By: Drew Hierwarter
When NASCAR instituted the “Chase for the Championship” format in 2004 the idea was to bring some excitement to the final ten races of the season. Before that the championship usually came down to only two cars for the last few events of the year, and NASCAR’s thinking was that if they created a sort of “playoff” with adjusted points there would be more cars with a chance to win as the season came to a conclusion. And, for the first couple of years that’s exactly what they got. But as an unintended consequence, some teams began to rethink their strategies throughout the “regular” season and geared their programs to peak during the ten race “playoff” at the end of the year. One of the best at this was the Hendrick Motorsports #48 team led by crew chief Chad Knaus. And after winning two consecutive NASCAR Championships, this team now has the procedure down to a science and they are, in racing terms; “stinking up the show.”
In this space last week I warned that the fat lady was warming up. During the pre-race show before this Sunday’s Atlanta 500, TV analyst and team owner Brad Daugherty advised NASCAR that they might as well go ahead and, “. . .print the shirts, print the hats, and start engraving the trophy”. And if anybody needed any evidence that his confidence in Jimmy Johnson and that team’s ability to win a history making third consecutive championship was misplaced, they only had to wait a couple of hours while the events of the race unfolded.
Johnson took the green flag from the pole position and led for the first twenty laps or so when he was passed by Carl Edwards. Jimmie stayed near the front, led again, and it looked like it would be smooth sailing. Then, while making a green flag pit stop on lap 90, Jimmie Johnson made an uncharacteristic mistake. He got caught speeding on pit road and the resulting pass-through penalty left him in 30th place one lap down. Maybe this championship wasn’t a done deal after all?
But when adversity strikes, champions don’t panic, they don’t get excited and make more mistakes, they just put their heads down, lean into it, and go to work. And that’s exactly what these guys did. They gradually worked their way through lapped traffic, and got themselves in position to get the free pass when the caution flew on lap 131. Now back on the lead lap, Johnson went back to work and in combination with some excellent pit stops by the crew was near the top ten when the final caution flag of the race flew for debris on lap 312.
It was at this point that crew chief Chad Knaus took a gamble and brought Johnson in for fresh tires with less than ten laps to go. Throughout the race it was shown that new tires were worth as much as a full second per lap and since none of the leaders could take a chance on giving up track position to come in, Knaus made the call. The green flew again with 8 laps to go and, in Knaus’ own words Johnson, “. . . drove the crap out of the car.” Passing two and three cars per lap, Johnson made it all the way to second and was gaining on race winner Carl Edwards as they passed under the checkered flag.
By winning the race, Carl Edwards did all he could do to keep his hopes for a championship alive, but he still needed Johnson to have poor finish. And when he was told that Johnson had come in second during the victory lane interview, his disappointment was visible. Instead it was contenders Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton who had bad days and fell even farther behind, each dropping one position.
Because they battled back from adversity, the #48 team actually extended their lead from 149 points going into the Atlanta race, to 183 points coming out. They now have more than one race in hand which means that next week in Texas, if Carl Edwards wins again, and Johnson finishes last, they would still retain the lead. But don’t look for that to happen.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and any number of other clichés you can think of would fit here. The fact remains that the Chad Knaus/Jimmie Johnson #48 team has a history of doing exactly what they did Sunday in Atlanta. They dig down and deliver when they have to and they appear to be headed for their third consecutive championship and there’s not much anybody can do to stop them.
Memo to the trophy shop: J-I-M-M-I-E J-O-H-N-S-O-N