Johnson Has One Huge Advantage In This Chase
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Talent? Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson both have shelves stacked full of that. Great equipment? The two drivers leading the point standings are well-stocked there as well. Wrenchers? Chad Knaus is this era’s Spanner Boy but Paul Wolfe’s is builing a nice reputation of his own and may just be a quarter-turn back.
Car owners? Not sure if that matters, but that situation is kind of eerily similar as well: Mr. H vs. The Captain.
No, when looking for an edge between the top two contenders – Keselowski will trail leader Johnson by two measly points when Race No. 8 of the 10-race Chase begins Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway – for this year’s Sprint Cup championship, you’ve got to turn to the intangibles.
Specifically the Been There, Done That thing.
It would appear: Big edge Johnson in that category.
The 37-year-old Californian is going for his sixth championship in seven years. He and Knaus and their people are credited as being the first to noodle solutions to winning a championship in a series that, very suddenly in 2004, adopted a 10-race, end-of-year playoff system.
Johnson and his portion of the Hendrick Motorsports operation have obviously developed a strategy to cope with all that goes on under the hood and inside the skull.
“Without a doubt, experience is so helpful,” Johnson said last week. “My friends, after we were able to win the first, second, so forth and so on, everybody would share with me through the season how stressed I was. I knew I
was stressed, but I thought I was hiding it well.
“Year one, I wasn’t hiding it well. By year five, I found a way to enjoy myself down the stretch in the final race. That has led to this year.
“Last year (his non-title year) I didn’t enjoy myself because we weren’t performing like we wanted to. It’s hard to have fun when you don’t get the results you want. This year we’ve been working hard, the results are there. It’s been even more fun and more relaxed and I feel we’re doing a better job as a result.”
Johnson said that to the media during his “hauler chat” at Martinsville. Doubtlessly, he was also saying it to Keselowski.
Keselowski, a five-race winner this season who is proving that 28 is the new 38 when it comes to track savvy in drivers, smiled his way through his pressers at Martinsville and again at Texas.
When asked about dealing with the pressure, he said at Martinsville, “I haven’t even thought it. I’d have to think about it before I agreed with it. I play this video game a lot called Madden Football and I’ve got this friend that I play it with; we talk all the time about it and you know every once in a while the quarterbacks will just throw something that’s on the other side of the field from where you want to hit it.
”There’s this friend of mine that has this joke that there’s two types of pressures: pressure applied and pressure felt. And there might be pressure applied but I don’t feel it.”
Certainly not on race day. Although Keselowski has qualified 22nd, 20th, 25th and 32nd for the previous four Chase races, he’s consistently been able to work his way to the front and has recorded finishes of seventh, 11th, eighth and sixth.
At Texas, he said, “While we aren’t being overlooked by any means, there are many who think that we are still too young of a team to seriously challenge the 48 team. We like it that way. In reality, we are a very good race team that is primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway.”
But did inexperience and a youthful decision to gamble cost him a victory and the points lead at Martinsville? Possibly for good? Did exuberance and belief that he’s bullet proof lead him to not pit for tires 25 laps from the finish, and did similarly inexperience crew chief Wolfe do the wrong thing by leaving the late-race decision up to his young driver?
To stay in contact with Johnson and Knaus, Keselowski and Wolfe need, first of all to qualify better. He knows that: ”I can tell you, I don’t enjoy qualifying like crap,” he said. “That’s not what I come to the race track to do.” And he didn’t do that at Texas, where he will start eighth today.
They also need to work on risk management. There are times to gamble and times to go conservative; like during the Chase when every point matters.
That has been that skill which Johnson and Knaus have worked to near perfection during the playoff era. And, it’s a bi-product of a decade’s worth of experience.
“We were battling for championships well before we won our first five,” Knaus said. “We’ve been together for 10 plus years. I can’t think of a season where we weren’t in the championship hunt. I think that’s something this team and Jimmie are built around. When it’s time to go and make this stuff happen, I think that’s when this team excels.”
Try arguing that one.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at email@example.comNo Comment