Chase Capsules: Jimmie Johnson

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48 – Jimmie Johnson
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championships: 6 (2006-’10, 2013)
Chase History: 11th Chase Appearance, Best finish of 1st (2006-‘10, 2013)

Regular Season Recap: The regular season for JJ? Your typical “He hasn’t won yet!” through the first 11 races angst, followed by “Were we really just talking about the 48 being winless?” after three wins in the next four races, and capped off with “It’s the 48’s annual pre-Chase four-race slump!” with finishes of 42nd, 42nd, 14th, 39th and 28th from Daytona through Watkins Glen. What does it all mean? Not much has changed, and Johnson and Knaus continue as the most effective partnership heading into the Chase. His Dover win was his most dominant performance; Martinsville was also a Johnson tour de force before ending second behind Kurt Busch. Wins in the Chase at those two tracks will be his 10th and ninth, respectively.

Chris’ Take: Johnson, Chad Knaus and the 48 camp always seem to run like clockwork when everything is on the line. They can win pretty much anywhere in the Chase, and even if they don’t win, they’re capable of being front-runners all the way through. And you don’t expect them to have self-inflicted problems, so that just leaves Johnson having to keep his nose clean on the track. If he does that, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the Championship at Homestead-Miami.

Jerry’s Take: It’s hard to put Jimmie Johnson and “flying under the radar” in the same sentence, but that sure seems to be the case with the six-time champ in 2014. Sure, he’s won three races, but he really hasn’t had the kind of standout season to date that he typically has. Is he holding back or sandbagging? Who knows. But one thing is for certain: Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have to significantly pick up their game in the Chase.

While they’ve found a way to do that in six of the last eight seasons, this year could be the hardest title bid for the duo, as there are four more drivers to contend with and a reinvigorated Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. While we see Johnson reaching the final four, we do not see six-time becoming seven-time after Homestead.

Tony’s Take: The only thing that prevents Johnson from making it through the knockout stages of the 2014 Chase is the No. 48 team themselves, with bad pit stops or getting caught up in someone else’s misfortune. Although he hasn’t won at Chicago before, he still has been consistent, with 10 top-10s in 12 starts there. New Hampshire is a good track for the team and Dover, as mentioned, is one of his best.

A solid run of top-10s through those three should move him forward, and from there he can pounce. The new Chase format, in part, was designed to prevent one driver walking away from the field in the Chase races, but it remains hard to bet against Johnson and the No. 48 crew, whatever the format is. Should be advancing fairly deep once more.

Jimmie Johnson’s Career Statistics at Chase Tracks
Chicagoland (1.5 mile) – No wins, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10s in 12 starts
New Hampshire (1 mile) – Three wins, 9 Top-5s, 17 Top-10s in 25 starts
Dover (1 mile) – Nine wins, 13 Top-5s, 18 Top-10s in 25 starts
Kansas (1.5 mile) – Two wins, 6 Top-5, 14 Top-10s in 16 starts
Charlotte (1.5 mile) – Seven wins, 13 Top-5s, 17 Top-10s in 26 starts
Talladega (2.66 mile) – Two wins, 6 Top-5s, 10 Top-10s in 25 starts
Martinsville (half-mile) – Eight wins, 18 Top-5s, 22 Top-10s in 25 starts
Texas (1.5-mile) – Three wins, 10 Top-5s, 16 Top-10s in 22 starts
Phoenix (1 mile) – Four wins, 14 Top-5s, 18 Top-10s in 22 starts
Homestead-Miami (1.5 mile) – No wins, 4 Top-5, 8 Top-10s in 13 starts

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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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.

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