Last year it was Denny Hamlin. In a storybook tale that would see Hamlin shake off a devastating knee injury to vanquish one of the mightiest teams in NASCAR’s modern era, the Virginian was supposed to bring an end to the reign of Jimmie Johnson and team No. 48.
But it didn’t happen.
Johnson didn’t win as many races, talk as big a game, and as good as his cars and crew were through most of 2010, he was not the class of the Cup field when the crown was on the line. Hell, he didn’t even collect the trophy at Homestead with his own pit crew; he borrowed one from Jeff Gordon. Yet, when the Ford 400 was over, Johnson was Sprint Cup Champion for the fifth consecutive time.
This year it was supposed to be Carl Edwards. We’d see Edwards appear as the face of a dramatic Ford Racing resurgence, the house of Roush would ride the FR9 engine to glory, vanquishing Chevrolet on the track and help to return the Fusion manufacturer to the top of American automaking. Yet over the last three weeks, Edwards has suddenly appeared mortal. The points lead may be there, but a wreck at Daytona and two mediocre races at Kentucky and Loudon don’t go a long way toward making the case that Edwards and the No. 99 team are ready to succeed where Hamlin and the No. 11 failed one year ago.
Just as the No. 99 team has looked anything but infallible the past month, the same can certainly be said for the squad they’re trying to topple over at Hendrick Motorsports. The victim of everything from an engine failure at “Jimmie’s house” in Charlotte to countless pit road miscues that surfaced yet again at Loudon, the No. 48 crew and their race cars have in 2011 appeared as far removed from a well-oiled machine as they ever had in their tenure atop the Sprint Cup Series. The only difference is Johnson and crew have done this dance before, and they’ve left with the trophy and the girl doing it.
The truth is, for as disappointing as the No. 48 pit crew has been thus far through 2011, despite Chad Knaus’ best efforts to cultivate both a consistent over-the-wall gang and farm system, such a struggle is still far from an existential threat to the No. 48’s title defense. One year ago, facing arguably the toughest competition for the Cup they’ve yet seen in their long run, Johnson and Knaus found themselves being let down by their pit crew even come Chase time. At Texas, Knaus did something about it, benching his crew and poaching one of his teammate’s to finish both that race and, with only two events to go in the season, catch the No. 11 team for stock car racing’s biggest prize.
Not only did Knaus have the audacity to pull that trick, he and his driver made it work. Even with a substitute crew, Knaus pulled the strategy card at Phoenix and bested Hamlin and a No. 11 car that was among the class of the field that Sunday in November. One week later, the substitute crew had an off day themselves, failing to gain ground on pit road for much of the afternoon. This time, both driver and crew chief again made it work. Despite having spent the past four seasons stroking it at Homestead, Knaus had all the right adjustments in mind for Johnson’s Chevrolet, and the driver drove the hell out of it, posting a runner-up result that brought home Cup number five.
The sport’s biggest stage, the stiffest competition in five years, a situation that forced a team used to being the leaders to come from behind: Even so, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus triumphed for the fifth consecutive time, even if they did have a pit crew they likely couldn’t name.
All of this reminiscing is a clear illustration of just one thing; in the crazy laboratory of Jimmie and Chad, the lab techs are interchangeable. Same thing with the pit crew. As important as team chemistry has continually been espoused as an essential part of a successful race team, 2010 flew smack in the face of that assertion. Jimmie and Chad are the keys to the No. 48 team’s success, and their abilities are not in question even through the quiet start to 2011 they’ve strung together. Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 was the perfect example; despite getting run over on the track and having the pit crew do anything but contribute to a successful run, the car was picture perfect over the long run and Johnson recovered from a late-race spin to post a top 5.
So what if there’s only seven races left until the start of the Chase and if Chad has yet to find the magic combination of crew members to get the No. 48 back to being the most feared squad on pit road? The fact is, the crew chief and driver are still clicking and they’re still delivering results. This driver/crew chief duo is so good, they’ve rendered the very team element of the over-the-wall gang mere bodies.
Considering they’re second in points already this year, move along from this whole “Jimmie’s frustrated with his pit crew” talk folks. Who cares?
Sure, that logic flies smack in the face of the very concept that NASCAR is a team sport, but so does the idea that a driver would win the Sprint Cup five times in a row despite the greatest parity the sport has ever seen.
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