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After slow 2014 start, Johnson, #48 team firing on all cylinders

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The free-for-all has given way to familiarity.

The first seven races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series produced seven different winners, and by Memorial Day weekend, that number had grown to nine.

Missing among those winners was Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion.

But while we fretted over if and when he would get on the board in 2014, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team stayed calm.

Constantly maintaining that he felt no pressure to win, Johnson may have come off like a broken record to some in the early months of the season.

But he knew that his team would figure out the new rules package. He knew that he’d return to form. And in hindsight, we all knew that too.

Now he’s rattled off three wins in the last four Sprint Cup points races, taking over the top seed on the current Chase grid. The Memorial Day weekend win at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 broke open the dam, and has led to his ninth career Dover triumph and now, his first-ever victory at the Michigan International Speedway.

No doubt this familiarity will breed some contempt among the NASCAR fan base who are sick of all things Johnson after years of his dominance of the sport.

But no matter. The 48 team doesn’t care. They’re NASCAR’s answer to the San Antonio Spurs (and yes, I know I’m not the only writer to make that comparison).

They just want to win, they’d prefer to do it with class, and they’ve been together long enough to know success and failure – and that the opinions of the outside world don’t really matter.

“We’ve lost races together. We’ve lost championships together. And certainly we’ve had success,” Johnson said Sunday. “But 69 wins and six championships out of 13 years of racing is a pretty small percentage.

“Some of the losses you have are — you got what you could that day and you went on, but a lot of those losses in there sting, and I think experience through those moments make us stronger and better.

“Everybody knows about 2005 and the milk and cookies meeting that Rick had with us.  I think from that moment on, we were able to be more comfortable, oddly enough, in our own skin, and as a part of Team 48.  Nobody is going anywhere. We’re in this thing together, and we are Team 48.”

In such situations, you build up a lot of trust. It’s that trust that allowed Johnson to sense what crew chief Chad Knaus had up his sleeve heading into what proved to be their final stop with 35 laps remaining.

“When he pulled me to pit lane and the gap that I had over the second spot at that time, I knew that four [tires] would be the call,” said Johnson, who was leading at the time.

“You may as well put four on if you’ve got time for it.  He made that call and got out on the track…Just going off the tone of his voice and what he was asking me to do with the car, and he kept asking me to save my tires in case there was a caution. I knew we were good on fuel, so that gave me a lot of optimism.

“And then honestly, once we had our four tires on and fuel in our car, if the caution came out, I still think we were golden.  We had enough [fuel] to go the distance whereas everybody else was short.”

But Johnson didn’t have to worry about a caution. The race stayed green for those final 35 laps, and as car after car pitted, Johnson kept moving forward until he finally reclaimed the lead with nine laps left.

Of course, Johnson’s been known to have on-track problems ruin his day at Michigan, so it wasn’t signed, sealed, and delivered at that point. But this time, the car held up and it was his day at last in the Irish Hills.

However, even though Johnson and the 48 team have overcome their early-season performance issues, Knaus believes that there’s still some tightening up to do.

“The fact of the matter is I think we’ve got to be a little bit better,” he said. “Last week, [Hendrick Motorsports] were a whisker away from losing that one.  This weekend, maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one.

“We’ve got to continue to improve our product so by the time we get to the Chase, we’re where we need to be.”

Funny…It sure looks like they’re at that point right now, doesn’t it?

Hulkenberg gets one-place grid penalty for tire mix-up

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany drives the 7 Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Nico Hulkenberg has been given a one-place grid penalty for Sunday’s German Grand Prix after a tire mix-up during qualifying at Hockenheim.

Hulkenberg qualified seventh for Force India, but used a set of super-soft tires in Q1 that should have been returned to Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli ahead of the session.

“The team returned electronically the wrong set of tires and used these during Q1,” a short statement from the FIA stewards in Germany read, confirming Hulkenberg’s one-place grid drop.

With the penalty, Hulkenberg will now start eighth in Germany behind Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, who finished narrowly behind.

“I’m feeling pretty happy to qualify in seventh for my home race – it’s best of the rest behind the top three teams and a good effort by the whole team,” Hulkenberg said after qualifying.

“Our objective is always to maximize our potential and it feels like we achieved that today. Most of my laps in the session came together nicely and my final effort in Q3 was spot on.

“We can expect a tough fight for good points tomorrow, but we are in a good starting position and we’ve looked strong here in all the sessions. The long run pace is competitive, too, so we’ve got every chance of getting a great result this weekend.

“There is talk of some rain tomorrow and to be honest I would not mind a shower during the race, but let’s wait and see what happens.”

Teammate Sergio Perez qualified ninth on Saturday, reaching Q3 for the first time at Hockenheim.

“It was a fun and very intense fight with Nico and the two Williams cars throughout qualifying, and in the end it was really close between the four of us,” Perez said.

“It was crucial to get through Q1 on one set of tires because some other teams had to use two sets and this gave us a small advantage in Q2, which helped us make the top ten.

“On my last lap of Q3 I struggled a bit through some of the right-hand corners; I think I may have picked something up on my front wing – maybe some debris – and that cost me some time, but it’s something I will analyze with the team.

“In the end, it was so close and just a few hundredths of a second made the difference. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

“We are starting on the super-softs on which we qualified and we will need to work well as a team to make the strategy work and score some important points.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton: Nothing particularly wrong with Hockenheim qualifying display

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton believes there was “nothing particularly wrong” with his display during qualifying for the German Grand Prix despite losing out on pole to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at Hockenheim.

Hamilton entered qualifying chasing his seventh pole position of the season, but fell 0.107 seconds shy of Rosberg despite his teammate running with heavier fuel in Q3 after being forced to abort an earlier run.

Hamilton was faster than Rosberg through the first sector on his final effort, but a slow second half of the lap meant he was unable to beat his teammate.

“There was nothing particularly wrong today. My final lap just didn’t work out,” Hamilton said after qualifying.

“It was pretty close out there and sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t. The car was feeling great. The team did a great job to get it where I needed it to be and it was definitely on for pole.

“I was two tenths up coming out of T2 – but from T8 onwards it started to deteriorate and I couldn’t maintain the gap. I’ve missed out on pole, so I didn’t do what I was supposed to do – but it’s in the past now, so you just let it go and look forwards.

“It doesn’t mean the race isn’t there to win tomorrow. I’ll try to get a good start and see how it goes from there. I don’t know what the strategy will be – we’ll look through that tonight. But this is a track where you can overtake, so I don’t have to go for it at the first corner. It can be somewhere else.

“The pace is clearly there, so it’s still been a good day and I’m generally pretty happy. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to do something from where I am.

“I’m just focused on trying to move forward and if I can drive like I have done in the past few races then anything can happen.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

Sirotkin recovers from penalty to win Hockenheim GP2 thriller

Sergey Sirotkin (RUS, ART Grand Prix) crosses the line to take the victory.
2016 GP2 Series Round 7
Hockenheim, Germany
Saturday 30 July 2016

Photo: /GP2 Series Media Service
ref: Digital Image _V2I4334
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Sergey Sirotkin recovered from a penalty for pitting under the Virtual Safety Car to claim his second GP2 Series victory in a row in a thrilling feature race on Saturday at Hockenheim.

Starting from pole, Sirotkin made a clean getaway to ease into an early lead as championship leader Pierre Gasly bogged down from second on the grid, causing him to drop outside of the top 10.

Sirotkin led from Raffaele Marciello early on before the Italian driver made a brave pass for the lead down the inside of Turn 8 on lap four.

The Virtual Safety Car was called after contact between Artem Markelov and Jordan King three laps later, prompting ART to react immediately. The team called Sirotkin in to make his mandatory pit stop, ensuring that he would not lose much time while the field was circulating slowly.

However, Sirotkin failed to enter the pit lane before the VSC was called, resulting in a stewards investigation as drivers are not permitted to stop under the VSC in GP2.

After a lengthy discussion, the GP2 stewards opted to scratch Sirotkin’s first stop, meaning he still had to make his mandatory visit to the pit lane.

Sirotkin pitted from the lead with 11 laps remaining, emerging in fourth place before scything his way up to second place behind Marciello once again.

Further VSC periods were kind to Sirotkin, allowing him to put his fresher soft tires to good use and catch Marciello before passing with five laps remaining.

Sirotkin did not look back, charging to his second win of the season and capping off one of the all-time great fightbacks in GP2.

Luca Ghiotto finished second for Trident after passing Marciello on the final lap, with Gasly completing the podium after also getting past the ailing Italian on the final corner. Marciello was left to settle for fourth, his GP2 win drought now set to reach two years in Belgium.

Arthur Pic finished fifth for Rapax ahead of Oliver Rowland and Gustav Malja, while Alex Lynn secured reverse grid pole for Sunday’s sprint race by finishing eighth despite a time penalty.

Sunday’s GP2 sprint race from Hockenheim is live on the NBC Sports app and at f1stream.nbcsports.com from 4:25am ET.

Dixon fast once again as times keep falling in Mid-Ohio third practice

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Photo: IndyCar
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – Scott Dixon being fast at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is not new.

But Scott Dixon dropping a lap of 1:03.7244 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is new.

Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet and leader of first practice, lowered the mark to that aforementioned time in this morning’s 45-minute third practice session for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200.

And mind you, this time is done on Firestone’s primary black sidewall tires on a track that grips up and gets faster as a session goes on.

Dixon’s official track record is 1:04.5814, set last year in qualifying. But if it’s dry (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN), and the Firestone red alternates come out to play, there’s not just a chance that track record will be beat – it could be obliterated.

In the non-Dixon class, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Tony Kanaan all also made it into the 1:03 bracket. Max Chilton was an impressive sixth.

Top Honda in this practice was Graham Rahal, as he was on Friday. Except that position is seventh.

The one red flag flew when Spencer Pigot ran in deep at Turn 4 and beached his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, but the Ed Carpenter Racing driver resumed and returned to the pits with no damage.

Times are below.

MidOFP3