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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Is Anyone Even Willing to Challenge the No. 48 Team?

Watching Jimmie Johnson dominate a race is like being around that relative or co-worker whose conversation is so monotone and boring that you almost instantaneously tune out as they begin to speak. This last week’s race was one of the most boring I’ve seen at the Monster Mile, but NASCAR isn’t blameworthy for it. With all apologies to 48 fans, a dominating Johnson win just bores the snot out of me.

It’s not Jimmie’s fault either. His team is doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. Jimmie doesn’t cause fireworks, lose his temper on camera or take other drivers out with hard bump-and-runs. He doesn’t give fans much of a reason to hate him other than beating their drivers all the time. He just wins, and wins and wins.

My buddy Vito’s recent column notwithstanding, I am fully confident after watching the first couple of Chase races that the No. 48 team is once again clicking on all cylinders when it counts the most, and barring bad luck or blown engines, to win a championship this year someone is going to have to beat them.

Oh, sure, they could go into a slump, right? Go ahead, place your bets. I’ll give you very friendly odds. In the last three seasons, the No. 48 team averaged an 11.6-place finish in the first 26 races and an incredible 7.2 finish in the last 10. In the last two seasons, the No. 48 car has averaged a 5.0- and 5.7-place finish in Chase races – and keep in mind that Jimmie was racing only to finish in the season finale last year. Read that again… Jimmie Johnson averages a fifth-place finish in Chase races. Only one driver has performed better in a Chase than Jeff Gordon did in 2007… and that was Johnson in 2007. The No. 48 team has 15 wins in 52 Chase races, or about 29% of them.

Still want to bet against a guy who is likely to win twice more this season?

Johnson deserves all the credit in the world for his driving skills. But it’s the combination of his ability on the track and the effort of the guy on the pit box that makes this team so seemingly invincible on the track. Chad Knaus exemplifies genius as defined by no less of one than Thomas Edison: as 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Knaus puts winning cars under Johnson because no one outworks him. If you want an idea why Gordon was so great in the ’90s, listen to Jeff talk about Ray Evernham’s work ethic.

There was talk a couple of years ago about the comparison between Knaus and the current crew chief of the No. 24 car, Steve Letarte. Knaus was characterized as a neurotic who spends every waking moment of the day thinking about how to make his driver faster, whereas Letarte has a more laid-back attitude and usually reaches a point in the day where he shuts the brain off. That is probably exaggerated, but Knaus and Letarte will tell you it’s true to an extent. This isn’t to say Letarte is a goldbrick. He isn’t anything of the sort. He wouldn’t last at Hendrick Motorsports if he was. Letarte himself has said that he’ll stack up his work ethic against anyone in the garage, except for Knaus.

There’s your difference between three titles and three years of falling short.

I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen Knaus make the wrong call in the pits late in the race and still have a few fingers left over. I could probably think of many more instances when the No. 48 car had a problem early on in the race that put them on the ropes, only to bounce back and get in the top five or even win before the day was out. When that happens so consistently, it isn’t luck, unless you define luck as opportunity meeting preparation. Knaus prepares for every situation on every track – and he and Jimmie well know that where a car is running on lap 50 doesn’t matter. Similarly, the team seems content to run well enough to comfortably make the Chase, and then smoke everyone when the green flag falls at Loudon.

And Chad can out-think NASCAR’s rule makers too…something they haven’t taken too kindly to. The rulebook is thicker because of him. No car in the garage is more scrutinized. Call it cheating if you want. But it’s more likely that other crew chiefs probably envy Knaus’s ability to think outside of an ever-shrinking box. Knaus has been busted several times for going over the line. But so have many other crew chiefs. Only the winners seem to be so well-known for bending the rulebook.

It’s a workload to be a Sprint Cup crew chief just by itself, and it’s probably tough enough on psyches and marriages to make it not worth the effort to most. It eventually overwhelmed Robbie Loomis, who left the championship No. 24 team to take a position as a Director of Something Racing Related That Doesn’t Involve 20-Hour Days at Petty Enterprises so that he could have some free time. To be a champion crew chief requires a level of effort that can and does make the best in this sport blink. As was said in As A Man Thinketh, he who would achieve must sacrifice, and he who would achieve greatly must sacrifice greatly.

Some years back Tiger Woods was compared to Phil Mickelson. Mickelson, though an all-time great golfer, was not as willing to devote his entire life to perfecting his golf game the way Woods was and still is. Mickelson eventually did win a Masters, but Woods is going to be the all-time greatest until someone else sacrifices even more sleep to the goal of becoming the greatest golfer that ever lived.

If you’re a fan of such a team or a golfer, it is a most impressive and exciting thing to behold. If you pull for one of their opponents, it is frustrating to no end, at times causing even fans to throw in the towel and quit watching.

I’m not suggesting for a second, of course, that Darian Grubb and Alan Gustafson and Pat Tryson and Bob Osborne aren’t among the hardest working people in America or in the world. The racing life is not for anyone who wants to spend time doing anything else. Everyone in this sport knows that. And it just makes the No. 48 team’s work ethic that much more impressive. Even in this day and age of parity in NASCAR like there never has been, the Lowe’s car can still manage to stink up the show, and effectively extinguish the excitement that the Chase was supposed to create.

So someone is going to have to out-think and out-work Chad Knaus… and give up everything else in life, maybe even a happy marriage, to do it. Every season that the No. 48 team has been in existence they have challenged for titles, with nothing more or less than extra perspiration. Scene Daily some time ago questioned whether it bothered Chad not having a wife and children as he approaches 40. The answer was an unqualified no. How many people can accept that as the price for excellence in any vocation?

Why does Chad work so hard? Why does he regularly put in 80 hours a week on the job? It’s simple. Because he wants to be a racer. And he believes this is what it takes. Be faster than the other guy or get the hell out of the way.

It may bore a lot of people to watch it, myself included, but when the dust clears and the record books are written, it’s going to be pretty danged impressive.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • Did you ever think you’d see the day when a race team bearing Richard Petty’s name would be discussing business with the royal family of a country where Christians are not allowed to practice their faith? Or even better, can you believe someone thought of it before Brian France did?
  • Speaking of Mr. France, John Daly over at the Daly Planet discussed his latest “all is well” press conference, and he quotes Jim Hunter telling the Boston Globe that the Chase was solely Brian’s idea and even Bill Jr. thought it was nuts. I wonder if Big Bill said the same thing to Bill Jr. about restrictor plates.
  • Despite the strong performances in the first couple of Chase races, I don’t seriously see Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 team making a run at the title. But I wonder what Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks when a car that partially belongs to Teresa laps him.
  • Kansas (the band) is going to be playing a pre-race show at Kansas Speedway this weekend. Always was a big fan of songs like “Magnum Opus,” “Song For America” and “Mysteries And Mayhem,” but I hope they won’t be relying too heavily on material from the post-“Point of Know Return” era, like they did the one time I saw them live.

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