(Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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

1 Comment

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

IMSA Prototype title battle pits AXR teammates against each other

imsa_28870413
Photo courtesy of IMSA
Leave a comment

The 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype standings couldn’t be tighter heading into Saturday’s season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

Dane Cameron and Eric Curran currently lead the standings in their No. 31 Whelen/Team Fox Corvette DP, holding a razor-thin 286 to 285 point lead over teammates Joao Barbosa and Christian Fittipaldi in the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Corvette DP.

“It will certainly be business as usual – that’s the best way to put it, for sure,” Cameron said in the team’s advance release. “We can’t afford to race any differently or be conservative.

“We need to be on attack to try to win the championship. We’re going to be putting it all on the line to try to get this championship. We’re taking on our teammates – the two-time defending champions – and you can’t leave any stone unturned.

“In the big picture, it’s a great accomplishment for the whole Action Express Racing organization to have both cars first and second in the points. That’s something to be really proud of, two great seasons from our race cars.”

Whichever team accumulates more points in Saturday’s race will be the 2016 Prototype champion. And besides the one-point difference, things have been tight in other ways, as well.

In the last IMSA race for Prototypes, Sept. 17 at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Cameron and Curran finished second, with Barbosa and Fittipaldi right behind in third.

What’s more, prior to that the Action Express pairs have recorded three consecutive one-two finishes: Cameron/Curran and Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 at both Road America (Aug. 7) and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (July 10), while Barbosa/Fittipaldi finished 1-2 ahead of Cameron/Curran at Watkins Glen International (July 3).

“We had a great test in Atlanta,” said Action Express Racing team manager Gary Nelson.  “There were other Corvettes that we ran against so we were able to evaluate our cars against others that we’re going to be racing this weekend.

“We ran over 700 miles per car, over the two days, and we made a lot of long runs. We really feel a lot of confidence and we’re excited about the race coming up at Road Atlanta.”

As if things weren’t interesting enough, Cameron and Curran are pulling out all stops by adding brand new Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud to their team for the 10-hour endurance race.

Pagenaud raced with Cameron and Curran (and Johnny Adam) in the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, with the team finishing sixth in class.

Pagenaud competed full-time in the American Le Mans Series from 2008 to 2010, earning eight wins in that period and the 2010 series title, before moving full-time to the IndyCar circuit.

In this race last year, Barbosa and Fittipaldi, along with another IndyCar driver, Sebastien Bourdais, captured the championship, while Cameron, Curran and Max Papis finished third.

Barbosa and Fittipaldi have their own ringer of sorts, Filipe Albuquerque, who was part of their team that wound up with respective fourth place finishes in each of the first two races of this season: Daytona and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

“Doing Petit Le Mans with three drivers is almost the same as doing it with two drivers at the Glen, maybe a little bit longer,” Fittipaldi said. “It’s pretty straight forward and we won’t need to make any adjustments.

“In the series you have to be prepared no matter what, and ‘be on’ all the time.  We only have 10 races and it doesn’t matter if it’s Daytona or Sebring or Road Atlanta — you just have to be on it all the time.”

Added Barbosa, “Everything in the race really comes down to preparation in the shop. Our race cars are very strong and very reliable and we can push the car all the time for the whole 10 hours.

“This is going to be the last race for this Corvette Prototype, so hopefully we’ll be able to give it a last win and retire the car in the best possible way.”

Albuquerque this season has also earned two wins in the LMP2 class of the WEC (Six Hours of Silverstone and Six Hours of Mexico), along with two other runner-up finishes (Six Hours of Nurburgring and Circuit Of The Americas).

In addition to going for their overall Prototype championship, Barbosa/Fittipaldi are also in the hunt for their third consecutive Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup title, a four-race competition based upon overall outcomes at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen and Road Atlanta.

Barbosa/Fittipaldi have earned 35 points to lead the competition, with Cameron/Curran a close third with 29 points.

“Last year, we were in a pretty good championship battle with our teammates in the No. 5 car, as well as the Wayne Taylor car,” Curran said. “It really came down to the wire last year at Petit Le Mans, on basically who finished ahead of the others was going to win the championship – and we came really close.

“We ended up third last year, but only a few points behind our teammates. It’s even closer this year. We’re one point ahead, but anything can happen. All the guys on the team have been great. Our pit stops have been spot on, the performance of the car has been phenomenal and my teammate Dane Cameron has been top-notch.

“We’re closer to the championship than a year ago and it’s an amazing feeling to be so close.  The pressure is on now.  It would be huge for us to win a championship in the top class of the IMSA series.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Dragon Racing loses Vergne penalty appeal from London

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 2: In this handout image supplied by Formula E, Jean-Eric Vergne (FRA), DS Virgin Racing DSV-01 during the London Formula E race on July 2, 2016 in Battersea Park, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Andrew Ferraro/LAT/Formula E via Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dragon Racing’s appeal following Jean-Eric Vergne’s post-race time penalties at the season finale of the 2015-2016 FIA Formula E Championship has been lost. Dragon was hoping to finish ahead of DS Virgin Racing for third in the team’s championship.

A decision was released today by the FIA International Court of Appeal, which heard the appeal on Friday, Sept. 16, which called the appeal “inadmissable.” Dragon appealed the penalties on July 6.

Vergne was assessed two post-race time penalties – 50 seconds for hitting 0 percent battery life on the final lap, and an additional second when leaving the pit lane. The first penalty dropped him from third on the road down to seventh, with an additional position lost on the second penalty.

Nonetheless, even though Dragon’s pair of Jerome d’Ambrosio and Loic Duval were promoted up to third and fourth in the London race at Battersea Park, Vergne was still classified eighth in the finale. That four-point net was enough to ensure DS Virgin finished one point ahead of Dragon for third place.

Vergne has since shifted from DS Virgin to Techeetah Formula E for season three. The new season kicks off Oct. 9 in Hong Kong.

Soft tire preference revealed in Japanese GP picks

xxxx during the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on September 27, 2015 in Suzuka, Japan.
Getty Images
1 Comment

Formula 1’s two-week Asian swing is ahead with the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend and the Japanese Grand Prix next week.

The Japanese Grand Prix tire picks were revealed on Tuesday, per usual, and most drivers and teams have selected more of Pirelli’s sets of soft tires, the softest on offer. As in Malaysia, teams can select between the soft, medium and hard compounds.

All drivers have between six and nine sets of softs selected.

Both Red Bull drivers are opting for four sets of hards, with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel three sets of hards and Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen two sets of hards.

The full breakdown is below:

9841_japan-selected-sets-per-driver-en

BMW announces FIA WEC entry from 2018, Formula E partnership with Andretti

bmw-imsa-2
© BMW Motorsport
1 Comment

BMW has announced that it will return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans through the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2018 after seven years away.

BMW last raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2011, but will now make its comeback as part of a realignment of its motorsport program.

This also includes a technical partnership with the MS Amlin Andretti team in Formula E from season three with a view to a works entry in the series from its fifth season.

“The strong pillars of the programme for the coming years will be the DTM, the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship (IWSC), the cooperation with Andretti Formula E in the FIA Formula E Championship, the customer racing programme in the GT3 and GT4 categories, the promotion of talented young drivers, and the extremely challenging Dakar Rally,” a statement from BMW reads.

“The plan is for BMW to enter the FIA World Endurance Championship in the 2018 season. The highlight of this championship is the 24-hour race in Le Mans.

“BMW claimed overall victory there in 1999 with the open prototype BMW V12 LMR. The last time a BMW took its place on the grid at the endurance classic near the river Sarthe was in 2011: back then, the BMW M3 GT finished third in the LM GTE class.

“Since it was launched in 2012, the championship has enjoyed a positive development, forged new paths in many regards, and won a lot of fans.

“Further details, such as the model of car to be used and the team responsible for the car, will be confirmed and announced over the coming months.”

BMW motorsport director Jens Marquardt added: “Starting with the 2018 season, we want to further expand our activities in GT racing and compete in the FIA World Endurance Championship, as well as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

“This obviously also includes our return to Le Mans, which we are particularly looking forward to. The way the WEC has developed so well makes us confident that there is a big future for GT racing.”

Of its involvement in Formula E with Andretti, BMW confirmed a long-rumored technical partnership that has already begun ahead of the all-electric series’ third season.

“The cooperation with Andretti Formula E is initially set to run for two seasons. It incorporates, for example, cooperation at engineer level and the mutual use of resources.

“Depending on the general development of the racing series, a works involvement is envisaged as of the series’ season five, 2018/2019, provided the conditions and circumstances are right.

“As part of this commitment, BMW Motorsport will provide its works driver António Félix da Costa as a driver for Andretti Formula E. The Portuguese, who has featured on the top step of the DTM podium with BMW and has already tasted victory in Formula E, will contest the entire 2016/17 FIA Formula E Championship.

“As well as the new partnership, BMW i will remain the “Official Vehicle Partner” of Formula E. This partnership allows BMW i to present the plug-in hybrid BMW i8, as the Safety Car, and the fully-electric BMW i3, as the Medical Car, in some of the largest cities in the world.”

You can read the entire statement from BMW by clicking here.