Thomas Bowles · Monday October 14, 2013
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Debris cautions. On paper, when you break it down that’s the difference in this Chase between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, five weeks into a ten-race, blow-for-blow playoff virtually guaranteed to run all the way through the Homestead finale. Right now, it’s NASCAR’s judgment call on teeny pieces of metal, their supposed safety threat to drivers that’s made the difference in 2013, leaving “Five-Time” Johnson five times as frustrated as he hits the points “halfway point” sitting in second place.
For those disgusted with the sport, still angry with “Spingate” or all too willing to yell “Conspiracy!” or worse in the middle of a crowded train station, that’s the easy answer. But bad referee calls, as Charlotte’s final caution for debris we never saw happen in all major sports. How many bad holding penalties were there in the NFL Sunday? How about those “ticky tack” fouls in the NBA we see on a game-by-game basis? Or a “bang bang” call at first base that goes against your favorite baseball team? This list of “woe is me” could be woven into a 50-chapter novel. The bottom line is, Lady Luck always makes her way inside the brains of those guys paid to officiate. These “refs” are human, after all and until computers control every decision, along with the instant replay booth mistakes will be made. They’re inevitable.
True champions rise above that adversity, a hallmark Johnson and his No. 48 team have made famous. Their five titles, three more than any other under the Chase format were won with a seeming invincibility, to the point Kevin Harvick once deemed its driver to be holding a “golden horseshoe” hidden inside his butt. There was even the 2010 season finale, perhaps their finest moment where Johnson and company entered the race a title longshot. Hours later, they used a spin by rival Denny Hamlin, overwhelming speed and a mental toughness to come out holding the trophy. Gaining points, in crunch time is such a specialty for this group they’ve made it become routine, to the point rivals expect him to whip the field at playoff tracks like Dover and Martinsville.
But this Chase, should Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus lose it will be defined by their failure to “close the deal” when the door swung open. Two weeks now, at Kansas and Charlotte they’ve had speed and setups that, on paper could have easily won the race. When debris cautions came out, causing a possible loss of track position the opportunity was there for risky pit road strategy to save themselves. Like Saturday night’s race, for example in which Johnson was on cruise control, out front only to see “debris” cause a yellow with less than 30 laps remaining. To that point, they’d been the dominant car in a race where the tires weren’t falling off too much over the course of a green-flag run. Take two fresh Goodyears? Instead of four? You’re guaranteed a front-row starting spot, control of the ensuing restart, a likely jump into clean air and a convincing victory.
Instead, Knaus chose four tires, extra time on pit road that threw the No. 48 to third and inexplicably into traffic on a restart. It was hitting “repeat” on a failed strategy used once before… one week ago, back in Kansas. Once Knaus’ driver lost track position, on an early debris yellow, he also went conservative and never used “fuel only” (or no stop at all) to put the car back out front. While a fellow fast car, driven by championship rival Kevin Harvick took its chances, under the orders of head wrench Gil Martin the Knaus/Johnson combo played it safe in order to finish fifth. Then, a faulty engine, over the final two laps cost them another position, dropping them to sixth.
The difference between that position and first? Eight points. What about between first and fourth, which is where Johnson finished after that Charlotte four-tire pit call? Another six points (since he would have wound up leading the most laps). Add up those two numbers, those of you with a better than first-grade education and you realize those sour endings cost Johnson the point lead. It’s a fate that was completely avoidable, poor decisions down pit road combined with poor execution on the racetrack.
That’s where we should mention Johnson’s true Achilles Heel – green-flag restarts. At Kansas, last week the No. 48 car was a roving obstacle half the time in traffic. The second the cars hit the green, coming up to speed it was 50/50 as to whether Johnson would, at best, hold serve and at worst threaten to wreck himself in front of the field. At Charlotte, the result was similar when it counted, the No. 48 car bobbling like it lost its spoiler on the race’s final double-file dash into Turn 1. For whatever reason, these boom-or-bust accelerations have gotten into his head over time, to the point it’s difficult for him to maneuver even when he’s on the front row. There was Dover, back in June where a penalty by NASCAR for jumping the start took away a near-certain victory. At Kentucky, a few weeks later Johnson psyched himself out, spinning and sacrificing a second victory to someone else.
That someone else was Kenseth, his main title rival who wound up taking control during the closing laps. That unexpected three-point swing, in terms of bonus points is actually another reason Johnson’s sitting second, the challenger seizing opportunities the champion simply throws away. For in every scenario where the No. 48 has failed, Kenseth has forced himself forward, often times with a junky car into wins, top 5s and top 10s few would have ever achieved. At Kansas, he was 30th with 42 laps to go. Like a bat out of hell, the No. 20 car ran half sideways, like a dirt tracker all the way to 11th by the checkered. At Charlotte Saturday night? Same thing. Starting 20th, the No. 20 car could do no better than 10th by Lap 143. Their rivals, shortly thereafter took the lead and outright control of the race.
But Kenseth, combined with crew chief Jason Ratcliff never gave up on improving. Without the final caution, they would have finished fourth; that last yellow gained them one spot, to third as their biggest rivals slid behind them in that No. 48. It was the challenger showing stability, gradually improving with every stop while the five-time champions found a way to stop themselves.
Yes, on paper it was debris cautions, legitimate or lousy calls that have changed the outcome of this Chase halfway through. But one team in position to win the championship has known exactly how to roll with the punches. The other? They’re putting themselves in position to get punched.
With five races left, and just four points separating the two this championship is still a relative toss-up. But if these patterns don’t change? Banning debris yellows forever won’t change the winner. Johnson and Knaus, once the best in the business need to learn how to learn the art of the “save” once again. They better go watch a whole lot of 9th-inning, playoff baseball or David Ortiz’s game-tying homer Sunday night.
For if they don’t? They’ll be toast… as in toasting the champs, as a runner-up finisher come this December’s season-ending banquet in Las Vegas.
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