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

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Indy Carb Day Special (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Alongside NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, we have the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which this week features interviews from Indy 500 media day leading into Carb Day.

Anders Krohn is back in action, ahead of a busy day for him as he will be in the booth calling the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100.

Interviews took place with Ed Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s coverage highlighted media day, as there was an absurd number of people populating around his station on Thursday.

Dixon has the pole for Sunday’s race, with Carpenter starting second, Alonso fifth and Andretti eighth.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


It’s ‘Indy Leist’ – Matheus Leist, Carlin dominate Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist has his first career victory in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires following a flag-to-flag victory in the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda from pole position in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It was a tough race, we had the pace and the car was just amazing. It was just an amazing race. It’s my first race on an oval and I couldn’t be happier,” Leist told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt.

The usual photo finishes that have been a staple of this race ceded to Leist’s dominance, with a win by 0.7760 of a second over Aaron Telitz, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires champion posting his second podium finisher of the year.

Telitz edged Dalton Kellett for second at the line by just 0.0641 of a second. Both drivers took shots at Leist but were unable to pass him.

“Definitely an exciting finish. I was trying to get around Matheus. Our car was good in traffic but they were more trimmed out. When I got alongside, I couldn’t get him,” Telitz told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis. “I had limited opportunities. I wore off my front tires, then went more aggressive on my roll bars. We had a great car but not the car to win.”

“It was a great move by Aaron. I had a big run on Leist and have another photo finish. I was trying to play with the apron. Aaron got me – it was great pass by him,” Kellett told Hargitt. “We go slower. It makes for great drafting.

Meanwhile with Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin having anonymous finishes in ninth and 10th, and with Colton Herta crashing out on the first lap, it’s brought the championship even tighter.

Herta’s boom-or-bust rookie season in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing car rolled on. After starting second, the 17-year-old ran on the outside of teammate Dalton Kellett through Turn 2, but spun after contact between the two – and collected teammate Ryan Norman in the No. 48 car in the process. Kellett was lucky to avoid damage to the right front wheel and suspension, which touched the left rear of Herta’s car to send him spinning.

It shifted the order with Zachary Claman De Melo moving up to second off the start behind Leist, with Kellett third, Neil Alberico fourth and Aaron Telitz in fifth. Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin noved up to ninth and 11th from 11th and 13th in the incident, respectively.

“Well, I don’t know if I can say what he was thinking!” Bryan Herta, Colton’s father, told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “It’s a shame. They both had great cars. Looking at it, maybe he didn’t know Dalton was still on the inside. It’s not how you want to start the race. Unfortunately he is out early.”

Both drivers were understandably disappointed, but relieved to be OK after being checked and released from the infield care center, cleared to drive.

“I’m fine. Little X-Ray. No problem. I saw (Kellett) but I don’t really know what happened. I need to look at the data and video,” the younger Herta told Beekhuis.

Norman told Beekhuis, “I’m physically fine, but just really disappointed. It was our highest starting position. Wrong spot at the wrong time. Andretti gave me a great car all month. We’ll come back stronger at Road America.”

Kellett, post-race, told Hargitt about the incident: “I’m on the inside, it’s the first lap, caught some dirty air, I understeered up into him and that collected him, and collected Ryan. You never want to have contact with your teammates. At least we’ve got a podium finish.”

The restart occurred at the conclusion of Lap 5, and start of Lap 6, after the first and only caution flag of the race.

By Lap 15, Leist led by 0.6077 of a second but Kellett, Telitz and Alberico had moved up to second, third and fourth with Claman De Melo falling back from second down to fifth.

At half distance Telitz moved within striking distance of Leist into second. At the halfway mark it was Leist 0.3486 of a second ahead of Telitz with Kellett, Alberico and Claman De Melo in the top five.

Leist pulled away from there and the only photo finish this time around was for second, as Telitz got Kellett right at the line. The gap was a huge one by recent Indy Lights standards, 0.7760 of a second to Telitz and 0.8401 to Kellett.

Alberico and Santiago Urrutia, who started 12th but moved forward during the race, completed the top five.

Forgettable races occurred for points leaders Kaiser and Jamin, who ended ninth and 10th. Unofficially they still sit 1-2 in points with 151 and 137, Herta falls to third with 129 while Telitz and Alberico (122) and Leist (121) are within range.

Bourdais, Coyne upbeat during Carb Day practice check-ins (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais hopes to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, just over a week after his accident left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an accident in qualifying.

The Frenchman has already been released from IU Methodist Hospital on Wednesday and during NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice, checked in with the booth crew to update his recovery progress.

“I think I’m doing as well as I could have ever hoped for,” Bourdais told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “My surgery went well. I was walking two days after the wreck. It’s been a little weird! But the pain is managed.”

Team owner Dale Coyne also checked in on Bourdais’ progress as well.

“He’s feeling good. He moved out of hospital Wednesday,” Coyne told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “If all goes as planned, we’ll get him out here Sunday.”

As for when Bourdais can return to the cockpit?

“The surgeon said he’s out for season… of course Seb says he wants to do Le Mans!” Coyne laughed. “It’s going to be a long recovery. But Sonoma? Maybe.”

Also during the segment, NBCSN pit reporter Jon Beekhuis noted an older specification rear wing configuration on the back of Bourdais’ replacement, James Davison’s No. 18 GEICO Honda. This should help Davison on Sunday.

Hinchcliffe engine issue hits Carb Day practice, as Castroneves leads

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves has led the final one-hour practice session ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, but it’s a Honda that made the bigger news during the extended session.

Another Honda engine issue – at least the eighth this month between the INDYCAR Grand Prix, practice and qualifying – now struck James Hinchcliffe during the final 20 minutes of the session in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

Heading into Turn 3, Hinchcliffe’s gold and black car took on a distinctly white hue by contrast, as smoke billowed out the back of the car. It littered the track between Turns 3 and 4.

Yet as Hinchcliffe, the 2016 race polesitter explained to NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, the timing was as good as it could have been considering had it happened later it would have been in the race itself.

“I felt what the engineers would call a suboptimal rapid negative acceleration heading into Turn 3,” Hinchcliffe told NBCSN. “We’ve had some issues across the Honda camp. It’s less than ideal.

“I felt bad going into 3. I hope we weren’t leaking too badly. I’m happy it didn’t happen 20 minutes later, that would have been Lap 5 of the race. We’ll get an engine, we’ll put it in. But that was by far the best we’ve felt on the 5 car all month. Let’s put this thing to bed. The car feels really good in traffic.”

Hinchcliffe will start 17th on Sunday. He ended his truncated practice in 14th.

Photo: IndyCar

Behind another gold car – the gold-and-white No. 3 car of Castronves – Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan completed the top three, with Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso completing the top five.

Speeds are below.