Johnson hints at NASCAR format changes; seeks continued improvement

1 Comment

“Format changes” were the buzzwords of Jimmie Johnson’s first media availability of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, even if the six-time champion didn’t bite on exactly what they were.

Earlier this week, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France hinted during an MRN Radio interview potential format changes could come either in terms of points adjustments or race start times. Still, to Johnson, that doesn’t change the goal.

“From being in the car, it doesn’t change the driver’s mindset much,” Johnson said. “It might take someone from roughing ‘em up to dumping them. I think it’s more about perception. But looking at it and putting more weight on winning, it’s not going to change what I do.”

Johnson hinted at new qualifying adjustments for 2014. NASCAR’s road course race qualifying structure has already been announced, but nothing has been said of the remaining 34 races although the possibility exists single-car qualifying could be axed.

“Qualifying will be far different,” he said. “I thought I knew it and then Chad (Knaus, crew chief) brought me up to speed. The last I heard about it was at a town hall meeting, and then I disconnected.”

Johnson estimated he may need to “perfect things” a bit more in qualifying, rather than settling for compromise.

Of course, this availability also represented the first time the media had a chance to ask about the possibility of a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title, a storyline that will no doubt rule the headlines all of 2014.

“I haven’t put much thought into it yet,” Johnson admitted. “If the opportunity is there, that reality will be hard to put out of my mind.”

Also of note: Johnson has at least one other test scheduled before Speedweeks, and in terms of improvement, Johnson says each member of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet unit at Hendrick Motorsports can correct things year-on-year. For Johnson, he said knowing how to judge restarts – after his Dover faux pas last year – was something to work on.

He’s not a guy to rest on his laurels, and that relentless pursuit of perfection has kept him at the head of the NASCAR field year-on-year.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

Follow@KyleMLavigne