Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday August 6, 2006
Last week's column was about how us members of the media don't always have all the answers, and this week was yet another classic example of all style and no substance from those yielding a pen and paper. This weekend's race at Indy was supposed to be the coronation of Evernham protÃ©gÃ© Kasey Kahne, the perfect follow-up to Tony Stewart's 2005 performance with a win by a boyish-looking kid from Washington in Stewart's league of obsession for how badly he wanted to kiss those bricks. If Kahne faltered, it was to be a different type of coronation, with Jeff Gordon tying the late, great Dale Earnhardt, Sr. with his 76th career win, all the while cashing in on his record 5th win at Indianapolis.
So, it was to everyone's “surprise” on Sunday that the battle for the win at the Brickyard had nothing to do with Kahne or Stewart, but the two drivers who have spent most of the season sitting first and second atop the Nextel Cup standings: Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Such a silly concept, isn't it, that the two drivers with so many more points than anyone else they could skip a race and still be first and second would show up, guns blazing, as the class of the field at one of the season's biggest races. That really is the silliest thing I've ever heardâ€¦_no wonder_ none of us thought of it.
All sarcasm aside, that type of forgetfulness for the point leaders is not unusual in this, the era of the Chase and the NASCAR "postseason." It's the time of year where the publicity and the fanfare isn't thrown the point leader's way, but towards the drivers in 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and beyond who are fighting every lap, tooth and nail, for the right to get the point leaders back within their sight come race 27 of 36. Lost in the shuffle are those drivers whose seasons were headed towards a "championship" before the year was ten races old, those who get so far ahead they hit a point where "cruise control" becomes the best option for the rest of the regular season, waiting for a playoff in which they know they'll be a factor.
Ask Jimmie Johnson about what that "cruise control" situation can do to a team, and he'll tell you how dangerous it can be. He has two empty spots in his trophy case to prove it. The last two seasons, Johnson came into the summer on a roll, his spot in the Chase firmly entrenched and his spot atop the point standings approaching dominance. Two times, he ended the month of August limping like he crashed his bike into a tree, still at or near the top of the standings but running as if he was a 25th place backmarker week in, week out. Both years, that slump extended into the beginning of the 10 race Chase playoff. Both years, it hurt the team just enough to turn them from championship favorite to championship chaserâ€¦and both years, tthe team fell short of the biggest trophy. This year had to be differentâ€¦and Johnson knows it.
Yet, with so much written and talked about how this season was different for Johnson, how he had matured and taken on more of an active, decision-making role in the face of Chad Knaus' suspension back in February, the same type of "cruise control" scenario that had dogged the team was happening all over again. Heading into the summer, Johnson had himself three wins and a healthy point lead over Matt Kenseth, a dominating lead over everyone else. Then, July came around, and the 48 team couldn't find the front of the field if their lives depended on it. It's not necessarily that July brought an onslaught of bad finishes: teams would give anything for four runs of 32nd, 6th, 9th, and 6th. Having led exactly zero laps during those July races, though, Johnson could feel his competitors positioning themselves to pounce, having given no one a reason to believe that the summer swoon wasn’t about to begin in earnest.
Now, traditionally the first weekend in August, Indy has always been a classic spot for Johnson's unraveling to reach new levels; two years ago, it was the engine, one year ago, a crash that sent the 48 car on a downward spiral it would never recover from before it was too late. Johnson may respect Indy, but on the track they get along just about as well as oil and water. 40 laps in, bad luck reared its ugly head all over again, with Johnson blowing a left front tire and forced to pit under green. With Kenseth running strongly in the Top 10 during that time, the gremlins looked about ready to keep biting Johnson all over again. The script was following itself to a T - Johnson 35th, Kenseth Top 10, the point lead in danger.
Then, all of a sudden, everything changed like a sudden both of lightning. Johnson got a yellow flag at the right time, keeping him on the lead lap and allowing his team to fix any damage from the blown tire. Crew chief Chad Knaus made some great air pressure adjustmentsâ€¦and that was all she wrote. The 48 car just plain took offâ€¦from 38th to 1st in just 75 laps, an impressive accomplishment at a place where passing is about as frequent as seeing a Lamborghini on your local highway. Suddenly, only Kenseth was in the same league as Johnson, and as has been the case most of this year, he just wasn't quite good enough to get to Johnson’s level. All of a sudden, no one's going to forget the 48 anymore, anytime, anyplace. Not when you win the Daytona 500 and Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in the same season.
"Jimmie came out of nowhereâ€¦he was just flying. The best car won. Them guys did a great job recovering from their problem like they always do. They had everybody covered," said a respectful runner up finisher Kenseth, well aware of the challengers they now find boosted with confidence they haven't had before.
Yep, the 48 team has recovered from its biggest problem yetâ€¦not being able to race in the summer. This wasn’t about just winning Indy; it was about gaining the confidence that would bring the 48 team up a notch at Watkins Glen the next weekend, Michigan the week after that. It’s the momentum the 48 team’s always needed at this time, but never had.
"I never thought I'd ever win at this race track - we've had such a drought at this race track - and now we've got a victory," said a shocked Johnson in Victory Lane.
So, all the Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans poured out of the Brickyard Sunday afternoon with broken hearts. Certainly, they're well aware of who the point leader is again - well aware of how dominant he can be, of all the pieces in place that can lead towards a title if they're just put together correctly, in the Summer and Fall and not the Spring.
As I left Indy on Sunday, walking past the Brickyard Crossing hotel I came across a 10-year-old boy decked out in full Jimmie Johnson gear. It was the first Jimmie Johnson fan I'd seen all weekend at the track, ironically.
"I can't believe he won Indy! Jimmie Johnson won the race!" said the boy in disbelief. He looked up at his dad. "Did that really happen?"
Somewhere across America right now, Jimmie Johnson's thinking the same thing. Hopefully, he realizes it's real in time to keep that championship momentum going. He'll need itâ€¦there's a long battle ahead.
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