Sunday’s race in Kansas was a challenge for all the teams, new pavement and rough tire compounds leading to a 14-caution, 400-miler Survivor of an afternoon. No one knew the roller coaster better, though, than the top two drivers in the point battle who got caught in the crossfire. Brad Keselowski started the race mired in 25th position. Throughout the day, his team plugged along and coaxed a finish out of a car that Keselowski wasn’t supremely confident in after a qualifying run that wasn’t near his best, on the type of track that hasn’t always treated him well. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson had a car that started in the top 10, allowed him to lead the race and then deflated into a self-induced mistake that could have cost the No. 48 team a title chance. Yet as the checkered flag flew over the field, Keselowski beat Johnson to the line by only one position. As a result the drivers are still equally separated in the point standings with one fewer race to go.
Johnson is the five-time champion for several reasons, but perhaps the biggest is his pit crew. After leading 44 laps at Kansas, Johnson’s car broke loose with the possibility of Victory Lane in sight; the No. 48 paid the price, meshing with concrete off the Turn 2 wall at high speeds with a hit that did significant damage to the rear. Most crew chiefs would have immediately radioed their driver to take their Chevy directly behind the wall. But Chad Knaus took a chance at analyzing the vehicle on pit lane, then directed a series of repairs that could easily become a career highlight should this team rebound for title number six. A multitude of pit stops, over just five laps of caution restored the rear to more than manageable — it made the Chevy downright racy. During the last green-flag run, despite a car that may have looked worse than Jeff Burton’s limping race car (the No. 31 received similar damage in a wreck, running 53 laps off the pace of the leaders) Johnson had one of the fastest cars on-track. In the end, should Johnson score the victory in the Chase, he will be truly able to label it a team effort.
At the same time, Kansas can also be called a missed opportunity for the No. 48 vs. the No. 2 team. For Keselowski, his average finishes on mile and a half tracks this season, while better than his career average, still lag far behind Johnson’s. Kansas has equally been one of the better tracks for Keselowski, but a poor qualifying effort (25th) gave Johnson an edge. Yes, the Miller Lite Dodge methodically made its way through the field, their M.O. during a season defined by “never give up.” But at no point was this car a winning one; Keselowski never led a lap, struggled to stay inside the top 10 and was visibly relieved to simply come home in eighth, one position ahead of Johnson. By all counts, this team believed that they could have very well left the Speedway tied or even down in the standings if not for Johnson’s wreck.
So who’s got the edge now? The kind of comeback effort we saw on Sunday can be expected from the No. 48 team; after all, they’ve won five of these things with relatively the same personnel. They keep their heads and perform their duties routinely and have the knowledge and preparation to be able to overcome any obstacles. The No. 2 Dodge, in comparison has been through a Chase before, but they have not prevailed. People would think they aren’t well prepared to handle such a situation, but they continue to surprise. This weekend, they took everything thrown at them with aplomb, making the most of an ill-handling car and proved that they have what it takes to take home the big silver trophy at the end of the Chase.
There are always going to be different moments that people can point to, during a season, that claim they were the activities that sealed the championship. This year, for both Keselowski and Johnson, that moment occurred this weekend. Whether it is Johnson looking back at his pit crew restructuring the rear of the car after he backed it into the wall, keeping him on the lead lap and eventually garnering him a ninth-place finish, or Keselowski’s crew just doing enough to keep the team within striking distance of the leader, it will be the pivotal moment in which the 2012 Chase took a turn. Yes, the trials and tribulations that affected both of these teams y were completely different. But the end result was that they adjusted, adapted and overcame and continued their march to Florida and the season finale.
There is a reason the No. 48 and No. 2 teams are at the top of the point summary these days and it generally comes down to preparation. The crew chiefs handle adversity in different ways but both of them are proven winners and at least their teams know what is expected in each and every situation. That is how trophies are won, and Keselowski and Johnson both are poised to take home the hardware in Vegas thanks to the talents of their crews and the demeanor of their crew chief.