Why Johnson should win it … and why he may not
Kansas Speedway has at times proven the most pivotal event in the Chase. Two years ago, NASCAR's decision to restart the race after a thunderstorm delay completely shook up the points—Tony Stewart went from holding a big lead to a big crash and a big deficit, while Jimmie Johnson moved to the top of the standings to stay. Last year's race provided Johnson with the first of what would be three victories in the playoff, and served as a springboard to a record-tying third consecutive championship.
A similar opportunity presented itself Sunday, when Johnson had a fleeting chance to take control of this year's Chase and effectively reduce the championship hunt to himself and a few select contenders.
With 120 laps remaining, the No. 48 car was out front and cruising. Johnson had led 40 of the previous 44 laps, and it was beginning to look like a trademark effort by Chad Knaus and company—gradually make the car better, and then blow everyone away at the end. Even more telling were the live standings: at the time, Johnson was the leader, and only three others were within 100 points of him. The Sunflower State, it seemed as the circuits wound down, would once again be the place where the No. 48 team made the statement that everyone else was chasing them.
The decision to take four tires at Kansas led to a ninth-place finish and signs of vulnerability.
And yet, it didn't happen. Elliott Sadler spun to bring out a caution, and the result was chaos—led by Greg Biffle, eight drivers chose to gamble for track position by putting on only two tires. Johnson took the standard four, restarted in ninth place, and was never really a factor again. He finished a respectable, if rather un-Johnson-like, ninth. He lost eight points to leader Mark Martin, and is 18 behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate heading to his native Southern California this weekend.
That turn of events at Kansas provides a small-scale glimpse as to why Johnson remains the favorite to win this Chase … and why that might not happen. Every week, the No. 48 team brings cars to the race track that are a legitimate threat to win. Nobody is better than Knaus at manipulating those small areas of the current vehicle that remain open to manipulation. From the simple standpoint of car and driver, the very essence of NASCAR racing, there is not a better program on the circuit. If the championship is reduced to those two not-insignificant variables, then everyone else is racing for second place.
Johnson has something else in his corner, too—the Chase schedule, which couldn't suit him better if he had chosen the playoff races himself. Even before this season, he had won at every one of the final 10 tracks except Homestead-Miami, site of the finale. He has multiple wins at six of the 10. The Chase includes what can inarguably be called five of Johnson's best tracks: Dover (where he recorded his fifth career win two weeks ago), Auto Club Speedway (where he has three victories and is defending champion), Lowe's Motor Speedway (where he's won five times), Martinsville (where's he won six times total, including five of the last six), and Phoenix (where he's won three of the last four).
There are no road courses, where Johnson has yet to win at the Sprint Cup level. There's no Bristol, the high-banked short track that has bedeviled him. There's no Michigan, where—given his success at California, a very similar 2-mile oval—he's a somewhat surprising 0-for-16. There's no Las Vegas, where he's struggled since the renovation and has finished well off the pace the past two years. It's just favorable track after favorable track after favorable track. No wonder the No. 48 team does so well under the Chase format. Every weekend must feel like a home game.
"I think the season comes to us, in a way," said Johnson, a native of the San Diego area who is hosting his foundation's annual charity golf tournament and dinner auction this week prior to the race at Fontana. "And I know that we perform well in the Chase, but I think the schedule is helpful for the No. 48 car. We have great results, and it gives us a lot of hope going into these tracks, but we still have to show up and get the job done. So we have a positive mindset looking forward to those tracks. It will make the week easier leading into those tracks, but we still have to go in there and get to work. I'm excited for it."
With good reason, given his past successes at the remaining tracks on the schedule. And yet, there was something about what happened at Kansas that makes you wonder if the No. 48 isn't quite as bulletproof as it appears. Johnson's team operates like a Fortune 500 company, taking a leave-nothing-to-chance approach that eliminates any potential variable. When Knaus noticed a crack in the top of the pit wall last year at Homestead, he had his crew cover it with tape to make sure the air hose wouldn't get hung up in it. This is a team and a driver that embody control and cool. They win because they don't take chances, and therefore don't make mistakes.
And yet, in this Chase, they may find their hand forced. The way pit strategy unfolded at Kansas, with all kinds of teams making all kinds of tire gambles in an attempt to get track position, left the usually sure-footed No. 48 team unsure of themselves. When everybody else took two, they took four, and lamented that fact on the radio as Johnson's blue and silver Chevrolet struggled to make gains in traffic. Prior to the final restart, they tried their own two-tire gambit, but the car never responded. Johnson slid backward while Stewart—who also took two tires on that final stop—ran away to win.
Now, no one in their right mind would question Knaus' credentials as a crew chief. He's become every bit as great as his former boss, Ray Evernham, was in his day. But you look at the two fuel-mileage races the No. 48 lost earlier this season at Michigan, and listen to Johnson's own frustration on why his team struggles to make the right calls in fuel-mileage events. You look at the regret over the four-tire decision at Kansas—the safe, sensible call at the time, given the point in the race and the degree of fall-off teams had seen in the tire. You look at the fact that two of the first three Chase races have been won by pit strategy, and see the potential for more to be decided in the same way. And you wonder: have we at last discovered Johnson's Achilles' heel?
Again, boil it down to car, driver, and setup, and they'll hammer you. But if it all hinges on pit strategy? If the Chase continues to be shaken by gambling crew chiefs willing to take two tires at any time? That kind of havoc, that kind of risk-taking, doesn't necessarily fit with the No. 48 team's profile. Five of the seven remaining playoff races could be impacted by pit strategy, with teams rolling the dice on fuel at California and Phoenix and on tires at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. It's not going to be as simple as just outrunning people anymore. Is that the kind of game the three-time defending champions can win?
Given all they've accomplished, it's tough to doubt Johnson and Knaus. Still, after what transpired at Kansas, it's difficult to prevent a small seed of uncertainty from lodging itself in the back of the mind. Biffle's two-tire gamble with 120 laps remaining on Sunday afternoon ultimately didn't net him the victory. But it may have provided the blueprint to beating Jimmie Johnson.