TORONTO - As clear as anything can be after just two of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, it is becoming more and more possible that Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign is over.
Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team has had a pair of bad outings to start the Chase, with a 10th-place finish at Chicagoland and a 18th-place finish at New Hampshire.
That puts him back in ninth place, 29 points behind surprise leader Tony Stewart.
But going into the third race at Dover this week, Johnson still thinks that the team has lots of time to turn things around.
He can point to the 2006 Chase where he was also ninth on the deptth chart after the first race and only seventh at the half way point, yet he managed to win that year.
“My optimism is still high,” Johnson said after the race at New Hampshire. “We didn’t get the result (we wanted), but if you look at Chicago where we were last week, we didn’t get the finish that we should have had, but we had a ton of speed and there are a lot of 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit.
“These first two races did not start as we had hoped that they would, but with eight to go, there’s still a lot that can happen.”
He said that he still has the experience of a five-time champion on his side and that will be a very important factor going down the stretch.
Johnson certainly showed that last season, when he trailed Denny Hamlin right up until the final race at Homestead yet managed to pull out another trophy.
“Past experience really helps with the mental side of it going into the next event and for my guys,” he said. “So (New Hampshire) was definitely not the day that we wanted, but we’ll come back strong next week.”
Of concern to Johnson fans is the bickering — absent for the most part the past five seasons — between the driver and crew chief Chad Knaus that was on display at Loudon.
Johnson was harshly critical of the way Knaus was “cheerleading” on the team radio during the race.
“Dude, you’re cheerleading is terrible,” Johnson said. “I’m going to drive my ass off. Don’t sweat it, just watch. It’s actually annoying instead of helping, so just let me go out and do my thing.”
While it would be foolish to write off Johnson’s chances for a sixth consecutive title just yet, the champion is taking an eight count early in this season’s Chase.
STEWART GETS PERSONAL
Tony Stewart left everybody guessing — including his own team — after he credited his win in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway to “dropping some dead weight” in his personal life.
When pressed afterwards what he meant by his comment on network television, Stewart clammed up, saying only: “It is what it is ... We’re just going to leave it at that.”
Some have speculated it has to do with ending his long-time relationship with World of Outlaws and Sprint car racer Jessica Zemken.
Zemken, who is a semi-regular at Ontario’s Ohsweken Speedway near Brantford, was reported to be engaged to the NASCAR superstar at one point earlier this season.
SLAP ON WRIST FOR HELIO
In the end, all Helio Castroneves got was a slap on the wrist for calling IZOD IndyCar race director Brian Barnhart “a circus clown” after the Japan Indy at Motegi.
Castroneves was fined $30,000 US on Tuesday, but will be able to pay it off in kind by making a series of public appearances for the open-wheel loop.
In a statement IndyCar said: “Castroneves was penalized for use of improper, profane or disparaging language in reference to officials for comments he made toward the Race Director via Twitter after he was penalized for passing under a local yellow on the final lap on the 2.983-mile road course.”
THIS JOHNSTON A WINNER
With a pair of top-10 finishes last weekend in the Formula F1600 Championship Series at Connecticut’s Lime Rock Park Canada’s Caitlin Johnston finds herself in third position in the title hunt.
“I met all of my goals of the weekend,” the 23-year-old from Orangeville, Ont., said. “We were fast, consistent and made huge gains.”
Johnston has been doing double duty this season, also competing in the CASC-OR Formula Libre division that races at Mosport International Raceway and Shannonville Motorsports Park.
She leads the points parade in that championship.
A practice run for a coming charity race was nearly disastrous for Katie Kenseth on Monday at Charolotte Motor Speedway. The wife of Sprint Cup star Matt Kensneth was driving a Bandolero — essentially a souped-up GoKart — when she crashed into the pit road wall. She suffered bumps, briuses and a broken collar bone. “That didn’t turn out so well,” Matt tweeted. “Katie and I are home, she has a broken scapula and some bumps and bruises.” As for Katie’s future in racing? Kenseth addressed that too: “She said that was the shortest racing career in history.”
So when the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars get to Talladega Superspeedway in three week’s time, there will be new rules in place to make the racing more interesting.
Or that’s what the good bosses at NASCAR wants us to believe.
Teams will get more horsepower — at least 10 hp more according to the engineers — with larger restrictor plates but a smaller release valve that will make the engines prone to overheating.
Both are designed to rid the Talladega and Daytona 2.5-mile banked ovals of the two-by-two racing that has by and large been panned by both drivers and spectators.
But most everyone agrees that these moves alone won’t stop the totally irritating tandem racing.
What needs to be done is to go back to the smaller restrictor plates that pull the cars together, returning plate racing to 20-25 car packs that, while a recipe for the mass wrecks, nonetheless provided the maximum excitement on the big tracks.
The other alternative is to go back to no restrictor plates at all and have cars flying around Talladega at 225 m.p.h. in one long line.
And I don’t think anyone wants a return to that kind of racing.
TAGLIANI DESERVES BETTER TREATMENT
The biggest racing lie of the week award goes to Sam Schmidt Motorsports and its announcement this week that Alex Tagliani was onside with being replaced in the No. 77 Bowers & Wilkins Dallara by Dan Wheldon for the Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.
Wheldon, winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500, is trying to win the $5-million bonus the IZOD IndyCar Series is offering if a non-regular driver can win the final event of the season at Las Vegas.
He will be driving a MMS car with support from Brian Herta Racing.
MMS issued a release stating that Wheldon needed some prep time in the car before Las Vegas.
Tagliani said he wasn’t overjoyed with being shunted aside, but supported the move.
“I’m obviously not happy about sitting out Kentucky, but this is a very exciting opportunity,” Tagliani is reported to have said. “Dan and I are good friends, and I’m very jealous that he gets to run for the $5 million. But I fully support what IndyCar has done to generate fan interest and will do everything I can to help the SSM team run Dan in Kentucky and prepare for the Go Daddy Challenge. I’m out to win the Vegas race, as well, and won’t back off one bit, so Dan will be on his own when the green flag drops.”
Don’t believe one word of that statement. Knowing Tagliani for more than a decade I suspect he is seething — and he should be — at being taken out of his seat.
After all he has been the heart and soul of that team all season long and has brought Sam Schmidt his greatest achievement — the Indy 500 pole.
Tagliani deserves to be treated much better.