Jimmie Johnson still looking for return to commanding form

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Jimmie Johnson started his Sprint Cup title defense with a 12th-place finish last weekend at Chicagoland, which puts him eighth in the Chase standings going into Sunday at New Hampshire.

But while he’s currently in position to advance into the next round, he knows that he and the 48 bunch need to go from good to great in order to take home a record-tying seventh Cup.

For a mid-season stretch, it appeared that Johnson had re-captured his normal degree of dominance with three wins (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Dover, and Michigan) in the span of four races. But he’s only collected two Top-5 finishes in the 12 events since that Michigan triumph in June.

Johnson feels that his team’s not far off from where they need to be, but that last little bit of performance seems to be proving hard to keep.

“The rules have changed so much,” he explained. “We feel that in some ways, the opportunity to help the car turn through the corner with this rules package and all the changes that have been made, a lot of tools have been taken away from us.

“So, I’m trying to get my head around, ‘How do I drive a tighter race car? And then, how do we get speed?’ We had it right for three races this year, so it’s in there. But, you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying in the race.

“You’re not looking for a ton – just a half a tenth to a tenth will completely turn things around. So, we’re looking for just that little sliver of speed to get back to a dominant position.”

Johnson admitted that the ability to be close but not quite up to the lofty standards that he and his team have set over the last decade has bothered them somewhat.

However, they’re far from a stage of panic.

“As the No. 48, and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be,” he said. “And we’re not where we want to be. But again, with this format of the Chase, there’s time.

“In some respects, it could be a little bit more forgiving for you, where the gross points total doesn’t determine the champion at the end of the year.

“So, we’re going to play the game that’s ahead for us and get the best we can and hopefully heat up as this Chase wears on.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”