Vito Pugliese · Wednesday July 20, 2011
Take heart, 4-ha8ters! After another festival of failures on pit road, the cracks are starting to show in the Five-Time champions. The sky is falling, Jimmie’s bawling, and Chad is crawling back to start, trying to figure out a way to salvage the season before the Chase starts.
Since 2002, what had been the hallmark of the Lowe’s racing franchise was the competency of the pit crew, and their obsessive-compulsive pursuit for precision and perfection has devolved into a weekly comedy of errors and horrors whenever Johnson comes to get tires and fuel.
Clearly not the team we have come to expect during the last decade, and certainly not one under the beating brow of crew chief Chad Knaus. What once had been one of the tightest core groups in motorsports is now a round robin of weekly tryouts, rosters, and put-me-in-coach-I’m-ready-to-play antics that have resulted in wedge wrenches left in windows, lug nuts knocked off wheels, and mediocre stops that have seen Johnson often having to drive over his head – and the capabilities of his car – to get back on the track what was lost in a few seconds on pit road.
From the outside, it appears that the move to turn athletes into mechanics has not developed as quickly as Knaus and company had believed. Last year’s late season pit crew swap with the No. 24 team worked out largely due to the folly of the No. 11 team in the final few laps at Phoenix – and the first five at Homestead. It was a controversial and questionable call, one that brought into question the concept of “team,” plus the long-standing tradition in racing of “dance with the one who brung you.” Now, the flavor of the week dice roll has turned into, “what have you done for me lately”.
To make matters worse, now the one advocate of the pit crew by committee camp is publicly pissed.
“I’ve been real patient all year trying to build [this team up],” said Johnson. “I’m running out of patience.”
Johnson’s tone is a far cry from sentiments echoed a few weeks earlier. Back then, the topic of the new pit crew competition was brought up along with some earlier season struggles, and the five-time champ didn’t so much as bat an eyebrow. Johnson noted that the relationship of driver and crew chief with the team was one of “good cop/bad cop,” knowing that Knaus’ reputation for being the strict taskmaster was offset by Jimmie’s laid-back, California-cool consolations. But that role has appeared to have all but evaporated, one race before the second largest event of the year – The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Johnson after rallying from a spin on lap 241 of 301, to finish fifth. “And the thing that’s tough to me is, I know these guys personally. I train with them, I work with them side by side, I have a friendship with them and a bond with them, and it just kills me to see them not succeed, because I know how bad they want it, and how hard they work for it. But, we’re getting to a crucial point in the season where we can’t have that stuff. I don’t know what the solution is, it’s out of my jurisdiction, sorry to say, but this off weekend I’m hoping we fix something, correct something – something needs to change.”
This isn’t to say that the No. 48 team is alone amongst those Chase contenders who have contemplated a major adjustment. After a season long stretch of failing to get the No. 16 3M Ford full of fuel, Greg Erwin was dismissed as crew chief for Greg Biffle – a position he had held since early 2007. Biffle was very vocal about the latest botched stop at Kansas, calling it over the radio “completely ****ing unacceptable.”
After serving as crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya since May of 2008, Brian Pattie was also replaced atop the war wagon on Tuesday at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Montoya currently resides 17th in points, 59 from the Top 10, a week before the race that he likely should have swept in ugly, dominating, not-even-close performances the prior two seasons. Jim Pohlman, who has been with the team in one capacity or another since 2006 will be point man next Sunday at IMS with JPM – with a pretty solid shot at winning a Cup race his first time out.
So what of this new pit crew tryout plan of the No. 48 team, anyway? What is the whole point of it? Stumbling through the season only to nail it by the time The Chase starts? Had Knaus seen Rudy one too many times? Has the process of winning Sprint Cup titles every year since 2006 finally gotten to be so routine and boring that he needed to spice things up a little?
As Winston Churchill once wrote, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”
Which is appropriate considering the final outcome of the last five years come November. If you take a look at the Sprint Cup standings, you will note that the No. 48 team is sitting in second place, just 13 points out of first. In fact, the last team that actually beat the Lowe’s bunch for a title was the team themselves, back in 2005. That little fiasco of self-stumbling down the stretch nearly tore the team apart, a series of missteps that didn’t end until February of the following year. Come Daytona Speedweeks, Knaus was bounced from the premises – he installed an adjustable rear window on the No. 48 for qualifying.
But what was the end result of that mess? A Daytona 500 win, a dedication to those who Johnson deemed, “the haters” and a solid start to what would be the first of five championship rings.
So fear not, 48 fans; more than likely, Chad is luring everybody closer into a false sense of security before he wallops them over the head with a Kobalt crescent wrench. Either things get fixed in the next seven races, or he calls an audible and swaps out pit crews with one of the other three Hendrick teams who don’t consistently have trouble on pit road. We’ve all seen how this movie ends in the last five installments, and like a well-worn Rocky sequel, this one probably won’t turn out much different.
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