The NASCAR community is littered with streaks that stick out like sore thumbs. Seriously; there are enough monkeys on people’s backs to take up an entire zoo. Some never get taken away, like Mark Martin‘s 0-for-championship streak, or Rusty Wallace‘s 0-for-Daytona disaster. Others finally get put to rest, but only after bringing those who must bear the weight of their burden through years of despair: Michael Waltrip‘s 0-for-462 winless streak and Dale Earnhardt‘s 19-year Daytona drought are classic examples. Relentless in their attack, these apes constantly roam around the garage, looking to find someone to attach themselves to; their specialty is injecting misery into the lives of any NASCAR driver and team they can find.
Rounding the corner, the monkey appeared ready to jump on its next victim 50 laps into Sunday’s race. Already 0-for-4 with championship opportunities, there was Jimmie Johnson, one race away from his first Cup title, sitting on pit road without enough lugnuts on all four of his tires. There was the team expected to cakewalk to the title, throwing tape on the front of the car to fix a hole in the grill from a crash. There was the 31-year-old laid back persona from El Cajon, Calif., turning to a giant pile of excitable mush in the driver’s seat, just as Matt Kenseth charged his way into the top five and reassumed the points lead he’d coveted for the past few weeks.
It was such a scenario oh-so-typical of Johnson’s career on the Nextel Cup tour. Without question, the last four years have been just as much about Johnson coming up short in the title Chase as much as someone else taking home the trophy. From his rookie season of 2002 right up until the checkered flag at Homestead in 2005, the No. 48 team has involved in a points fight that always appeared to be theirs for the taking at one point in the season, until that memorable stretch each year where they took it and threw it away.
Each year, a myriad of excuses mixed with bad luck slowly took its toll on team chemistry. There was the inaugural Chase year of 2004, where Johnson simply dominated the regular season only to fall apart just before the playoffs, losing a 200-point lead to Jeff Gordon en route to finishing second in the championship to Kurt Busch by only eight points. Then there was 2005, where Johnson was engaged with a furious battle with Tony Stewart for the title at Homestead, then blew his tire and watched his championship dreams get loaded up and shipped out, courtesy the Home Depot express checkout, register 20.
That final blow, the fourth straight season of championship disappointment, nearly did break Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus apart. I remember walking around the banquet in December of that year and hearing all the talk of not if, but when Knaus would be handing in his resignation and moving elsewhere; Evernham Motorsports was the hot rumor at the time. But owner Rick Hendrick wasn’t stupid. He had seen previous crew chief – driver matchups broken up with disastrous results; championship drivers Gordon and Terry Labonte struggled to achieve the same level of success without crew chiefs Ray Evernham and Gary DeHart. Realizing the special chemistry Johnson and Knaus had, Hendrick sat the two down and convinced them to stay together for the good of their own careers. Through that intervention, crew chief and driver chose to persevere.
“Chad and I have been through this, this is our fifth season together,” said a nostalgic Johnson after the race. “Chad really has steered this team and developed the crew guys, I can’t thank him enough for being not only a great leader, but a great friend.”
When you look back on the season, there were so many times when the two of them could have thrown in the towel, perhaps more than ever before. With Knaus slapped with a four-race suspension before the Daytona 500, the team had to depend on the success of car chief turned crew chief Darian Grubb to carry them through. After Grubb-led victories for Johnson at both Daytona and Las Vegas, Knaus returned to the helm, only for Johnson to struggle with him back on the pit box. Rumors of his departure quickly cropped up again, maxing out with a public acknowledgment by Knaus that his contract expired following 2007. Again, it was Hendrick saving the day, inking the veteran to an extension and placing his faith in both team and driver to work out their differences.
The team responded; Johnson ended up winning the Brickyard 400 in August, but then hit an all-too familiar snag that saw him fall from first to second in points entering the playoffs. Once there, things got worse; not only did the No. 48 not snag a top 10 in his first four playoff starts, he fell to as much as 165 points behind the leader. Then, on the verge of winning Talladega, Johnson was spun out on the last lap by his own teammate. The monkeys weren’t just hanging around at the time, they were downright smothering him.
“It was bleak, obviously,” said Johnson of the week following that fateful day. “But the next day, I just went around to all the guys on the shop and slapped them on the back and picked them up, I knew there were a lot of [races] left [for us].”
Six of them, in fact. Johnson didn’t waste time with anyone: heading into Homestead, he had finished second, first, second, second and second. Meanwhile, anything that had four wheels collapsed all around the No. 48, and suddenly, they controlled their own destiny.
“I didn’t want to back into this championship at all,” said Knaus. “I wanted to go out and race for it.”
Which finally brings us back to Homestead, the race designed to show what both men were made of, the one capable of making their careers, or breaking their backs. Buried in the back of the pack after the pit-road miscue, Johnson was forced to carve his way from the top 30 to the top 10, all while keeping his calm on both the track and the radio. Knaus, meanwhile, had to groom himself into the role of ultimate pep talker, reminding his driver of the big picture and restraining him from moving up too far, too fast.
That’s exactly what they did; to say that it was a work of art was an understatement. By the race’s halfway point, Johnson had gone from the back of the lead lap to running comfortably in the top 10; it was a position he was able to keep for much of the rest of the event, monkeys be damned.
In the end, the No. 48 came across the checkered flag ninth on the scoring pylon. That was more than good enough; everyone with a Lowe’s uniform has a smile and a trophy to prove it.
Not surprisingly, the monkeys are nowhere to be found.
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