Hendrick team chases record at Sonoma

Posted: June 20, 2014

REMEMBER just a few weeks ago when observers were wondering if Jimmie Johnson would win a race before the Chase? By winning three of the last four Cup races, Johnson has those observers hiding under their laptops.

Johnson's Hendrick team will be seeking their sixth consecutive victory Sunday at Sonoma, Calif., which would tie the record for the modern era (since 1972). Johnson (three), Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have won the past five races. In 2007, Johnson (four) and Gordon (two) won six in a row for Hendrick in the Chase.

Kasey Kahne, the fourth Hendrick driver, is a Sonoma winner (2009). Earnhardt does not appear to be a contender at Sonoma: His best finish in 14 starts at the wine-country track is 11th.

Chad Knaus has been Johnson's crew chief for all 69 Sprint Cup series wins and six championships.

"We go to the racetrack every week with the hopes and the intent of winning the race and sitting on the pole and leading the most laps and doing everything we possibly can," Knaus said Sunday after Johnson's first victory at Michigan in 25 starts. "The reality is that's very difficult to achieve, so when we don't run well, I can be grumpy from time to time.

"The expectation is for us to go out there and perform on a weekly basis as the best team out there. It's the expectation of all the fans and especially all you media guys because if we falter for 2 weeks, we're washed up and we're all getting fired and everything is going crazy. So if we don't do that, that's the only way to keep you guys quiet.

"We started off [this year] a little bit slow. We said coming into it that we thought it was going to be May before we were able to hit our stride, and I think that May showed up and we started to run a little bit better."

Anyone who doesn't think the dynamic Johnson-Knaus duo will win at least a couple more races before the Chase needs a few whacks upside the head with a restrictor plate.

On the road again

Marcos Ambrose doesn't need a tweet from fans in his native Australia to know that Sunday's race in Sonoma, Calif., and Aug.10 at Watkins Glen, N.Y., are his two best chances to win this year and gain a berth in the Chase. Ambrose's only Sprint Cup victories were at the Glen, in 2011 and '12.

"Clearly there's a lot to race for at these two tracks for us," Ambrose said yesterday on a conference call. "We've put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We've done some road-course testing as well, so we feel we're as ready as we can be."

Driving the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, Ambrose is 23rd in points. His best finishes this year are fifth places at Bristol and Martinsville.

Two years ago, Ambrose set the Sonoma qualifying record (95.262 mph). Last year, Ambrose qualified second and led the second-most laps (18) before finishing seventh. Four years ago, Ambrose was leading under a late-race caution when he turned his car's engine off and on, trying to save fuel. He was penalized by NASCAR for not maintaining speed and finished sixth.

Helton's NASCAR update

Appearing on "NASCAR Race Hub" yesterday on Fox Sports 1, Mike Helton, president of the sanctioning organization, said track promoters are seeing a slight rebound in attendance at races.

Helton also said a popular veteran like Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning "brings the whole sport with it." Helton said NASCAR is not inclined to limit the number of Cup drivers entering Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series races. Cup drivers are not eligible for championships in the other two series.

Part 2 of the Helton interview will be on "Race Hub" today at 5 p.m.

Montoya back at Pocono

Juan Pablo Montoya was at Pocono Raceway on Tuesday, this time as an open-wheel racer. Montoya was testing with other Team Penske drivers preparing for the July 6 Pocono IndyCar 500.

Montoya has returned to the Verizon IndyCar series after 7 years in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

Comparing the two series, Montoya said driving an Indy car is "about a 40 mile-per-hour average [faster]. Here is the only place in NASCAR where you have to downshift. We [IndyCar] run wide-open pretty much all the way around. It's real challenging because all three corners are different."

Another test session is planned for today. Among the drivers scheduled to practice are Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz, of Andretti Autosport, Ed Carpenter and Graham Rahal. The session, which begins at 9 a.m., is free and open to the public.

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