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?

Castroneves remains on top of his game even if results don’t shown it

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Sixth, ninth and fourth are results that seem typical for Helio Castroneves of late. The Brazilian, now 41 and in his 20th season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, remain in that good-but-not-great department but prove the Team Penske driver is still among the best in the series.

And typical of his luck the last few years, circumstances outside his control continue to extend a winless drought that is at 46 races and counting since winning Detroit race two in 2014. Interestingly, Castroneves won his 46th career start back in 2000 – also at Detroit – and until this recent run of form, he’d never had a winless run anywhere that long anywhere close the rest of his career.

He won races every year from 2000 through 2014, with the exception of 2011. Even without gracing the top step of the podium, Castroneves has still finished fifth and third in points the last two years, extending his incredible run of form to 13 top-five finishes in the standings in 17 full seasons with Team Penske.

So to start his 18th year with Penske, 20th overall, missed opportunities have again stuck out. But at sixth in points, it’s not been a brutal start to the year.

“The first race, Honda came out really strong, then at Long Beach we had a phenomenal opportunity, but had a little issue with the engine, and last week as a team at Team Penske we were able to capitalize, but not my team with the No. 3 car,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.

“Finishing top four, it felt like we were a little better than that. But when you have three other great teammates. One day it’s someone’s day – and for us as a team, we were happy Josef (Newgarden) got his first win and gave us more points.”

Castroneves sustained a minor over boost penalty coming out of the hairpin on the rough Long Beach circuit, and that was enough to drop him first to sixth by the first corner. Having later been issued a pit speed violation, Castroneves was left to take the ninth place finish there.

“To put a great lap together and make it happen, I was then so sad to have the boost penalty to go from first to sixth first corner,” he said.

But the fact he still got the pole – his third straight at Long Beach as the only Chevrolet in the Firestone Fast Six and the 52nd of his illustrious career – shows how good he still is.

“It’s such a great feeling. At a place like Long Beach, straightaway, we knew we didn’t have any advantage in those circumstances,” he said. “It was up to us to not find an excuse, and note we have to find other ways to face those challenges.”

Castroneves heads to this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) where he’s already got a pole to defend in his No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet.

But he isn’t a fan of INDYCAR moving the qualifying back to nighttime conditions (Friday, 11 p.m. ET, NBC Sports App and airs Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), as he says it doesn’t reward drivers who can afford to trim the car out more on edge in the heat of the day.

“It’s a shame we’re doing qualifying at night,” Castroneves said. “I think it separates it from who can do more in the difficult conditions to more where everyone can do it. That’ll be different from last year. But you still have to have a very good car to go around at Phoenix.

“In warmer conditions, say the track temp is 120, air of 80, it makes it very hard to go flat out unless you have good car. At night, it’ll be under 100 if not less, so that’s 20-30 degrees difference before. Everyone’s car gains about 100-200 pounds of downforce. That helps the car stick better.”

Phoenix has been an integral part of Castroneves’ career, dating to the mid-1990s when he and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan tested for Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports Indy Lights team, ahead of their eventual battle for the 1997 championship.

For Castroneves, it holds a special place. It was the first oval he tested on. It was where he made his first start under the IRL banner (when CART and IRL were still separated) in 2001, as a warm-up act for that year’s Indianapolis 500 – the first of three ‘500s he’s won.

And it was where, in February, Castroneves singlehandedly was involved in the first step of the future planning for the new Phoenix Raceway, scheduled for completion in fall of 2018. He took the wheel and control of a Caterpillar excavator as part of the groundbreaking ceremony at the series’ open test here in February.

“I thought man if I made a mistake, there was a car around there!” he laughed. “It would be on ESPN’s Top 10 most bizarre moments!

“But the person who was guiding me talked about the moves, and I got this. It was so cool to be part of it with how much the track would change. We’re just hoping it will be a great renovation.”

And if Castroneves’ career continues to roll on, he’ll be part of the next generation track here as well.

Williams to auction Russian GP race-worn gear for Billy Monger

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Williams Martini Racing will make a difference in trying to support Billy Monger, the young driver who lost his legs in an F4 accident earlier this month but who has already received several hundred thousand pounds of funding to help pay for his medical costs.

The team announced Wednesday it would auction off Felipe Massa’s firesuit and Lance Stroll’s boots from this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix via eBay. A link to bid is here. Funds will go to Monger’s JustGiving page.

It’s an excellent gesture from the team and perhaps the start of even more stakeholders in the racing community to support the young teenager.

MRTI: Barber weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Here’s some thoughts following the second weekend of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this season, at Barber Motorsports Park this weekend (additional notes from Tony DiZinno in his post-weekend column here).

Askew-se me While I Play Through?

It was not a perfect weekend for Oliver Askew. Calvin Ming did pip him for fastest lap during practice.

Okay, that line was entirely sarcastic. Simply put: Askew crushed the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda field at Barber Motorsports Park. He claimed pole in both races, led every lap in both races, and won both races.

Askew was dominant at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In the grand scheme of things, it is not surprising that Askew swept the weekend and has claimed three victories in a row, dating back to Race 2 in St. Petersburg (for reference he was second in Race 1 that weekend, making his average finishing position a staggering 1.25 through four races). Cape Motorsports has won every USF2000 championship since 2011. With Askew, a 2016 Team USA Scholarship recipient and winner of the inaugural USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in December at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, joining the fray, everything on paper indicated another championship run was likely.

But, a new chassis, in this case the Tatuus USF-17, often provides a reset button, allowing other teams a chance to close the gap. And while the likes of Team Pelfrey, Pabst Racing Services, and Exclusive Autosport have all been featured on the podium, Cape Motorsports and Askew have distinguished themselves as title favorites four races into the season.

My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno called the weekend’s performance an “Ask-kicking,” and there can be no arguing the dominance of Askew and Cape Motorsports at the moment.

Kaylen Frederick a “Baby Face” on the Rise

Outside of Askew, 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick, the youngest driver on the circuit, was the shining star at Barber Motorsports Park. The young Frederick pushed Askew in the final laps of Race 1 to finish second and backed it up with a consistent Race 2 to again finish second.

Frederick (right) finished second in both USF2000 races at Barber. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

While winning is the ultimate goal, Frederick was more than happy with the weekend’s results. “I took advantage of what I could today – the Cooper tires wore well so I could just keep my head down and focus,” he said following Race 1. “It took a while to get comfortable with all the high-speed corners and the compressions. It was hard for me to get the confidence to go into those corners with that much speed but it’s all clicked now.”

Along with Rinus Van Kalmthout, with whom Frederick is currently tied for second in the championship, Frederick may be emerging as the biggest threat to Askew in the championship chase. It’s early days for the season, but Frederick is beginning to establish himself as a title contender.

Hertamania 2.0 Weathers the Barber Storms

The rain wasn’t the only storm the drivers of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series had to weather at Barber. A chaotic start to Race 1 saw officials wave it off, and carnage ensued. Perhaps the most notable driver impacted was points leader Colton Herta.

The 17-year-old clipped the left-rear of polesitter Kyle Kaiser after the aborted start, damaging his front wing and forcing an emergency pit stop. He then suffered a penalty after failing to maintain pace car speed, which put him at the back of the field when the race restarted.

However, his quiet though impressive charge to tenth helped limit the damage. Further, he caught a lucky break when Race 2 qualifying was rained out on Sunday morning. The rule book dictates the field is set by points in such circumstances, which put championship leader Herta on the pole. He immediately rocketed away when the race started and led all 35 laps on his way to winning by more than nine seconds.

What’s more, his win was marked with historic significance, as it was the 400th event in Indy Lights history. “I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” Herta said following his Sunday triumph.

All told, he took a weekend that looked to be going badly and completely turned it around. He now leads Kyle Kaiser by 16 points ahead of another double-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

The Unlucky Pato O’Ward

The 2017 season got off to a dream start for the soon-to-be 18-year-old Pato O’Ward. Class wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring were buoyed by a strong opening Indy Lights weekend at St. Petersburg, where he recorded finishes of fifth and third.

However, Lady Luck was not on his side at Barber. O’Ward was one of several drivers to suffer damage after the Race 1 start was aborted, as he actually drove over the back of Santi Urrutia’s machine. O’Ward pitted to replace the front wing, but was able to climb back up to eighth at race’s end.

Sunday’s Race 2, however, was a different story. A first-lap collision with Zachary Claman De Melo sent him spinning into the gravel. Though he was able to return to the pits, damage was too severe to continue, relegating to a 15th-place finish.

For a driver who has enjoyed a memorable 2017 so far, O’Ward’s weekend at Barber Motorsports Park was one to forget.

The Mazda Road to Indy now takes a three-week break before all three series resume action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course on May 12-13.

Pippa Mann adds Lamborghini ST to schedule in all-female entry

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Pippa Mann, who will seek to make her sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 a little over one month from now with Dale Coyne Racing, will have additional races on her plate this year in an all-female driver entry in this year’s Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America championship.

Mann and Jackie Heinricher, herself a sports car veteran with some Lamborghini ST experience, are among a four-car entry for the Prestige Performance team in the IMSA-sanctioned series, which is operationally run with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship powerhouse team Wayne Taylor Racing.  They’ll share the team’s No. 57 Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in the pro/am division.

“I am thrilled to be joining Prestige Performance and Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2017 Super Trofeo season. Learning a new car, a new team, a new series, and new tracks will be a big learning experience for me, and I’m extremely excited not only to have this opportunity, but to have this opportunity with such a great team,” said Mann, who’s already had a couple tests in the car.

Heinricher added, “I am excited to be involved with Prestige and Wayne Taylor Racing in the season effort and for the incredible opportunity in joining a professional team for long-term growth in sports car racing.”

The other lineups see rising sports car star and a couple-time IMSA series champion Trent Hindman (in both Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Lamborghini) with Riccardo Agostini in the No. 1 car, and Alex Popow and Michele Beretta in the No. 10 car – both of those are pro/pro entries.

A fourth car, the No. 11 entry, has a lineup still to be determined and not yet confirmed. However, sports car aces Dion von Moltke and Stevan McAleer were posted on the No. 11 car for the Circuit of The Americas entry list.

“Wayne Taylor Racing is excited to step into the 2017 season with such a great list of drivers and to have David Wagener returning on our engineering side,” said Travis Houge, Team Manager, Wayne Taylor Racing.

“We are looking forward to continuing the success of last season. Similar to our other racing endeavors, we have worked hard to build a program that not only wins races but also builds lasting and successful partnerships. We feel we have found that with the Lamborghini Group.”

The Lamborghini ST season begins next weekend at COTA in Austin. The 12-race calendar is spread over six venues: COTA, Watkins Glen International in early July, Road America and VIR in August and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, before the season finale and World Final run in Imola, Italy (former site of the San Marino Grand Prix) in November.