I’m not big Jimmie Johnson fan, I’m even less of a Hendrick Motorsports fan, so you know it hurts me when I say ‘Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are just very good, that’s a fact’.
Jimmie, with his crew chief Knaus, now hold a 118 point lead in NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup over their nearest rival – another Hendrick driver, Mark Martin.
Among those who are paid to know, and those who just like think they know, Jimmie’s name is already etched on the trophy for the fourth consecutive year.
‘But wait!’ I hear you cry. ‘Aren’t there still four races left this season?’
And yes there are, and 118 points over four races may not seem like a big lead where the points change per race can be as high as 150 points, but the fact is that Johnson’s results dropping to that extent is less likely than tobogganing in hell.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to Johnson’s aspirations of the fourth title on the bounce, a feat he would be the first to achieve in NASCAR, is the next race at Talladega.
Followers of NASCAR, or indeed even those who know of NASCAR, will be familiar with what can happen at the giant superspeedway in Alabama. Restrictor plates, huge pack racing with inches to spare, and ‘the big one’ accidents that can claim as many as a dozen cars in a split second.
If Johnson gets caught in one of those accidents, and his rivals finish well, his lead will be gone, and those already crowning the California native as champion again will go quiet, at least for a time. Though at this point it should be mentioned, there is just as much chance of Mark Martin, or any one of the other title chasing drivers getting caught in the carnage.
Every driver knows of that chance. Johnson himself described how he was tired of answering questions about Talladega in press conferences after last weekend’s race.
And how has Johnson got himself into this position?
Well, by just being very, very good.
You do not win three titles, and look to be heading for a fourth, by simple luck. And while Jimmie automatically takes the main plaudits as the man behind the wheel, I feel the rest of his team must get some of the credit.
Firstly, the people who put the car together. The car is fast, but also reliable. A trawl through past records will show that the no.48 team have suffered only one mechanical DNF in the past three years.
Then you come to the real brains of the operation. Chad Knaus.
While not privy to the goings-on to at Hendrick, I give a lot of personal credit to Knaus for what I see as his plan.
NASCAR’s ten race Chase system presents drivers and teams with the opportunity to just run well in the 26 race, pre-Chase ‘regular season’, before running very well at the end of the season when it counts. The artificial closing up of the top-12 drivers means that as long as you make the cut it doesn’t really matter what you’ve done since February, only what you do from October onwards.
NASCAR also does not alter the races in the car very much – yes, this year they swapped Atlanta out for Fontana, but on the scale of changes they could have made it rates as miniscule.
This static 10 race mini-season allows the teams to concentrate on getting their cars to run well on those tracks, maybe being happy to sacrifice their pace at Bristol, Darlington, Watkins Glen, Pocono or any other of the tracks that don’t host a Chase race.
This, I believe is what Johnson and Knaus have done. They both know they are good enough to take a car that is not perfectly set up, and still leave the track with a solid finish. They can then take advantage of the fact that all but two venues – Kansas and Homestead – host a regular season race alongside their Chase dates.
Is it pure coincidence that two of Johnson’s three ‘regular season’ wins come on such tracks – Martinsville and Dover?
Probably not. If he and Knaus concentrate that heavily on perfecting a set-up and approach of the Chase races, then of course they are going to run well at the same tracks, no matter the time of year.
Earlier in the Chase Jeff Gordon was quoted as saying that aside from Talladega the Chase tracks were Johnson’s strongest tracks.
But, what came first, them being Chase tracks, so Johnson got good at them, or Jimmie’s favourite tracks just happening to be the ones that constantly decide the championship.
Unless you subscribe to a colossal conspiracy theory, you’ll probably join me in believing the former.
And if Johnson, Knaus, Rick Hendrick and anyone else involved in the no.48 team are smart enough, good enough and brave enough to do this then they probably deserve four titles.