Roger Diez: Jimmie Johnson enjoys his time at Atlanta | NevadaAppeal.com

Roger Diez: Jimmie Johnson enjoys his time at Atlanta

Roger Diez
For the Nevada Appeal

Jimmie Johnson had an excellent day last Sunday in the NASCAR Sprint Cup 500-miler at Atlanta. Not only did he punch his ticket to the Chase with his fifth Atlanta win, but he tied the legendary Dale Earnhardt’s tally of 76 career victories.

Johnson held off his own teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a charging Kyle Busch on the final restart after taking the lead on the last round of pit stops with a gutsy call by crew chief/race strategist Chad Knauss. Johnson pitted in several laps earlier than the rest of the field and was concerned about tire wear, but it worked out just fine. Not so strategic was Matt Kenseth’s crew chief Jason Ratcliff, who failed to bring Matt in on a black flag for a pit violation, resulting in the loss of two laps. The new low downforce aero package mandated at intermediate tracks by NASCAR this season seemed to improve the racing, although it made it tougher on the drivers. Even so, the race ran green for most of the 500 miles, and only a dozen cars were on the lead lap at the checker.

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NASCAR begins its western swing this weekend at Las Vegas, followed by Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. will be without crew chief Cole Pearn and docked 15 driver and owner points as a result of a P3 level penalty at Atlanta. Pearn is out for one race and on probation until the end of the year. Fines and crew chief probations also were issued for all the Richard Childress Racing teams as well as Brad Keselowski’s No. 2, A.J. Allmendinger’s No. 47, and the No. 95 of Michael McDowell.

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Sunday’s race will feature the low downforce package, but the Las Vegas oval has considerably more grip than Atlanta. Last week’s winner Johnson leads all active drivers with four wins at the Sin City oval. Carl Edwards has scored two victories there, and Kevin Harvick made his first and only trip to Vegas’ victory lane last year. Johnson leads the Vegas driver ratings with 111.9 with Kyle Busch second at 103.4. Also scoring high are Harvick, Kenseth, Biffle, Edwards, and Junior. It should be an interesting race.

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The start of the 2016 IndyCar season is just a week away. There will be some new faces on the grid at St. Petersburg as well as two returning drivers. Mikhail Aleshin is back, driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports after being sidelined by an accident at the end of the 2014 season. He ran the final round at Sonoma last year, but is back full time for the upcoming season. James Hinchcliffe is also back in the seat driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Hinch was injured in a practice crash for the 2015 Indy 500 and missed the remainder of the season. New faces for 2016 are Spencer Pigot, moving up from Indy Lights to join Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Former Formula 1 driver Max Chilton, who ran in Indy Lights last season, will drive for Chip Ganassi. Alexander Rossi, part time F1 driver in 2015, will join Andretti Autosport this season. Jeff Brabham, third generation racer and grandson of three-time Formula 1 champion Jack Brabham, is slated to compete at Indy only for KVSH racing. Finally, Bryan Clauson, USAC Sprint Car champion, midget and stock car ace and two-time Indy 500 entrant will race for Dale Coyne Racing full time in 2016.

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This past week Indycar conducted tests at both Phoenix and Sebring. Penske drivers took three of the top four test times at Phoenix on Friday and Saturday, led by Helio Castroneves. Teammate Will Power set second-fastest time before his engine expired. Several teams were at Sebring to shake down their cars on Tuesday with rookies Rossi and Pigot coming to grips with their new rides and veterans from the Penske, Andretti, and KVSH teams tuning up for St. Pete.

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Formula One was back at Barcelona for their second test session, and Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg topped the charts on day one with Williams’ Valtteri Bottas second. Bottas was fastest on Day two, followed by Rosberg’s teammate Lewis Hamilton.