Chase Capsules: Jimmie Johnson

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48 – Jimmie Johnson
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championships: 6 (2006-’10, 2013)
Chase History: 11th Chase Appearance, Best finish of 1st (2006-‘10, 2013)

Regular Season Recap: The regular season for JJ? Your typical “He hasn’t won yet!” through the first 11 races angst, followed by “Were we really just talking about the 48 being winless?” after three wins in the next four races, and capped off with “It’s the 48’s annual pre-Chase four-race slump!” with finishes of 42nd, 42nd, 14th, 39th and 28th from Daytona through Watkins Glen. What does it all mean? Not much has changed, and Johnson and Knaus continue as the most effective partnership heading into the Chase. His Dover win was his most dominant performance; Martinsville was also a Johnson tour de force before ending second behind Kurt Busch. Wins in the Chase at those two tracks will be his 10th and ninth, respectively.

Chris’ Take: Johnson, Chad Knaus and the 48 camp always seem to run like clockwork when everything is on the line. They can win pretty much anywhere in the Chase, and even if they don’t win, they’re capable of being front-runners all the way through. And you don’t expect them to have self-inflicted problems, so that just leaves Johnson having to keep his nose clean on the track. If he does that, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the Championship at Homestead-Miami.

Jerry’s Take: It’s hard to put Jimmie Johnson and “flying under the radar” in the same sentence, but that sure seems to be the case with the six-time champ in 2014. Sure, he’s won three races, but he really hasn’t had the kind of standout season to date that he typically has. Is he holding back or sandbagging? Who knows. But one thing is for certain: Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have to significantly pick up their game in the Chase.

While they’ve found a way to do that in six of the last eight seasons, this year could be the hardest title bid for the duo, as there are four more drivers to contend with and a reinvigorated Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. While we see Johnson reaching the final four, we do not see six-time becoming seven-time after Homestead.

Tony’s Take: The only thing that prevents Johnson from making it through the knockout stages of the 2014 Chase is the No. 48 team themselves, with bad pit stops or getting caught up in someone else’s misfortune. Although he hasn’t won at Chicago before, he still has been consistent, with 10 top-10s in 12 starts there. New Hampshire is a good track for the team and Dover, as mentioned, is one of his best.

A solid run of top-10s through those three should move him forward, and from there he can pounce. The new Chase format, in part, was designed to prevent one driver walking away from the field in the Chase races, but it remains hard to bet against Johnson and the No. 48 crew, whatever the format is. Should be advancing fairly deep once more.

Jimmie Johnson’s Career Statistics at Chase Tracks
Chicagoland (1.5 mile) – No wins, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10s in 12 starts
New Hampshire (1 mile) – Three wins, 9 Top-5s, 17 Top-10s in 25 starts
Dover (1 mile) – Nine wins, 13 Top-5s, 18 Top-10s in 25 starts
Kansas (1.5 mile) – Two wins, 6 Top-5, 14 Top-10s in 16 starts
Charlotte (1.5 mile) – Seven wins, 13 Top-5s, 17 Top-10s in 26 starts
Talladega (2.66 mile) – Two wins, 6 Top-5s, 10 Top-10s in 25 starts
Martinsville (half-mile) – Eight wins, 18 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s in 25 starts
Texas (1.5-mile) – Three wins, 10 Top-5s, 16 Top-10s in 22 starts
Phoenix (1 mile) – Four wins, 14 Top-5s, 18 Top-10s in 22 starts
Homestead-Miami (1.5 mile) – No wins, 4 Top-5, 8 Top-10s in 13 starts

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.