the car the following day, with the two drivers then alternating duties for the final two days of the opening test.

Gutierrez will enjoy both of the first two days of running at the second test (March 1-2) before handing back over to Grosjean for days three and four in Barcelona.

“The first thing for the test is to get the car to run and to work well from there. Hopefully, we can get a lot of mileage,” Grosjean said.

“This is a new team, so we need to get everyone to work together, all the engineers, mechanics and the drivers. We need to get as much data and knowledge as we can.

“It’s important to get the reliability sorted as early as possible because we don’t get much testing and we’re going straight to Melbourne.”

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for first Barcelona test (February 22-25)

Monday February 22: Grosjean
Tuesday February 23: Gutiérrez
Wednesday February 24: Grosjean
Thursday February 25: Gutiérrez

Haas F1 Team driver line-up for second Barcelona test (March 1-4)

Tuesday March 1: Gutiérrez
Wednesday March 2: Gutiérrez
Thursday March 3: Grosjean
Friday March 4: Grosjean

Romain Grosjean pleased with initial Haas simulator feedback

KANNAPOLIS, NC - SEPTEMBER 29:  Romain Grosjean of France speaks during a press conference as Haas F1 Team announces Grosjean as their driver for the upcoming 2016 Formula 1 season on September 29, 2015 in Kannapolis, North Carolina.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Stewart-Haas Racing via Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean felt pleased with his first simulator run in the new Haas Formula 1 car ahead of its on-track debut in Barcelona on February 22.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will take his F1 operation onto the grid this season after two years of preparation, with Grosjean joining ex-Ferrari reserve Esteban Gutierrez at the team for its maiden campaign.

Ahead of the car’s first on-track run at the beginning of pre-season testing in Spain later this month, Grosjean has completed some laps in it using a simulator, and reported that the initial feedback was positive.

“The impressions were quite good, even if in the beginning it was necessary to resolve a lot of small technical problems such as turbo lag, the energy recovered under braking, etc,” Grosjean told L’Equipe.

“The morning was spent doing this. But once everything was settled we had the opportunity to run extensively in the afternoon.

“I think the car’s baseline appears to be good. We now know the simulator corresponds to the windtunnel, but the differences with what we find in reality are sometimes huge – at Lotus for example, the car changed dramatically between track and simulator.”

Haas will lift the covers off its first F1 car on Monday 22 February ahead of the initial on-track running later that day.