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Pedley: 48 Has Won The Head Game

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 22 2010

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

For Chad Knaus, it seems to be mission accomplished. It seems that his oft-stated goal of not just winning the mechanical battles against other Sprint Cup teams, but also prevailing in the psychological war, is all but won.

At least that was sure the way it sounded late Sunday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway as contender-who-fell-short after contender-who-fell-short talked about getting Jimmie-ed again in the Food City 500.

Kurt Busch – who led what was by far a race-best 278 laps and debatably had the fastest car at Bristol – seemed to have his hands wrapped firmly around the white-flag pole after finishing third Sunday.

“We looked at the lap tracker today or Saturday’s practice, saw the 48 was going to be the car to beat,” Busch said. “They are every week. It’s up to the best of us to knock him off the top. So it’s rough. You know, they’ve won three times this year. Not that we need to deserve to win, it’s just that they are winning every chance they’re given.”

Oh, baby, that’s the kind of sugar papa Knaus likes.

Drivers, crew chiefs, crew members from other teams already on Saturday eyeing Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports car. Tracking Johnson in practice, discussing him in meetings, targeting him on Sunday. Surrendering small tracts of ground on the psychological battle fields.

With every quick lap Johnson and team click off in practice and qualifying and during races, subcutaneous desperate feelings of hopelessness increase in 42 other garage stalls.

And why not?

It seems like every weekend it’s the same thing: When the 48 team needs a great call from the box, a great setup from the boys back at the race shop, a great late-race pit stop, a timely yellow flag, they get it.

Other teams notice that. You bet they do. They come to believe that it’s going to happen again and it does.

And it simply has to affect them. Has to. Thoughts of doubt and doom become self-fulfilling, you know?

Knaus knows.

As he sat in the traditional post-race press conference in Bristol after his driver won for the third time in five races in 2010, Knaus laid bare his feelings about tunneling deep into the collective psyches of the other teams in his series.

He talked about it in response to being told about Busch’s voiced frustrations.

“I hope it frustrates them,” Knaus said. “That’s only momentum for us.”

While Busch sounded frustrated after being Jimmie-ed, other drivers seemed to feel something that is even more dangerous in sports – happy just to be close to the leader at the end of the day.

Two drivers who want to win Sprint Cup races seemingly more than they want world peace sounded absolutely cool with top-six finishes behind Johnson.

“I couldn’t make my car wide enough to keep Jimmie behind us,” runner-up and, hence, top non-Jimmie finisher Tony Stewart said. “His car was good no matter where he needed to go. Congratulations to Jimmie. I couldn’t do anything with him. We got us a top-five there and I’m proud of our guys. It’s fun when you can get a car to drive well here. It’s feast or famine here at Bristol. If your car drives well, it’s a fun, great day. If something’s wrong or you have a problem and you get in the back, it’s a day to forget. Glad we ended up with a good day.”

Said sixth-place finisher Carl Edwards, “It was pretty cool there at the end to have the top-three guys there in Fords. I thought we were going be fighting for the win, but Jimmie got in there with four tires and shook it all up and ended up getting the win.  That’s the best we ran all day was sixth, so that’s pretty decent.”

Congrats, Chad and Jimmie. You have put the competition right where you want them in the psychological war – on the run at the one-sixth of the season point.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 22 2010
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Richard in N.C. says:

    As I recall, Ironhead was pretty good at messing with competitor’s minds also – which has made me wonder whether some of Kevin Harvick’s recent comments about Carl E. might have been at least in part to try to distract Carl. After Bristol, I’m afraid to say that it looks like Chad and JJ might still be getting better – but it can’t last forever, I don’t think.

  • ed says:

    Jim, I hate to say it, but unless competitors are willing to put the bumper to the 48 on a regular basis to get in his head, a 5th and 6th championship will be inevitable.

    When Tony Stewart is happy to be second, the 48 has the entire field neutered. Second used to piss Tony off worse than 43rd.