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Voice of Vito: Pit-Crew Swap For No. 48 Team Foreshadows a Monumental Meltdown

In 2005, Jimmie Johnson left Texas Motor Speedway 38 points behind eventual champion Tony Stewart with only two races remaining. 14 days later, that Chase culminated in Johnson driving around on a flat tire for two laps before backing it into the wall. The friction between driver and crew chief nearly tore them apart, and led to the now infamous “milk and cookies” meeting with team owner Rick Hendrick.

Five years later, Johnson and Knaus find themselves behind current leader Denny Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford’s No. 11 Toyota team. The Lowe’s Hendrick Motorsports team could never seem to consistently beat the Joe Gibbs Racing team during that 2005 campaign, and in 2010 history appears to be repeating itself, albeit with a different opposing driver and crew chief from the JGR stables – and now, apparently, a new pit crew for the No. 48.

Going into the penultimate race at Phoenix, Hamlin leads Johnson by 33 points, and third-place challenger Kevin Harvick by 59 markers. The race for the championship is far from over. However, those midseason chinks in the No. 48’s armor that everybody was going on about all summer have proven to be the early stages of corrosion. The Kobalt forcefield which Johnson and Knaus had surrounded themselves with over the course of the past four years was brought down Monday evening, when it was confirmed that the No. 48 pit crew would effectively be benched for the final two races – leaving Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 crew the group shouldering the responsibility of completing the Drive for Five.

But what I see, instead, is a revival of the Drive for ’05 – the memorable championship chase where the No. 48 group completely melted down and nearly tore themselves apart.

Going back to last Sunday, the impetus behind the move was the fact that the No. 48 crew had lost positions on all but two pit stops. Some of these mistakes have been well-documented; difficulty getting into the box, Paul Menard in such close proximity that he inadvertently booted a tire while leaving, and recurring issues on the right front of the car. After teammate Gordon was turned head-on into the wall by Jeff Burton on lap 191, the decision was made to give the No. 24 crew of Steve Letarte and Gordon a shot at it. The analysis from many in the media was swift and consistent.

Feel free to regurgitate whatever cliché you care to – “It’s a results-oriented business,” “it’s no different than a relief pitcher coming in,” or “We needed to make a change,” – because each one is equally tired, trite, and a rationalization more than an explanation. Chad Knaus on Tuesday told ESPN’s NASCAR Now reporter Shannon Spake that the move had been something they planned “for months,” and was not isolated to any one event on Sunday.

So let me get this straight – you had planned all year to swap your four-consecutive-time-championship crew with the crew that, while your shopmate has not won in over a year and a half, was essentially feuding with your driver earlier in the season? Was this idea before or after he won his sixth race of the season? To quote Dr. Evil, “…..rrrriiiighhht…”

Let’s take a look at the No. 48’s Chase performances so far, aside from the 25th-place result at the first race in New Hampshire –

Dover: Win
Kansas: Second
Fontana: Third
Charlotte: Third
Martinsville: Fifth
Talladega: Seventh
Texas: Ninth

By the looks of it, the only sub top-10 performance by this group so far was the first race out of the gate, which was largely the result of getting caught up in two spins that were not of their doing.

For shame, No. 48 crew!

It isn’t as if these men were the reason for much of the talk of the No. 48’s reign being over this past summer. It was not the pit crew that caused Johnson to miss the pit entrance at Chicago after dominating the first half of the race. Was it the right front tire changer’s fault he lost it at Charlotte during the Coca-Cola 600 and drove it into the inside retaining wall on the backstretch? I’ll have to YouTube this next one, but I’m pretty sure Mike Lingerfelt didn’t spin Jimmie at Watkins Glen, slide up into him during the Southern 500 at Darlington – or drive across Greg Biffle’s nose at Talladega.

Perhaps it is the No. 48 crew’s fault that they kept him up front at Bristol long enough this past August to get hooked into the fence by Juan Pablo Montoya, after leading 191 laps? Using this logic, Johnson should have been swapped out for Gordon earlier in the season to give him a shot at a fifth title – or even Dale Earnhardt Jr. for an opportunity to merely win a race.

What happens if Knaus botches a pit call or runs it out of gas? Do Steve Letarte or Alan Gustafson start picking up their gear for a jog down to the silver and blue war wagon? Sure, RCR may swapped crews between the Nos. 29 and 33 teams, but at least they had the decency to do it post-race.

Taking everything into consideration, I see the No. 48 crew being made a scapegoat of sorts. It’s masking a lack of confidence in either the driver, crew chief, or entire organization that has led what has been the most dominant team in NASCAR since Petty’s Plymouths and Dodges ruled the roost in the early-mid 1970s, a maneuver setting up the most visible racing team in American motorsports for a major-league choke job.

So instead of rallying the troops and giving them an opportunity to redeem themselves at a track that they have won at four times in the last six starts – the others being a fourth and a third – you hit the eject button, then swap out the crew of the No. 24 car. It is not only uncharacteristic and unfortunate, but also almost unfathomable for this bunch. Is there any driver/crew chief/crew in history that has been synonymous with each other as the triad of Johnson/Knaus/and the No. 48 Lowe’s team?

Some may call this a tactical error. Others, such as Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford, have deemed it, “kind of a desperation move.” That quote may have been simply some post-win exuberance, braggadocios bravado or maybe a bit of psychological warfare, but it really is hard to find fault with his comments.

Ford continued on, saying, “I think our race team is better than their race team, and I’m not going to tiptoe around them because of where they’re at. I’m going to do what it’s going to require for us to win a championship and beat them. Not that I’m playing dirty by any means, but we’ll take what’s ours, and I’m not afraid to go toe-to-toe with them.”

In this game of Championship Chase Chicken, it looks like Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports blinked first. Should the No. 48 crew rally and win the title, it will carry a bit of a stigma to it, having had to use half of the race day manpower of Hendrick Motorsports to beat the core group of the No. 11 FedEx team. However, if Knaus and the new pseudo-48 bunch fails to come back, how much of it will be attributed to not playing as a team, staying together, and leaning on the family that just made history last year by becoming the only team to have won four consecutive championship in this or any era in NASCAR?

It isn’t typically the last race that determines the champion in NASCAR, but the events that happen two or three weeks before the final checkered flag of the season. No matter the outcome of the 2010 Chase for the Championship, there is a pretty good chance that Texas will have been the watershed moment that dictated either an unprecedented fifth title for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team – or a first for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 crew.

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