It’s not panic time yet for still winless Jimmie Johnson, but there is cause for concern even this early in the season

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Jimmie Johnson’s magic number is now down to 18.

Still winless in 2014, Johnson isn’t in panic mode yet, but he knows what will happen if by some fluke he fails to win at least two races in the remaining 18 regular season races: he’ll likely miss the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.

What’s more, he’ll fail in his bid to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven career Cup championships this season.

It’s doubtful that Johnson won’t win between now and the final Chase qualifier at Richmond in early September. After all, this IS Jimmie Johnson we’re talking about. A win, if not two or more, is almost a given for him in the next 18 races.

Plus, that would assure he makes the Chase for sure.

But for whatever reason, Johnson keeps coming up short of victory lane in 2014. He had the race won at Fontana, only to suffer tire issues.

He had the race won at Martinsville, only to be outraced to the finish line by Kurt Busch.

He had the race won Saturday at Darlington, only to get a bad jump on the final restart and then – almost embarrassingly – having Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. be pushed to the lead by eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

While Johnson would likely give anything to be in Harvick’s place – especially since it would have been Johnson’s fourth career win at the Track Too Tough to Tame if things had worked out as he hoped – finishing third wasn’t all that bad, either.

“Yeah, (I’m) just very happy to finish there in the top three,” Johnson said. “I thought we had a shot at a win. I think if things stayed green after our last pit stop, we had a good chance at it, good shot at it. I’m happy with Chad’s decision to go with two (tires), and there were enough cars that took two that it gave us a little bit of a cushion, maybe enough of a cushion to make it four or five laps there.

“Solid performance, granted we struggled in qualifying. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old-fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop, so proud of the hard work.”

While Johnson didn’t question crew chief Chad Knaus’s decision to go with just two tires on that final pit stop, there likely is going to be a lot of second-guessing by others, particularly since Harvick was one of the few drivers near the front of the field that took four tires.

And if there’s one thing to be singled out that won it for Harvick, it was that four-tire call.

“I definitely think he has been the fastest car all year long,” Johnson said of Harvick. “You look at the races that he didn’t finish, Vegas, Texas, some tracks where they’ve been the fastest car and had issues.

“I think that Rodney (crew chief Rodney Childers) and Kevin both, they’ve really been on it to start the season, and I think we all have been chasing them, honestly.”

So where does Johnson go from here? With the upcoming off-weekend for Easter, it’ll give him and Johnson time to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going.

To hear Johnson say it, they’re very close to winning, perhaps as soon as when the series reconvenes in two weeks at Richmond.

“For us, it’s just unloading closer,” Johnson said. “We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and honestly have a shot to win some races.

“But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We’re really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we’ve learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we’ve had to continue to work on it each week. That’s really our goal is to show up closer.”

Johnson isn’t worried about getting that first win soon, or even a second win before September’s race at Richmond, which would pretty much assure him of making the Chase.

It’s good to have that kind of confidence and winning attitude.

But stranger things have happened, too. Go back to 2011. If this year’s “win to get in” changes to make the Chase were in effect back then, think of what would have happened:

* Tony Stewart would not have won the championship. Sure, Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races, but he had zero wins heading into the Chase. If the new format was around back then, Stewart wouldn’t have even made the Chase.

* What’s more, we would have been deprived of the closest championship finish in NASCAR history. Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the regular season tied for first place. But because Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one, Stewart was granted his third career Sprint Cup championship, while Edwards is still seeking his first.

And then there’s Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who is in the same winless boat as Johnson. Gordon is also likely starting to wonder what the next 18 races hold in store for him, and how he can win two races in that period as well. Consider the following:

* If Gordon doesn’t win a couple of races between now and September, being in the points lead now will ultimately mean nothing.

* Also, look at Gordon’s record over the last six seasons: in 2011, he won three races. In 2012, he won two. In 2013 and 2009, he won just one race. And in 2008 and 2010, Gordon didn’t win any races. If the new changes to the Chase format would have been in effect those last six years, Gordon would have missed the Chase at least twice and possibly as many as four times.

That’s a pretty sobering thought. And don’t think Johnson hasn’t thought about all those scenarios. While he and Gordon aren’t in a state of urgency yet, with each race that goes by, their magic number to miss the Chase will grow smaller and smaller.

And what would that do to NASCAR if its defending champion – and six-time overall champion – as well as a four-time champ both miss what NASCAR has designed to become the ultimate Chase?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.