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

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500