The Frontstretch: Is Anyone Even Willing To Challenge The 48 Team? by Kurt Smith -- Friday October 2, 2009

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Is Anyone Even Willing To Challenge The 48 Team?

Kurt Smith · Friday October 2, 2009

 

Watching Jimmie Johnson dominate a race is like being around that relative or co-worker whose conversation is so monotone and boring that you almost instantaneously tune out as they begin to speak. This last week’s race was one of the most boring I’ve seen at the Monster Mile, but NASCAR isn’t blameworthy for it. With all apologies to 48 fans, a dominating Jimmie Johnson win just bores the snot out of me.

It’s not Jimmie’s fault either. His team is doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Jimmie doesn’t cause fireworks, he doesn’t lose his temper on camera, and he doesn’t take other drivers out with hard bump and runs. He doesn’t give fans much of a reason to hate him other than beating their drivers all the time. He just wins, and wins, and wins.

My buddy Vito’s recent column notwithstanding, I am fully confident after watching the first couple of Chase races that the 48 team is once again clicking on all cylinders when it counts the most, and barring bad luck or blown engines, to win a championship this year someone is going to have to beat them.

Oh, sure, they could go into a slump, right? Go ahead, place your bets. I’ll give you very friendly odds. In the last three seasons, the 48 team averaged an 11.6 place finish in the first 26 races and an incredible 7.2 finish in the last 10. In the last two seasons, the 48 car has averaged a 5.0 and 5.7 place finish in Chase races—and keep in mind that Jimmie was racing only to finish in the season finale last year. Read that again…Jimmie Johnson averages a fifth place finish in Chase races. Only one driver has performed better in a Chase than Jeff Gordon did in 2007…and that was Jimmie Johnson in 2007. The 48 team has 15 wins in 52 Chase races, or about 29% of them.

It is Jimmie Johnson’s ability on the track and the effort of Chad Knaus on the pit box that makes the No. 48 team so seemingly invincible on the track.

Still want to bet against a guy who is likely to win twice more this season?

Johnson deserves all the credit in the world for his driving skills. But it’s the combination of his ability on the track and the effort of the guy on the pit box that makes this team so seemingly invincible on the track. Chad Knaus exemplifies genius as defined by no less of one than Thomas Edison: as 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Knaus puts winning cars under Jimmie Johnson because no one outworks him. If you want an idea why Jeff Gordon was so great in the 90s, listen to Jeff talk about Ray Evernham’s work ethic.

There was talk a couple of years ago about the comparison between Knaus and the current crew chief of the 24 car, Steve Letarte. Knaus was characterized as a neurotic who spends every waking moment of the day thinking about how to make his driver faster, whereas Letarte has a more laid back attitude and usually reaches a point in the day where he shuts the brain off. That is probably exaggerated, but Knaus and Letarte will tell you it’s true to an extent. This isn’t to say Letarte is a goldbrick. He isn’t anything of the sort. He wouldn’t last at Hendrick Motorsports if he was. Letarte himself has said that he’ll stack up his work ethic against anyone in the garage, except for Knaus.

There’s your difference between three titles and three years of falling short.

I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Knaus make the wrong call in the pits late in the race and still have a few fingers left over. I could probably think of many more instances when the 48 car had a problem early on in the race that put them on the ropes, only to bounce back and get in the top 5 or even win before the day was out. When that happens so consistently, it isn’t luck, unless you define luck as opportunity meeting preparation. Knaus prepares for every situation on every track—and he and Jimmie well know that where a car is running on lap 50 doesn’t matter. Similarly, the team seems content to run well enough to comfortably make the Chase, and then smoke everyone when the green flag falls at Loudon.

And Chad can out-think NASCAR’s rule makers too…something they haven’t taken too kindly to. The rulebook is thicker because of him. No car in the garage is more scrutinized. Call it cheating if you want. But it’s more likely that other crew chiefs probably envy Knaus’s ability to think outside of an ever-shrinking box. Knaus has been busted several times for going over the line. But so have many other crew chiefs. Only the winners seem to be so well-known for bending the rule book.

It’s a workload to be a Sprint Cup crew chief just by itself, and it’s probably tough enough on psyches and marriages to make it not worth the effort to most. It eventually overwhelmed Robbie Loomis, who left the championship 24 team to take a position as a Director of Something Racing Related That Doesn’t Involve 20 Hour Days at Petty Enterprises so that he could have some free time. To be a champion crew chief requires a level of effort that can and does make the best in this sport blink. As was said in As A Man Thinketh, he who would achieve must sacrifice, and he who would achieve greatly must sacrifice greatly.

Some years back Tiger Woods was compared to Phil Mickelson. Mickelson, though an all-time great golfer, was not as willing to devote his entire life to perfecting his golf game the way Woods was and still is. Mickelson eventually did win a Masters, but Woods is going to be the all-time greatest until someone else sacrifices even more sleep to the goal of becoming the greatest golfer that ever lived.

If you’re a fan of such a team or a golfer, it is a most impressive and exciting thing to behold. If you pull for one of their opponents, it is frustrating to no end, at times causing even fans to throw in the towel and quit watching.

I’m not suggesting for a second, of course, that Darian Grubb and Alan Gustafson and Pat Tryson and Bob Osborne aren’t among the hardest working people in America or in the world. The racing life is not for anyone who wants to spend time doing anything else. Everyone in this sport knows that. And it just makes the 48 team’s work ethic that much more impressive. Even in this day and age of parity in NASCAR like there never has been, the Lowe’s car can still manage to stink up the show, and effectively extinguish the excitement that the Chase was supposed to create.

So someone is going to have to out-think and out-work Chad Knaus…and give up everything else in life, maybe even a happy marriage, to do it. Every season that the 48 team has been in existence they have challenged for titles, with nothing more or less than extra perspiration. Scene Daily some time ago questioned whether it bothered Chad not having a wife and children as he approaches 40. The answer was an unqualified no. How many people can accept that as the price for excellence in any vocation?

Why does Chad work so hard? Why does he regularly put in 80 hours a week on the job? It’s simple. Because he wants to be a racer. And he believes this is what it takes. Be faster than the other guy or get the hell out of the way.

It may bore a lot of people to watch it, myself included, but when the dust clears and the record books are written, it’s going to be pretty danged impressive.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Did you ever think you’d see the day when a race team bearing Richard Petty’s name would be discussing business with the royal family of a country where Christians are not allowed to practice their faith? Or even better, can you believe someone thought of it before Brian France did?
  • Speaking of Mr. France, John Daly over at the Daly Planet discussed his latest “all is well” press conference, and he quotes Jim Hunter telling the Boston Globe that the Chase was solely Brian’s idea and even Bill Jr. thought it was nuts. I wonder if Big Bill said the same thing to Bill Jr. about restrictor plates.
  • Despite the strong performances in the first couple of Chase races, I don’t seriously see Juan and the 42 team making a run at the title. But I wonder what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. thinks when a car that partially belongs to Teresa laps him.
  • Kansas (the band) is going to be playing a pre-race show at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Always was a big fan of songs like “Magnum Opus”, “Song For America”, and “Mysteries And Mayhem”, but I hope they won’t be relying too heavily on material from the post-“Point of Know Return” era, like they did the one time I saw them live.

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Lunar Tunes
10/02/2009 01:08 AM
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“Watching Jimmie Johnson dominate a race is like being around that relative or co-worker whose conversation is so monotone and boring that you almost instantaneously tune out as they begin to speak.”

Yeah, kind of like journalists blathering on about how the chase is over already. One paragraph was enough for me (cept to come down here and post)

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
10/02/2009 06:24 AM
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I didn’t say the Chase was over Lunar. Just that the winning team is going to have to beat the 48 team. Disagree?

josie
10/02/2009 07:12 AM
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I think alot of the problem with the Johnson/Knaus combo is the “cheating” factor. In the past Knaus has had the stigma..and it has turned alot of fans off. And to add insult to injury it has come out today the 5 and 48 were “too close” on tolerances and were told not to bring their Dover cars back to the track. So..as a fan..am I to believe they were cheating??? It’s black or white..you either can race a car or not..and since NASCAR has said no more racing for the 48 and 5 Dover cars..to me this indicates cheating..but no fines, penalties or sanctions were handed out. Seems there is a “former” car owner out there who was fined big points and $200,000 for a VERY minor engine tolerance who would take issue with NASCAR and the “kid glove” treatment of the 48 and 5 cars! Did NASCAR let this “minor” tolerance go by so the new Hendrick movie wouldn’t lose money at the box office .. or because 4 championships in a row is just too good a story for NASCAR to take a chance it may not happen if they fine “Superman”??? Just the fact the question is in the wind makes the air smell quite bad … and to me the “Chase” has been tainted.

Dans Mom
10/02/2009 07:27 AM
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Kurt,
Looney Lunar only read one paragraph, he didn’t put in the time to read the whole article. Kind of ironic – considering the topic.

Corporate America breeds 80 hour work days, and a dog-eat-dog world. But Knaus and Johnson have quite a carrot driving them. In a way, it can serve as inspiration to us educators, civil service, and other less compensated and appreciated occupations. Sometimes a little competition goes a long way, but in the end it comes down to accountability. And accountability comes from the top.

There’s hard work in all areas of NASCAR. Kyle Petty does considerable charity work – (and Michael Waltrips repair shop has some of the hardest working folks in NASCAR). And that gives us all something to identify with and root for. Well, those of us hardworking, inspired folks following the American Dream….

Mark
10/02/2009 09:23 AM
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I’ll be darned , Johnsons team caught cheating !! We never saw that coming .
I’ll make some random points here concerning your column .
Jimmy Johnson isn’t known for taking out other drivers ? Ole Jimmy has caused numerous giant wrecks with boneheaded moves , like at Talladega for example .
Knaus has been busted several times ?? Try numerous times , and he holds the distinction of being suspended more times than any crew chief in history . Your hero worship of Knaus leaves out one pretty important fact . There are a number of crew chiefs who have won as many or more championships as Knaus . Inman , Shelmerdine , Nab , the list goes on . Knaus is only the best in your eyes . And as for hard working crew chiefs , i don’t think that has much to do with the success of the 48 .
Richard Petty Motorsports was over some years ago . Richards own son bailed out because of the mess that the “ King “ had made of a one time dynasty . As is often the case in sports , Richard traded his name and reputation for money , and to keep himself in the spotlight .

dawg
10/02/2009 10:58 AM
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If watching JJ dominate a race “just bores the snot out of you.
I’d suggest you run to Costco, Sams, or some such, & stock up on Kleenex.

Michael
10/02/2009 11:14 AM
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Is anyone even willing to challenge the 48 team ? No , every top team in Cup gave up long ago . They realize they have no chance at all against the 5th best driver and the 4th best crew chief . Although there is one bright spot . If NASCAR steps up their tech inspections , theres a very good chance that the 48 will be DQd even more often , giving the legal teams a better chance at winning .

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
10/02/2009 11:43 AM
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Mark, I’m hard pressed to think of a driver who hasn’t caused a big wreck at a plate race. Certainly Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t hold that distinction.

Dawg, good point.

Jim
10/02/2009 12:58 PM
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Uh, how many times has Jimmie bumped Hamlin out this year for a win?

Jimmie winning another championship is the LAST thing this sport needs

mick
10/02/2009 01:03 PM
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So I’m reading Jimmie’s car failed an inspection…

If true, I wonder if nascar will dock points for their favorite team?

They certainly killed Carl Long didn’t they?

midasmicah
10/02/2009 04:35 PM
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Johnson and Martin just got away with their cars being a little bit outside the box..with Carl Long I think that was called cheating. What a frigging joke.

tom dalfonzo
10/02/2009 08:08 PM
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Jimmie Johnson, along with Brian France, should be kicked out of NASCAR forever, end of story.

Cyndi
10/02/2009 08:58 PM
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Some of you supposedly can’t read very well. The 48 car was not illegal, did not fail post-race inspection, was not cheating.

Keith
10/02/2009 09:49 PM
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JJ’s car WAS over the limit. .006 OVER the limit. Carl Long’s engine was over the limit. .017 over the limit. The difference ?? Carls motor was about 12,000 miles old (worn out due to lack of funds)…JJ’s car-brand new….no penalty for the 48….Suspicious…..oh yeah !!!!

DoninAjax
10/02/2009 09:54 PM
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If Johnson’s car had Carl Long’s number on it, what would have happened?
Mark Martin, with Jack Roush, at the 89 500 was penalized 46 points and lost the POINTS title by 29. One less title for Big E and a title for Martin. NASCAR said he wasn’t illegal but they did not like what was done to the engine. Makes one wonder, now that he is with Hendrick.

mkrcr
10/02/2009 10:16 PM
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First, I’m the first to admit that I’m biased towards the 48 bunch. I can’t stand the team and believe most of their stats are due to Knaus’s cheatin’ ways.
But that said…“Although nothing was out of line, officials found the vehicles to be pushing the limits of NASCAR’s allowed tolerances, and notified them accordingly”. As long as I’ve been racing, that’s what you’re supposed to do. I’ve tried to bend, tweak, twist, or otherwise interpret the rules in order to gain an advantage. But always with the “tolerances”. There ain’t no story here. Just Knaus’s past.
But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s found something in those 26 race test sessions and I believe NA$CAR tends to “overlook” it in their inspections. This news today is just a way for NA$CAR to say they’re “watching” the 48 while they get what they want. A 4 time Chump.

mkrcr
10/02/2009 10:20 PM
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P.S. Hendrick or not, I’m waiting for another “46 point Penalty” for Mark.

Ty
10/03/2009 10:21 AM
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Sorry Mkrcr but waiting for a 46 point lead for the Silly Old Man and his 1st Championship !

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