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Pedley: Jimmie Hunters Think They’ve Found Gold

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011

Jimmie Johnson's streak to be ended by spat with crew chief? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Gregg Ellman)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

The Jimmie hunters have found their crack.

It took 26.5 races and they needed electronic listening devices to accomplish their mission, but the folks who spend way too much time searching for signs that this is the year that Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team fail to win the Sprint Cup championship think they have their evidence.

And they’ve wasted no time going public with it.

The smoking gun is a couple-second sound bite from a two-way radio conversation between Johnson and crew chief Chad Johnson that occurred during last Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Gotcha, Mr. Five Time.

Of course these folks have been looking for signs of stress on the 48 team since Johnson won his second-straight championship three years ago. Looking for a variety of reasons: Some people don’t like Johnson because he is from California; some because he is too pretty; some because they don’t like his owner; some because they think he is too bland; some because they don’t like Knaus; some because he has cost them dearly in their fantasy pools; some because his name isn’t Earnhardt; some just because they want change.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Erik J. Perel)

Whatever. There is a very large segment of fans, media and competitors out there who do not want to see Johnson win a sixth straight championship this season.

So, rather than taking a step back and enjoying one of the great dynasties in all of sports as it unfurls live before their eyes, they look for cracks in Johnson’s bid to win this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

And there, buried deep in hours upon hours of radio transmissions, they found a hairline fracture.

It came with Johnson having an atypically off day at New Hampshire during the second race of the 10-race playoff.

In unseasonably warm weather up in the Northeast, some of they usual tricks not working, and Johnson and Knaus got snippy with each other on the radio.

Knaus called the No. 48 car his car and told Johnson that if he is going to drive it, it would be by his rules.

Johnson replied, “Chad, I’m not a little kid any more. I’m almost 36 and a half.”

Eureka. Gold.

Clips of the conversation have been played over and over again in the days since. Transcripts of the clip have been cited in stories, columns and blogs from here to there.

And when Johnson took to the dais in the media center at Dover International Speedway on Friday for his weekly presser, the hunters’ media arm moved in. The third question of the session was about The Conversation.

Had he and Knaus talked about it?

Jimmie Johnson hits the pits in New Hampshire. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Johnson then showed one of the attributes that have made him the best driver in NASCAR history – he coolly answered. There was zero umbrage, zero snottiness or how dare you? when he replied:

“No, nothing off of this,” Johnson said. “After 10 years of working together, there are plenty of things that we know about each other and a lot of discussions that have taken place. There hasn’t been anything more than normal. I mean, when you work with someone as long as we have, for over 10 years now, there are hot spots and buttons that can be pushed that send someone over the edge. We know what took place last weekend and he knows at times I can be frustrated with his cheerleading. That is what I said on the radio. So, it’s nothing new to us.

“I know a lot of people are reacting to it and think that it is something abnormal. There’s a lot of other instances throughout the last 10 years where stuff like this has gone on and during our review of races and review of things and how to be a better group-a better team; we talk about this stuff all the time. So, yes it wasn’t our finest moment on Sunday, but, it is what we deal with. It’s been part of what we’ve been dealing with for 10 years.”

He’s right, of course. He and Knaus have argued – in person and on the radio – frequently during their decade together. And the result has been the Jimmie Johnson Decade in NASCAR.

All drivers and crew chiefs argue. All teammates in sports argue. All of them. Some throw punches at each other. Some in the NBA threaten each other with pistols in the locker room. If arguments were fatal to chances for success, sports would have no champions.

Johnson is currently 10th in points after finishing 18th last weekend. He is 29 points behind leader Tony Stewart, who has won the first two races of the Chase. Johnson has won just one race this season. He is looking very vulnerable.

But know this: If Johnson’s streak does come to an end this season, it will not be because of the radio conversation in New Hampshire.

And know this: Johnson is not out of contention.

He was as correct as he was cool when he said later in that presser on Friday, “We’ve been in this position before and have been behind. Pressure yes. There is pressure to perform each and every week. Some from the outside and ton from the inside. Inside of my own head, inside of my own team. We know what we are capable of and we’ve clearly done an amazing job over the last five years. But, it doesn’t guarantee anything for this year. There is pressure within that point as well. Yes, in pro sports, including NASCAR…pressure is everywhere. These final 10 races take that whole pressure scale and multiply it by some crazy number. Pressure is everywhere for every team.”

Hunt on, folks.

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 1 2011
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