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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 2015 Driver Review: Sage Karam

Sage Karam
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver. Ending in 20th was Sage Karam, who generated a lot of headlines despite missing a handful of races in his first full season in the big leagues.

Sage Karam, No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 9th place at Indianapolis 500; several starts in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship
  • 2015: 20th place (12 starts), Best Finish 3rd, Best Start 3rd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 12 Laps Led, 14.5 Avg. Start, 15.8 Avg. Finish

Few drivers generated as much ink as Karam did during what as an ultimately race-by-race rookie season that saw him active in 12 of 16 races. It was an overall rocky campaign that featured any combination of brilliance, controversy and heartache depending on the weekend.

Karam was on the back foot to begin with anyway with limited preseason testing, following a wrist injury sustained in a crash at Barber Motorsports Park. The fact he was out of a car for Long Beach and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis owed to financial reasons but also served as a wakeup call that he needed to improve off the back of several ragged races to open the season. The speed was there for the Indianapolis 500 but the result wasn’t, with a first-lap crash and the following debacle of a doubleheader weekend at Detroit a week later ultimately Karam’s nadir.

Luckily for the 20-year-old, he had Dario Franchitti as a tutor, mentor and coach, and a post-Detroit “come to Jesus” meeting might have been the biggest impetus for change. Karam then surged in the second half of the year – primarily on ovals – and worked his way into the headlines courtesy of his driving and take-no-prisoners aggressive approach, particularly with Ed Carpenter at Iowa. In a single sentence, he was worth the price of admission almost on his own while also putting himself in contention for series “black hat” status.

Karam was on track for what would have been a dream weekend at home in Pocono, leading with 20 laps to go, when he lost control and crashed out – the debris from the car ultimately striking Justin Wilson’s helmet. It was a tragic end to the race but it was no fault of Karam’s that what happened, happened.

For as much as the community is rallying around Wilson’s family, it needs to do the same for Karam. At 20, he’s a talented driver with a bright future ahead of him, who continued to mature over the course of the season. You just don’t want Pocono to be the race that affects him psychologically, and prevents him from fully realizing his undoubted potential.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Stefano Coletti

Stefano Coletti
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series driver-by-driver lineup. In 19th place and the second-ranked rookie this season, was KV Racing Technology’s Stefano Coletti.

Stefano Coletti, No. 4 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet

  • 2014: GP2
  • 2015: 19th Place, Best Finish 8th, Best Start 8th, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 18.9 Avg. Start, 18.6 Avg. Finish

Coletti struggled in his rookie season, which was a bit surprising after an impressive preseason testing period that helped him secure the second KV Racing Technology car alongside KVSH Racing lead driver Sebastien Bourdais.

The GP2 graduate produced early season excitement where he was a passing star, but that only seemed to deceive for the rest of the year. The only time he started ahead of Bourdais was at Iowa, when Bourdais crashed in qualifying.

Similar to other drivers KV has had in previous years Coletti was often hard on equipment, with a frequent number of either full-on accidents or less damaging spins, although not all were his fault. A trouble-free weekend for him rarely occurred, and eighth at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis marked his only top-10 result of the year.

It was a year that paled in comparison to Sebastian Saavedra’s difficult 2014, which paled in comparison to Simona de Silvestro in 2013, which… well you get the point. The lack of consistency for the team’s second car probably doesn’t help, but Coletti offered few moments of brilliance in a deep field where he needed to stand out.

Given the resources at his disposal, ending 78 points behind rookie-of-the-year Gabby Chaves seemed a fairly substantial margin. If he returns for 2016, he has a big jump to make.