Johnson: Chase pressure set to ramp up in Contender Round

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For defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the favorites in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the goal of the Challenger Round was simply to avoid being eliminated.

But with the Contender Round beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway – and said round ending with an elimination race at the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway – Johnson figures the pressure to win races and advance to the next round will go up from here on in.

“I feel like for a lot of the Chasers in that first round of the event, you just really kind of had to be ahead of that bottom four,” he said today at Kansas Speedway. “And then we all moved on. And as we get closer to Homestead, I think the intensity for the Chasers is going to start multiplying a bunch as we go.

“I think it starts here. With Talladega at the end of this block, I think the pressure is really going to start ramping up for everybody.”

From the end of last weekend’s Challenger Round finale at Dover, Johnson has stressed how important it will be for himself and the remaining Chasers to score a win either at Kansas or next weekend at Charlotte to avoid the stress of having to survive Talladega in order to reach the Eliminator Round (Top 8).

Johnson feels confident that he can accomplish that mission, which isn’t unreasonable of him considering that he won the Coke 600 at Charlotte back in May. As for Kansas, he expects track position to play a major role in the outcome due to a racing groove that isn’t as wide as some other tracks.

“It puts a huge importance on today in qualifying and the pit road pick,” Johnson said of this afternoon’s qualifying session, slated to begin around 5:45 p.m. ET. “And then when you get in the race, the strategy. We saw a lot of two-tire stuff when we were in the spring and I would imagine it would be the same. So, track position is really going to be the name of the game.”

Johnson is also helped by a decent mental outlook when it comes to Kansas. He’s had a lot of success there and while some drivers may despise the tricky 1.5-mile oval, he usually enters the heartland with a good idea of where he wants to be over the course of the weekend.

“I think we’ve had examples of tracks and drivers over the years that some people just don’t like going to them and that black cloud follows them around and they have a bad day,” he said. “It’s one small piece, I think, of our success and our championships is that the races in the Chase have been good tracks for us. And we show up with smiles on our faces and we kind of know what we’re looking for if we’re off base.”

Kyle Busch interests McLaren for Indy 500, but team is leaning toward experience

McLaren Indy Kyle Busch
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With Arrow McLaren SP heavily weighing a fourth car for the Indy 500 next year, Kyle Busch is a candidate but not at the top of the IndyCar team’s list.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown addressed the possibility Wednesday morning during a video news conference with Gavin Ward, the team’s newly named racing director.

“I have not personally spoken with Kyle Busch, but you can read into that that someone else in our organization has,” Brown said. “We want to make sure if we run a fourth car, we’re in the mindset that we want someone that is experienced around the 500. It’s such an important race, and from a going for the championship point of view, we’ve got three drivers that we want to have finish as strong as possible, so if we ran a fourth car, we’d want to be additive, not only for the fourth car itself, but to the three cars and so bringing in someone who’s not done it before potentially doesn’t add that value from an experience point of view.”

Busch will race the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing next season in NASCAR under a new deal that will allow the two-time Cup Series champion to make his Indy 500 debut. Busch, who had a previous deal to run the Indy 500 nixed by Joe Gibbs Racing, openly courted Chevy IndyCar teams to contact him during his introductory news conference with RCR last month.

After Team Penske (which has given no indications of a fourth car at Indy alongside champion Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), McLaren is the second-best Chevy organization, and it’s fielded an extra Indy 500 car the past two years for Juan Pablo Montoya. The Associated Press reported last month that McLaren was in “serious conversation” about running Busch at Indy with Menards sponsorship.

But with its restructured management, the team is in the midst of significant expansion for 2023. AMSP is adding a third full-time car for 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi to team with Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist, and a massive new shop also is being built in the Indianapolis area.

“(It’s) not because of him but purely because of experience,” Brown said of Busch. “He’s an awesome talent and would be huge, huge news for the speedway. But yeah, I think everyone is under consideration if we decide to do it, but experience is right at the top of the list as far as what’s going to be the most important to us.”

And it seems likely there will be a veteran joining Rossi, O’Ward and Rosenqvist at the Brickyard.

“A fourth car at the 500 is very much under consideration,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t even want to get ahead of ourselves, but we wouldn’t be ruling out a fourth car in the future on a full-time basis. That definitely wouldn’t be for ’23. But as we expand the team and get into larger facilities and things of that nature, it’s something that Gavin and I have spoken about.

“I think we would be in a position to run a fourth car at the 500 this upcoming year. If we do decide to do that, we’ll make that decision soon for maximum preparation, and I would say we’re open minded to a fourth car in ’24 and beyond and probably will make that decision middle of next year in time to be prepared if we did decide to do that.”

Brown also addressed the future of Alex Palou, who will be racing for Chip Ganassi Racing next season after also signing a deal with McLaren. Though Brown declined to get into specifics about whether Palou had signed a new deal, he confirmed Palou will continue to test “our Formula One car from time to time.

“Everyone has reached an amicable solution,” Brown said. “We’ve now had Alex in our Formula One car as we have Pato. That will continue in the future, which we’re quite excited about. At this point we’re laser-focused on 2023 and glad to have the noise behind us and now just want to put our head down and get on with the job with the three drivers we have.”