The Frontstretch: Closing The Deal: One NASCAR Champ's Sudden Achilles Heel by Thomas Bowles -- Monday October 14, 2013

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Closing The Deal: One NASCAR Champ's Sudden Achilles Heel

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.

Debris cautions have made a big difference in the last two Chase races. But which title contender has navigated them better?

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.

Jimmie Johnson’s seemingly insurmountable lead, under green proved useless when he couldn’t handle Charlotte’s final restart after a yellow.

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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The Truth
10/14/2013 02:36 AM

The difference between other sports and NA$CAR is you can almost guarantee France/Helton to call the tower and demand the “Debris” caution with 30 to go at all races that aren’t close. Do you expect a personal foul on the defense at every football game if the losing team is driving late and stalls or throws a pick? How about the umpire calling an automatic balk on the pitcher in the bottom of the ninth if the home team is trailing with runners aboard? That’s what NA$CAR does, and its why their credibility is crap.

10/14/2013 08:42 AM

It seems Brian didn’t realize who was leading when he fell off his bar stool and called the tower for the last caution. I wouldn’t want to be Brian when Hendrick calls him this morning.

84 green flag laps and a phantom debris caution. 132 laps and another PDC with about 25 laps left. It’s nice to see NASCAR’s credibility hasn’t changed.

10/14/2013 12:12 PM

it seems to me that in real sports the officials try to stay out of the game towards the end and try to only make obvious calls. in other words they seem to try to NOT alter the outcome. occasionally though they get it wrong but is seems not to be the norm. i don’t think the same (or anything close to it) can be said for nascar. it seems to be completely the norm as it happens much too often to be coincidence.

on the other hand, thank heavens nascar knows what really matters and has a strong focus on keeping their participants political correctness squarely in line.

10/14/2013 12:58 PM

NASCAR has credibility. They, like every other sanctioning body in the USA, have to worry about litigation if any driver gets injured from any action not taken by himself. That includes driving over a piece of debris at over 180mph and wrecking into the wall with a blown tire. NASCAR errs on the side of safety for this obvious reason. When cars are going this fast around an oval, sometimes stopping the race is the only way to determine whether debris is dangerous or not.

NASCAR has, as a result of safety/litigation fear, made the rules for the cars so tight that there isn’t enough speed differential for much side-by-side racing and passing for the lead. Being unable to pass for the lead and very difficult to pass except on re-starts makes teams much more likely to toss debris onto the track late in a race. This also makes NASCAR more likely to call debris cautions late in races. I am tired of hearing people complain about NASCAR’s integrity when calling debris cautions.

It is good for the sport that no one can believe their own driver didn’t win because of a debris caution. That indicates intense driver loyalty, which is the most important ingredient for fans wanting to show up to see the race.

Litigation and the fear of crippling lawsuits is what drives most of the ridiculous behavior by all public institutions in our society. That is why our public schools are so messed up and why we all speak political correctness instead of our minds. So, don’t blame NASCAR for what they cannot control any better than we can.

My driver is Matt Kenseth and I like thinking that Jimmie has at least one Achilles heal, because Matt has a couple of his own to overcome.

Carl D.
10/14/2013 01:27 PM

Pokey I have no problem with Nascar waving the yellow for real debris in the racing area. Where I have a problem is when cautions are repeatedly thrown for invisible debris that only Nascar can see.

10/14/2013 02:24 PM

Carl D, I agree—though I’d add that I’m fine with throwing the caution debris that looks menacing but turns out to be a hunk of tape or something. NASCAR is right in erring on the side of caution (pardon the pun) in those cases. As we’ve all said a million times, though, they need to have someone guiding the TV cameras to the debris to make sure the viewers have no doubts that there was, in fact, something on the track.

DoninAjax, I’m pretty sure the first debris caution was for a piece of metal in the groove, and they showed it on TV. Doesn’t excuse the second one though.

10/14/2013 03:33 PM

Anytime there’s a debris caution, the debris in question needs to be shown ON CAMERA for cryin’ out loud. Why don’t nascar fans demand a little more truth in their sport? Are we so bored and cheaply entertained that we don’t really care? The obvious manipulation of race finishes by nascar to keep races tight by use of fake debris caution flags for fake drama and ratings has transformed nascar from a legit sport to some traveling corporate ‘speed show’ who’s powers that be thinks it’s fans are stupid or don’t care. I’m anything but a 48 fan or Hendricks fan for that matter but Johnson and his fans have a right to be pissed off.

10/14/2013 07:35 PM

The debris caution are not for litigation purposes but because they can, its called manipulation. If a real piece of debris is on the track, show it for dangs sake. Funy comment about Brian calling up to the tower. Good article, well written.

10/14/2013 09:19 PM

I guess these comments prove that most NASCAR fans believe that their driver can do no wrong, and that if their driver loses, somebody must have been cheating.

PS – Brian France doesn’t even come to the track for most of the races. He is a third generation ‘silver spoon’ and he couldn’t care less which driver wins as long as the money keeps flowing in the direction of his bank.


Contact Tom Bowles

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