Johnson within striking distance after two Chase races

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All that fretting about Jimmie Johnson’s performance going into the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup appears to have been over nothing.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 1-2 punch of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch may be atop the championship after two Chase events, but Johnson has been no slouch either with finishes of fifth at Chicagoland Speedway and fourth yesterday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Yesterday’s performance didn’t have Johnson rallying from pit road problems as he did at Chicagoland, but it was the kind of consistent effort that has been he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team’s calling card over the years – especially during Chase time.

“It was better than we thought it would be,” Johnson said. “I felt like we were really going to have to scrap for a Top-10, maybe a Top-5. I truthfully feel like we had a shot to win this race, if not run second or third.”

The final few restarts were enough to keep him from mounting a charge to the front, however, as he found himself on the inside lane that proved problematic in those situations.

On the last restart of the day, Johnson was caught behind Martin Truex Jr. when the Michael Waltrip Racing pilot spun his tires, causing him to have to recover some lost positions in the remaining laps.

But all in all, Johnson knows he’s still in decent shape despite the torrid start from Kenseth and Busch, his rivals at JGR. He’s in third place in the standings, and only 18 points behind Kenseth heading to Dover (where he’s won seven times in his career).

“To open [the Chase] with a 5-4 [finishing positions] is great,” Johnson said. “1-1 like Matt has is a lot better, but we’re in a good spot. We haven’t given up too many points, and we’re going to one of my best race tracks next week in Dover…

“…We are getting into the meat of the Chase and where there are some great tracks for this Chevrolet that I am driving and all these Lowe’s guys are working so hard to make it fast.”

Sage Karam, Tony Kanaan fastest in Monday’s practice for Indy 500

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In the second-to-last practice session of the week, Sage Karam paced the 33 drivers qualified for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 on Monday.

Karam had a field-best speed of 226.461 mph, followed by Tony Kanan (225.123 mph), Ryan Hunter-Reay (224.820), Charlie Kimball (224.582) and Alexander Rossi (224.507).

Sixth through 10th fastest were Will Power (224.445), Helio Castroneves (224.368), Marco Andretti (224.148) and rookie Zachary Claman Demelo (224.91) and Scott Dixon (223.966).

Power and Castroneves ran the most laps of all drivers at 120 and 118, respectively.

Two other Team Penske drivers struggled to get speed out of their cars. Defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden was 28th-fastest (221.982 mph) and Simon Pagenaud, who was the slowest (220.902 mph) of the 33 cars on-track.

Pole sitter Ed Carpenter was 14th-fastest with a best speed of 223.573 mph in a 100-lap effort.

Most drivers were in race trim or were testing things for Sunday’s Greatest Spectacle In Racing such as fuel mileage, chassis setup and more.

Rookie Matheus Leist missed most of the session with an apparent electrical problem that kept him to just 19 laps.

There was one incident of note during the 3 ½ hour session: IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens crashed coming out of Turn 2 during the first hour of practice.

Wickens appeared to skim the outside SAFER Barrier, went left and then violently turned hard back into the outside retaining wall.

MORE: Wickens wrecks during Indy 500 practice

The Honda-powered machine for the Canadian driver suffered heavy damage to the right side, particularly the right front tire and the right side of the front end.

There will be no further on-track activity for the Indy cars until Friday’s final practice to fine tune things for Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

We’ll have the full practice speed chart, as well as What Drivers Said, shortly. Please check back soon.

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