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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?

Massa fades to P10 late on in Belgium, but ends points drought

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Felipe Massa of Brazil driving the (19) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Felipe Massa saw his run of four Formula 1 races without a point come to an end in Belgium on Sunday as he crossed the line in 10th place for Williams.

Massa’s last top-10 finish came at the European Grand Prix in Baku, Azerbaijan, enduring a run of form that had seen him score as many points as Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein in the five races prior to the Belgian Grand Prix.

Massa capitalized on the dramatic start at Spa to rise into the top 10, and was running sixth after making his final pit stop.

However, the Brazilian struggled to manage his tires in the closing stages, causing him to fade to 10th place at the checkered flag.

“It was a very difficult race. Trying to look after the tires until the end and checking the tire pressures while we were racing was tough,” Massa said.

“It was difficult to stay out long enough on track. When the tires were there we were fighting for a great position.

“But when the tures went off we just couldn’t fight anymore.”

Massa’s teammate Valtteri Bottas only fared marginally better, crossing the line eighth for four points as Williams dropped to fifth place in the constructors’ championship.

“It was a disappointing day and a shame that we wasted the opportunity that we had at the beginning of the race,” Bottas said.

“We were in a great position after the start and when the safety car came in we should have pitted immediately. We then lost many positions.

“We tried to get the most out the race that we could after that, and I’m happy that we could at least get some points in the end, but overall it was disappointing.

“Looking ahead, we’ve got another race next week and obviously we need to learn from today. Hopefully we’ll be better in Monza.”

Alonso: Spa result ‘unthinkable’ a few months ago

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP)  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso believes that a seventh-place finish at a track such as the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps would have been “unthinkable” for McLaren a few months ago.

Alonso was resigned to the back of the grid at Spa after a 60-place grid penalty following power unit changes and an issue in qualifying that prevented him from posting a time.

However, the decision to start on the medium tire, combined with a number of clashes for cars ahead at the start and a red flag period lifted Alonso to as high as fourth within the first 10 laps.

Although the Spaniard was powerless to stop Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel fighting past during the race, he was still delighted with P7, believing it to act as evidence of McLaren-Honda’s progress.

“It was an exciting race to drive and I had a good feeling throughout,” Alonso said.

“We had good pace this weekend. We did better than expected on this track. We were in the top 10 with Jenson yesterday in qualifying, and we’ve scored points today.

“Believe me: a few months ago that would have been unthinkable on a circuit like this. That’s progress – real progress.

“And, after all the bad luck we’ve had so far this weekend, we finally got some good luck today. We started last, but we managed to keep away from all the incidents, gain some positions thanks to the safety car and then a couple more because of the red flag.

“It’s great news that we overtook Toro Rosso in the constructors’ world championship – I think we can be regularly in the points from now on.

“This weekend we saw evidence of very good progress from the team; we’re moving in the right direction, that’s for sure.”

Teammate Jenson Button started the race from inside the top 10, but had any hope of points ended early on after a clash with Pascal Wehrlein at Les Combes.

“I had a really good start. I got ahead of a Williams, pulled in front of a Red Bull and drew alongside a Force India,” Button explained.

“But then I lost a lot of places at La Source and ran wide. I rejoined the track, but Pascal made contact with me at Turn 5, damaging the rear of my car.

“There was a lot of damage and we were unable to complete the race. After such a short race, there’s not much more to say!”

Force India leapfrogs Williams in constructors’ after strong Spa showing

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 28: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo battles for position with Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 28, 2016 in Spa, Belgium  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India starred in Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix to leapfrog Williams in the Formula 1 constructors’ standings as Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez finished fourth and fifth respectively.

Force India arrived at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps hopeful of cutting the gap to Williams in the race for fourth place, having made significant inroads over the races before the summer break.

Hulkenberg and Perez both qualified inside the top 10 at Spa before a clash at the start between Max Verstappen, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel lifted them further up the order.

Hulkenberg ran second briefly before slipping behind Daniel Ricciardo into P3, where he remained before making his first pit stop shortly before a red flag period.

Hulkenberg kept up a good pace throughout the race, rising back up to third when Lewis Hamilton made his final pit stop on lap 32.

However, with Hamilton running on fresh tires, Hulkenberg was powerless to stop the Briton taking the final podium position, leaving him to settle for fourth place at the checkered flag.

“Good day in the office, pretty happy. Overall a good race,” Hulkenberg told NBCSN after the race.

“Massive team result, fourth and fifth, to beat the Ferraris and a Red Bull in the circumstances was pretty good. You have to get the points.

“Bit unfortunate and disappointed on my side with the red flag. It was going really well in second and I was gapping the field. But it neutralized the whole race when I was in second. Made it a bit harder. Still happy otherwise.

“We’re ahead of Williams now which is good news, but still eight races to go. Keep our heads down and keep going.”

Teammate Perez started sixth and remained in the mid-points positions before a late charge took him past Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso to finish fifth.

“It’s been a great day for the team and I am very pleased to finish fifth, but it was quite a tough race from the start,” Perez said.

“I chose a wide line going into turn one, but had to go far on the outside to avoid the first corner accident and that cost me a few positions. I dropped down to ninth and that compromised my race.

“I managed to make some good progress early on, but every time I switched to new tires I found myself having to put a lot of stress on them as I needed to attack Felipe then Fernando. I still managed to make my way through and bring home a good result for the team.

“Moving to fourth in the constructors’ championship is a fantastic achievement for us, but we can’t get carried away because there’s still a very long way to go in the season.

“Hopefully we can keep our momentum going and keep scoring strongly.”

Team owner Vijay Mallya expressed his pride over the result on Twitter after the race, with Force India moving two points clear of Williams in the constructors’ championship.

The result also saw Force India continue its love affair with the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. The track was the site of its only F1 pole to date and first podium in 2009 courtesy of Giancarlo Fisichella, as well as another fourth-place finish for Hulkenberg in 2012.

Sam Posey’s “Echoes of the Ardennes” honors Spa’s history (VIDEO)

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The buildup to the Belgian Grand Prix always manages to combine history, excitement and nerves of what’s next.

Sam Posey, who could best be described as the poet laureate of motorsports broadcasting, pens his latest essay on the challenge of Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in “Echoes of the Ardennes,” linked above.

The track’s only 4.3 miles – down from more than 8 in the past – but it remains the longest test of circuit on F1’s calendar and a classic circuit in every sense of the word.