Jimmie Johnson has run under the radar for most of the season. His usual mid-summer swoon that sees him squander a meaningless points lead as he approaches the Chase did not occur. Instead, the No. 48 team slumped from the beginning of 2008. Sans an early win at Phoenix, the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion and his cohorts at Hendrick Motorsports did not have nearly the edge over other powerhouses, like Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, that they did in 2007. Kiss goodbye any chance of Johnson becoming the first three-time champion since Cale Yarborough, right? Hold your horses.
Johnson and career-long crew chief Chad Knaus have a knack for pulling through with top performances in seemingly hopeless situations. In both of Johnson’s championship seasons, the No. 48 team seemed to be sunk through the months of July and August. As those in the media are known to do, some began to whisper; questions and speculation were rampant during these summer swoons, wondering whether Jimmie and Chad were legitimate championship contenders. The dynamic duo, however, along with the rest of the team, ignored any criticism and persevered.
Success in NASCAR is almost always fueled by momentum. Since this is the case, a team that wants to achieve Chase success has to peak at the right time. When the Chase lights and cameras turn on, the No. 48 team does just that – and they have the numbers to prove it.
2004 was the first year of the Chase and it started horribly for Johnson. Not only did he have two finishes outside the top 30 in the third and fourth races of the Chase, but the tragic crash of a HMS aircraft occurred just hours before Johnson’s victory in Martinsville. Johnson and his team learned of the loss of 10 friends and teammates at a time when they should have been celebrating. At Atlanta Motor Speedway the next week, instead of cracking under the extreme pressure and grief so unfortunately bestowed upon them, Johnson and the team won the race and crept closer to the points lead, as championship leader Kurt Busch, whose team was also riding the crest of a timely performance peak which eventually saw them win the 2004 championship, lost an engine.
Though the Lowe’s Racing team fell short of Chase glory in 2005, they were in the title hunt until a blown tire eliminated them from contention early in the Homestead race. In that year’s Chase, Johnson, Knaus and Co. had two wins, four top fives and seven top 10s while the rumblings from their critics hinted that maybe this team just didn’t have what it took to win the championship.
Then came 2006, a season that all but silenced the doubting media and fan critics. In a year where he seemed destined to claim the year’s top trophy at times, the first few Chase races seemed to state differently. He finished outside the top 10 in each of the first four races, including a 39th-place effort to open the 10-race showdown at Loudon. Johnson’s races leading up to the Chase were just as lackluster as the first few races of the Chase, but he and his team peaked at the perfect time and the rest became history, as the final six races saw the No. 48 garner a win, an astonishing four runner-up finishes, and a ninth at Homestead to propel him into championship lore for the first time.
2007 was straight-up dominant for Johnson. He won a rarely-achieved four races in a row leading up to Homestead, as well as the two races prior to the Chase, en route to a 10-win season and a second consecutive championship for the No. 48 team.
Not only has Johnson won championships, but he and Knaus have made the right in-race moves to visit victory lane in the sport’s biggest races. Though Knaus was suspended for the 2006 Daytona 500, he definitely had a hand in the setup of the car as Johnson won the Harley J. Earl Trophy with interim crew chief Darian Grubb. Johnson has also won two Brickyard 400s, nail-biting races over teammate Jeff Gordon, and a whole slew of Coca-Cola 600s.
If Johnson retired right now, there would be hardly a race missing from his resume. The only kind of track that he has not won on is a road course and he and Knaus obviously do not have the magic touch at Bristol. Fortunately for them, those are bullets they do not have to dodge in the Chase.
Certainly, the two most storied drivers of 2008 are Busch and Edwards. They have 14 Sprint Cup wins between them this year, a souvenir trailer-load of top fives and 10s and rarely a race where they have not been in contention. Busch has been dominant since the start of the season and Edwards has only had a small slump earlier in the year. Neither of those teams show any signs of backing off once the Chase begins in Loudon, but if their potent mixtures of dominance and luck start to sputter – if their rivalry pushes them to a point of harming their chances in a certain race – Johnson and Knaus will be lurking in the shadows and ready to break out in full attack mode.