NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson wary of wild Sonoma restarts

1 Comment

With three wins in his pocket, Jimmie Johnson has no need to worry about making the Chase. But he knows that not everyone in the Sprint Cup garage is in his position.

This weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the Sonoma Raceway road course has been targeted by multiple winless drivers as their best opportunity yet to win and get in the post-season.

And should he find himself either holding back or running with those winless drivers – particularly in a restart situation – Johnson is counting out on one thing: Trouble.

“On restarts, we know that there’s going to be chaos in [Turns] 7 and 11,” he said today at Sonoma before practice got underway. “You go in there and you just put your head against the back of the headrest and wait to get drilled from behind.

“Once you get spread out and get going – once you get through the opening lap or two – we get spread out and it’s really an individual race. You’re challenging yourself and your car and you just get in that zone and go.

“But restarts breed so much chaos around here, so no one’s safe. I’ve seen guys in eighth or 10th pull out of line and pass, wheel-hop [a corner], and clean out the guy in second and third. There’s nowhere safe on this track on restarts.”

While NASCAR regulars have improved their road racing skill by an impressive margin over the years, it appears that the level of aggressiveness on such tracks has gone up as well.

Throw in the fact that there are only a few passing zones on the Sonoma circuit, and it makes drivers that much more anxious to take any chance they can get.

“Everybody up and down the line is trying to set up a pass, so there are moments where you’ve worked hard, been patient, and are making your move, and then you don’t realize that the car behind you has set up a move on you,” Johnson explained.

“Or maybe in the process of getting along side someone, you’ve slowed down your section of the road and now everyone back behind you is thinking, ‘Maybe I can go three-wide, four-wide.’

“Or the line stops too quick, just like in bumper-to-bumper traffic…[For] the person fourth or fifth in line, the reaction time isn’t there, and pow – you’ve turned somebody around.”

Sometimes, such incidents can’t be helped. But then there’s the matter of blocking and what each driver chooses to do about it.

From Johnson’s perspective, his peers are getting less likely to be patient in that scenario.

“I think what aggravates most is the blocking and then after a restart or two and a few laps of blocking, you’re just going to make that decision: Are you going to tolerate it or are you going to send them [spinning],” he said. “And it’s turned into sending them, lately.”

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
Leave a comment

Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”