Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday September 28, 2009
To say Jimmie Johnson was in a league of his own Sunday was putting it mildly. Leading the final 224 laps, the outcome of the race was never in doubt for most of Dover’s second half, the No. 48 running as much as two miles an hour faster than the rest of the field. It was a setup that defined dominance in this sport.
But it was also one they had a little extra time to perfect. Part of a two-day tire test on August 4th and 5th, the No. 48 was one of eight teams to get a “grip” on the Goodyear tires that were eventually selected for the Fall.
“They had different guys on different schedules, some guys working on compounds and some guys working on construction. I did all the construction stuff,” Johnson said in post-race, referring to the part of the process that’s focused more on how cars will handle around the concrete oval. “I think there were one or two runs we were able to run on the tire that they had hoped [to bring].”
Johnson, Montoya, and even Goodyear itself claimed the compound they eventually selected was significantly different from what was tested. Yet after a frustrating day in which exceptionally loose race cars made passing a near-impossibility, several drivers spoke out against what they felt was an unfair advantage.
“Look at the guys that didn’t tire test,” said Greg Biffle, who went from a winning car last year to a disappointing 13th-place finish this Fall. “We ran terrible. It was a completely different tire, it had us off our game right when we unloaded off the truck. We got going there toward the end, but not like the guys that tested.”
“That’s the whole deal. We had a decent car, but we’re not going to beat guys that came here and tested.”
Biffle’s comments were similar to those echoed Friday, when both he and Denny Hamlin went off about a Chaser being allowed extra track time. Yet while Johnson admitted an edge, he wrote off any such talk as sour grapes from guys who just never were able to get their cars to compete.
“I saw some comments from Montoya saying [tire testing] is not beneficial,” he said. “To be honest with you, it does go ahead and give you a data set, and the driver being in the car helps.”
“[But] Nobody spent a lot of time on the tire we actually came back with, so at the end of the day we’re just doing what we’re supposed to do.”
For Goodyear’s part, a source stressed the need for Johnson’s expertise at this track in developing a tire – after all, he’s won at Dover four times – combined with the fact that again, this compound wasn’t exactly the same as the one from August 4th. How different was anybody’s guess, but the end result was a strange dichotomy of sorts. On the one hand, Goodyear showed the durability needed to last, with Mark Martin and others commending them for tire failures that could be counted on one hand. Instead, it was the handling that was the issue for most teams, who found it difficult if not impossible to compete in conditions that resembled ice skating on wheels.
“The tire was so loose that you had to overcompensate so much with the chassis,” said Hamlin after finishing 22nd, one of several drivers who threw everything but the kitchen sink at their cars only to never see them tighten up. “It just didn’t make for good racing, at least from my standpoint.”
Whether you were in his corner depended on whether you were a fan of single-file, follow-the-leader racing. But as you might expect, all the snoozing of the fans in the stands didn’t exactly bother the crew chief of the team doing the leading.
“The tire Goodyear brought, it was fantastic,” he said succinctly, pointing the success of the No. 48 to Hendrick’s typical M.O. – teamwork. “I think as a group our whole organization gets smarter and learns faster.”
“I think especially in today’s day and age when there is no testing, I think that benefits us.”
Yet there was an extra test for the geniuses to get in a little extra credit. And with handling defined as the central issue, that makes the finishes of the other teams at the test (a mixed bag – see table below) somewhat irrelevant. After all, it was Johnson who was assigned the job of figuring out that handling more than others. And even if the compound comes back a little different, doesn’t that experience give them a leg up?
|August Tire Testers – Dover|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||2||4|
I’ll leave that a rhetorical question. But know this much: whatever you think – even if you’re his closest competition – Jimmie Johnson could give a rat’s, well, you know.
“If it’s upsetting guys and they’re pissed, so be it,” he said. “I’m glad they’re worried about other things and not their race car. Nobody heard me complain about Indy and not being able to tire test there and it definitely hurt us in qualifying.”
“But we just kept our heads down, moved forward, made the car right and won the race.”
An admirable performance, to be sure; but looking at the big picture, that Indianapolis race had little to no meaning towards this pivotal moment in the Chase. It’s a title race Johnson has dominated in the past and now, with this victory, is in perfect position to take the lead on winning a fourth time. Later on, in his press conference Sunday he was asked about how seizing this type of momentum now changes the game for everybody else.
“As far as sending a message, I hope it does,” he said. “I’m excited to see we’ve got some of the other Chase contenders [behind us]. Like I said earlier, I hope people are worried, I hope people are talking about the fact that we tire tested and it’s wrong. All these people can get wound up about stuff that really doesn’t matter. And we’ll keep our heads down, we’ll keep our blinders on, and we’ll go to work.”
Work Johnson has these last two races, turning a summer slump into a blossoming Fall that already has he and teammate Mark Martin separated from the rest of the field. Suddenly, a Chase field of 12 is in grave danger of being reduced to 2 or 3 should Johnson back up last year’s run at Kansas – where he’s the defending champ.
“It may not be exciting for the fans and everybody else,” he said. “But the bigger gap we can put between us and those guys and single out just a car or two to really have to worry about, the easier my job is, and that’s what I hope we can keep doing.”
Moving forward, it’s impossible to quantify exactly how much of an advantage there was here (if any). Here’s what we know:
- Jimmie Johnson tire tested.
- Jimmie Johnson led 271 of 400 laps.
- Jimmie Johnson won the race and now has a 55-point advantage over everyone else in the Chase except teammate Mark Martin.
One final note in closing; coming off the race’s final two caution flags, Johnson stayed out on old tires while others, including Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and other top contenders pitted for fresh rubber. But ability of those speeds to keep from falling off dramatically never put Johnson’s win in doubt.
“I didn’t think that those guys would be able to work their way back up through the field,” Knaus explained in making the pit call that sealed the win. “I didn’t think those guys were going to be able to get through the traffic and get up there to us.”
The question is whether the crew chief knew those facts from the second he walked in the door on Friday. But even if he did, it’s too late to change it now.
Fair or unfair, the competition needs to dig deep, focus, and work on their race cars. Because when you go inside the minds of several teams, their chance to even catch the No. 48 for number four is already all but over.
Writer Bryan Davis Keith contributed to this story.
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