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

More races, more friction in the future for F1

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The new owners of Formula One are planning to have more races and a greater presence in North America, and wouldn’t mind revving up the ratings with some extra friction among drivers.

Sean Bratches, the managing director of commercial operations for the Formula One Group – formerly Liberty Media – which took over the running of the sport in January, is already fielding offers from promotors wanting to buy in.

Lewis Hamilton has suggested Miami and Daniel Ricciardo picked Las Vegas as places they’d like to see new races, and Bratches told a news conference Friday that “there’s no dearth of interest in bringing Formula One to circuits, both track and street, around the world.”

Bratches said he’d had a “number of inquiries from cities, states, municipalities and countries around the world that are interested.”

There are 20 races on the 2017 calendar, starting with the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, and concluding with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The debate over the number and location of races has been frequent over the last decade.

F1 racing returned in 2012 to the United States, where it is held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, in October. While the bulk of the races remain in Europe and Asia, there are also GPs in Canada, Mexico and Brazil.

“Our interest is in expanding the number of circuits in that marketplace, leveraging Austin – our incumbent and the benchmark in terms of what we’re doing in the States,” said Bratches, adding there was clear demand for it in North America. “We’re excited about all markets around the world, but the United States is going to be a focus.”

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and Ricciardo, an Australian who finished third on the season standings last year, are among the drivers who’d like to see more than 20 races in the F1 series. Veteran Fernando Alonso also doesn’t mind the idea of expansion, although maybe not for a few years.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who has won four world drivers’ titles, thinks 16 to 20 would be enough. All agreed that expansion was pointless unless it increases the level of competition. Hamilton and Mercedes dominated the last three seasons, and Red Bull was dominant for the four seasons before that.

There’s always been driver tension in F1, usually between teams but also involving teammates vying for championships. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who edged Hamilton for the title last year and then retired, had an openly strained rivalry at Mercedes since 2013.

That’s something former ESPN executive Bratches doesn’t mind.

Responding to a question about the drivers being overly-managed by public relations people, Bratches said: “There’s a number of sports where there’s big personalities that allow sports to punch above their respective pay grades.”

He said the drivers were a big part of the fan engagement.

“Candidly, I would love it if more of the drivers had big personalities, there was more controversy among the drivers – and you kind of unleash them a little bit,” he said. “I think that’s good for all of us.”

Jolyon Palmer on the back foot in Australia after F1 practice crash

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Renault’s Jolyon Palmer has admitted that he is “on the back foot” heading into the remainder of this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix after completing just 10 laps in Friday’s Formula 1 practice sessions.

F1 sophomore Palmer arrived in Australia looking to impress after enjoying a bold drive on debut at Albert Park 12 months ago, narrowly missing out on a points finish.

The Briton was the first driver to fall victim of F1’s more challenging cars in an official 2017 race weekend session, losing control through the final corner and slamming into the wall to bring his FP2 running to an early end.

This followed a problem earlier in the day that had limited his FP1 mileage, leaving Palmer with just 10 laps to his name from three hours of Friday running.

“Sadly it was a pretty short day for me in terms of time in the car. We had a minor technical issue in the first session then I had an off in FP2, which unlike FP1 required more than one part replacing,” Palmer explained.

“I’m not sure exactly what happened and we’ll be having a close look at the data. I feel for my crew as they have a decent amount of work to do.

“I’m hopeful of more track time tomorrow, but we’ll be on the back foot heading into qualifying after only 10 laps today.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Indy 500 champ Rossi takes his shot with the Blackhawks (PHOTOS)

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There are many cool things you get to do after winning the Indianapolis 500. Visiting the grounds of one of the NHL’s most successful, Stanley Cup-winning teams is one of them.

Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi visited Chicago this week to meet up with the Chicago Blackhawks, trading in his usual No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda for a No. 98 jersey.

Usually it’s the ‘Hawks that are one of the top teams in the NHL and a usual Stanley Cup trophy winner – they’ve won in 2013 and 2015, recently – but it’s the Cubs that right now host a championship trophy having won the World Series for the first time in 108 years.

Anyway, here’s a few photos and videos from Rossi’s trip to Chitown, which also included his own chance to shoot a puck.

Rossi took a photo with iconic Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison:

Here’s Rossi with Marian Hossa:

Here’s a quick photo before practicing, then video of Rossi practicing:

Rossi paid a visit to WGN Radio:

And all told, Rossi was a fan:

FIA WEC reveals restructured TV commentary team

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One of Audi’s flagship drivers, Allan McNish and veteran TV hosts Martin Haven and Toby Moody join Louise Beckett and Graham Goodwin as part of the restructured television commentary team for the FIA World Endurance Championship, ahead of its 2017 season.

McNish retired from active driving at the end of the 2013 season and the two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 WEC LMP1 champion with Tom Kristensen and Loic Duval has remained an ambassador for Audi in the years since. He’ll be at six of the eight WEC rounds this season (Le Mans considered separately, although under the WEC umbrella).

Moody has been a familiar voice for his bike coverage and in the U.S., for Red Bull Global Rallycross broadcasts on NBC Sports. He’ll be on for the 6 Hours of Silverstone, the 6 Hours of Nürburgring and the 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Haven is well known to sports car fans and will be on for the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, 6 Hours of Mexico, 6 Hours of COTA, 6 Hours of Fuji and 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Beckett continues in the pits and paddock with DailySportscar editor Goodwin also back as part of the team; he’s been the lead analyst alongside John Hindhaugh the last couple years.

Hindhaugh won’t be on the TV side, instead having announced earlier this week on his own he’d be focusing on Radio Show Limited’s audio productions for WEC shows. Le Mans is treated as a separate entity from a broadcast and production side compared to the rest of the WEC season.

Renowned for his radio calls, Hindhaugh will be in his true area of passion throughout this season, as he also is Stateside for IMSA Radio’s coverage of IMSA championships. RSL has also recently announced it will broadcast VLN coverage this season (more here via DailySportscar).

“Thankfully the busy endurance racing schedule has only a couple of clashes so that means that for most of the WEC events I will be joining the established team providing live commentary for RSL radio,” Hindhaugh said in a release.

“For the WEC events I’m covering for the RSL radio service, we’ll be adding live audio coverage of qualifying to the regular full race broadcast.”

In the WEC release, series CEO Gerard Neveu thanked Hindhaugh for what he’s brought to the TV side the last couple years while also looking forward to the new arrivals to this year’s broadcast team.

“We believe that one of the reasons for the WEC’s current success in today’s motorsport world is that we try not to rest on our laurels; we are always looking to innovate and re-energize the championship in every area.

“John Hindhaugh, who has been our lead commentator until now, has decided to return to his first love of radio commentary, and we want to thank him for the great job he has done, and for his contribution to the championship. We are sure we will have an opportunity to work together again in the future but, for this year, we are very enthusiastic about our new broadcast team and the season ahead.”

The WEC season kicks off with the Prologue test next week in Monza before the season itself starts April 16 at Silverstone.