After slow 2014 start, Johnson, #48 team firing on all cylinders

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The free-for-all has given way to familiarity.

The first seven races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series produced seven different winners, and by Memorial Day weekend, that number had grown to nine.

Missing among those winners was Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion.

But while we fretted over if and when he would get on the board in 2014, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team stayed calm.

Constantly maintaining that he felt no pressure to win, Johnson may have come off like a broken record to some in the early months of the season.

But he knew that his team would figure out the new rules package. He knew that he’d return to form. And in hindsight, we all knew that too.

Now he’s rattled off three wins in the last four Sprint Cup points races, taking over the top seed on the current Chase grid. The Memorial Day weekend win at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 broke open the dam, and has led to his ninth career Dover triumph and now, his first-ever victory at the Michigan International Speedway.

No doubt this familiarity will breed some contempt among the NASCAR fan base who are sick of all things Johnson after years of his dominance of the sport.

But no matter. The 48 team doesn’t care. They’re NASCAR’s answer to the San Antonio Spurs (and yes, I know I’m not the only writer to make that comparison).

They just want to win, they’d prefer to do it with class, and they’ve been together long enough to know success and failure – and that the opinions of the outside world don’t really matter.

“We’ve lost races together. We’ve lost championships together. And certainly we’ve had success,” Johnson said Sunday. “But 69 wins and six championships out of 13 years of racing is a pretty small percentage.

“Some of the losses you have are — you got what you could that day and you went on, but a lot of those losses in there sting, and I think experience through those moments make us stronger and better.

“Everybody knows about 2005 and the milk and cookies meeting that Rick had with us.  I think from that moment on, we were able to be more comfortable, oddly enough, in our own skin, and as a part of Team 48.  Nobody is going anywhere. We’re in this thing together, and we are Team 48.”

In such situations, you build up a lot of trust. It’s that trust that allowed Johnson to sense what crew chief Chad Knaus had up his sleeve heading into what proved to be their final stop with 35 laps remaining.

“When he pulled me to pit lane and the gap that I had over the second spot at that time, I knew that four [tires] would be the call,” said Johnson, who was leading at the time.

“You may as well put four on if you’ve got time for it.  He made that call and got out on the track…Just going off the tone of his voice and what he was asking me to do with the car, and he kept asking me to save my tires in case there was a caution. I knew we were good on fuel, so that gave me a lot of optimism.

“And then honestly, once we had our four tires on and fuel in our car, if the caution came out, I still think we were golden.  We had enough [fuel] to go the distance whereas everybody else was short.”

But Johnson didn’t have to worry about a caution. The race stayed green for those final 35 laps, and as car after car pitted, Johnson kept moving forward until he finally reclaimed the lead with nine laps left.

Of course, Johnson’s been known to have on-track problems ruin his day at Michigan, so it wasn’t signed, sealed, and delivered at that point. But this time, the car held up and it was his day at last in the Irish Hills.

However, even though Johnson and the 48 team have overcome their early-season performance issues, Knaus believes that there’s still some tightening up to do.

“The fact of the matter is I think we’ve got to be a little bit better,” he said. “Last week, [Hendrick Motorsports] were a whisker away from losing that one.  This weekend, maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one.

“We’ve got to continue to improve our product so by the time we get to the Chase, we’re where we need to be.”

Funny…It sure looks like they’re at that point right now, doesn’t it?

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry. Time just published a brief piece by Wallace saluting Hamilton as a trailblazer.

The idea of Hamilton attending the NASCAR season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it would seem right for Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — to spend some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).