Johnson seeks first Cup win at Michigan

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It seems hard to believe, but indeed there are places where five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has never won a race – five of them, actually. One of those facilities where Johnson hasn’t gone to Victory Lane is Michigan International Speedway, site of this weekend’s Quicken Loans 400.

To say that Johnson has been up-and-down recently on the two-mile oval may be putting it mildly. In last year’s pair of races at MIS, Johnson finished fifth in June despite running out of gas on the final lap but then suffered a DNF when the Cup circus came back in August. Going back to 2011, a parts failure led to a 27th-place result in the June race, but in August, he turned in a runner-up effort.

2010 saw him finish 6th (June) and 12th (August), which were improvements from his MIS runs in 2009; in June of that year, he ran out of gas and finished 22nd despite leading 146 of 200 laps, and later that August, more fuel problems sent him to a 33rd-place finish after leading 133 circuits.

Suffice to say, Johnson’s itching to finally get that Michigan win under his belt.

“I’ve been ready for a long time,” said Johnson, who won last weekend at Pocono Raceway in dominant style. “We’ve been so close here. But, when it happens, it will make it all that sweeter for us. The exciting thing is we’ve been plenty fast here over the years. But getting to the final lap and seeing that checkered flag has been a little more difficult than I could imagine.”

But even without a win at MIS, he’s still managed to come away with plenty of hardware in his career. This time, he comes to Michigan with a strong 51-point edge over Carl Edwards in the championship, something that he said he couldn’t think of having when the season began.

That lead, as he also noted, could be bigger at this time if not for problems at the Coca-Cola 600 last month and more recently at Dover International Speedway, where a restart penalty cost him a potential win.

“I look at Charlotte and Dover as misses to even have 20 or 30 more points,” he said. “I really am shocked that we are so far out ahead of everybody. And I know that the No. 20 [Matt Kenseth] has had some bad luck and a couple of other guys have, too. But we’ve had a little bad luck as well.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.