Texas Update: Title contenders Johnson, Kenseth up front

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Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, tied for the Sprint Cup championship, are running first and second respectively as the AAA Texas 500 – the eighth race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup – has crossed the halfway point.

Johnson took the lead from pole sitter Carl Edwards on Lap 10 and held it up to a debris caution at Lap 15. However, Edwards – taking advantage of the No. 1 pit stall – was able to nip Johnson coming out off of pit road to take back the advantage for the re-start at Lap 19.

On Lap 33, Johnson pulled even with Edwards down the backstretch before taking the lead on the inside of Turn 3. He would lead until the yellow flag came out for Kyle Busch, who slid up the track and hit the Turn 3 wall flush while battling for second spot with Matt Kenseth.

The second wave of pit stops ended like the first, with Edwards again barely beating Johnson out of the pits – while Busch fell all the way back to 29th after his incident.

After an extended caution due to NASCAR coming across stray bits of debris, the green finally re-emerged on Lap 65. Edwards quickly pulled a gap but Johnson again took the lead at Lap 72. Two laps later, Hendrick Motorsports teammate and fellow title contender Jeff Gordon blew a tire and hit the Turn 2 wall to bring out the yellow.

After taking two tires on the subsequent pit stops, Brad Keselowski led the field to the green at Lap 80. But on Lap 91, Johnson, who had re-started third, got past Keselowski to assume control of the lead for the fourth time today.

Johnson led Keselowski at Lap 100, but shortly afterwards, Kenseth peeled off second from the 2012 Cup champion and the top two in the standings were running 1-2. Meanwhile, Busch had been quietly but steadily making his way up the pylon after his early run-in with the wall, rising up to 14th at that point.

On Lap 125, Johnson pitted from the lead under green, with Kenseth briefly taking the lead (good for a bonus point) before he too ducked in for service at Lap 126.

When the cycle ended, Johnson was again out in front with Kenseth in the runner-up spot and the Penske teammates of Joey Logano and Keselowski in third and fourth, respectively. Also, Martin Truex Jr., one of the key contenders in this year’s spring race at Texas, had cracked the Top 5 following the cycle.

Kevin Harvick grabbed fifth from Truex shortly before the halfway mark at Lap 167, but the top four remained Johnson, Kenseth, Logano and Keselowski.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”