Jimmie Johnson replaced by Jose Maria Lopez for Twelve Hours of Sebring

Jimmie Johnson Sebring
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Jimmie Johnson will miss the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring because of a conflict with the NTT IndyCar Series, the Action Express team confirmed Thursday.

Jose Maria Lopes will replace Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac, joining Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller for the March 19 race at Sebring International Raceway. It’s the same lineup (with Johnson) that raced the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but Johnson had been announced as racing the four IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Endurance Cup races with Kobayashi and Rockenfelller.

But Johnson faced virtually impossible logistics in trying to race in the same weekend at Sebring and Texas Motor Speedway, where he will make his IndyCar oval debut March 20 (ahead of his first attempt at the Indy 500 as he moves to a full schedule in 2022).

The schedule conflict apparently will preclude any IndyCar drivers from racing at Sebring. After using three IndyCar drivers in its Rolex 24 lineups, Chip Ganassi Racing announced Tuesday that Ryan Hunter-Reay would join one of its Cadillacs at Sebring in a spot that had been ticketed for Scott Dixon.

“I was really looking forward to going back and racing the Ally Cadillac at Sebring,” Johnson, who initially planned to commute between Florida and Texas, said in a release. “We had a great run there last season and were in contention for the win for most of the race. José María is an excellent driver, and he will do great. I know the team’s experienced, and they can get the Ally Cadillac up on the podium, hopefully the top step.”

It will be a busy weekend at Sebring for Lopez and Kobayashi, who are racing in the FIA World Endurance Championship eight-hour race a day earlier at the track.

“It was great to be a part of the Ally Cadillac team at Daytona 24,” Lopez said in a release. “I was very proud of the team effort and how Jimmie, Mike, and Kamui drove in the race. Things just didn’t go our way. We had good pace. It was my first experience at Daytona and racing in America. It was much better than what I expected. I was happy with my performance in the car.

“This is a plus. I was planning to be in Sebring anyway, unfortunately Jimmie isn’t able to do both IndyCar and IMSA at the same time. I will be there for the first WEC race. We race on Friday with Toyota and then I will cross the garage and race on Saturday in the Ally Cadillac. I am really thankful for the opportunity to drive again with Action Express Racing and hopefully me, Mike and Kamui can deliver a good result.”

Action Express general manager Gary Nelson said Lopez had been part of contingency plans since the Sebring-Texas conflict appeared when the series announced their 2022 schedules last year.

“It was really an easy decision to bring in José María,” Nelson said. “He ran with us at Daytona, did all the testing leading up to the Rolex, so slotting him in was a no-brainer. He and Kamui are running the WEC race as well. But they are fit, and I think the extra laps at Sebring can only help us come race day for our Ally Cadillac effort in the 12-hour race. We will miss Jimmie and wish him all the best in Texas.”

Johnson made an eventful debut at Sebring last season. After crashing in qualifying and spinning 15 minutes into the race, he rebounded to lead the race. But the No. 48 team had a podium finish stripped because of a drive time penalty.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.