/ NASCAR / JIMMIE JOHNSON
The revolving pit crew lineup has arguably caused as many problems as its solved for the No. 48 team. (INSET) The harder tires have demanded very different strategies from all teams. (BELOW) Rick Hendrick can’t have too many complaints about his five-time champion, though.
Can one of the wild-card
Chase entries win the Cup?
to the challenge of knocking o; Johnson so far, which is why
he was third in points in what is an “o;” year. Several drivers
– Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards
among them – have been red hot at times during the 2011
season and cold as ice other times.
“There are a lot of strengths at Joe Gibbs Racing, but also a
couple weaknesses, too,” says Kyle Busch by way of explanation.
“I think just being able to put the pieces of the puzzle together
throughout the whole year may be a bit of a weakness and you
can argue that all the teams sort of have that. Jimmie may have
that, the 99 [Edwards] may have that sometimes, but when it
comes to pressure time – whether it’s the team, whether it’s
the driver – that seems to be our main challenge.”
Inevitably, Johnson’s streak will come to an end. It has to.
Still, he remains The Man until someone beats him…which,
lest we forget, last happened in 2005.
“You cannot count out the 48 and you can’t count out the
11 [Hamlin], but there are definitely some other strong guys out
there,” says Johnson’s teammate, Je; Gordon. “The 99 was very
strong at the end of last season and showed they were going to
be one to beat this year and they’ve done that. But, I think
some of the teams that were behind have caught up.”
And what does Johnson think? He has an interesting take on
it. Johnson and Knaus very nearly split after a heartbreaking
championship loss to Tony Stewart in 2005. But a meeting with
team owner Rick Hendrick – who famously served them milk and
cookies mid-meeting because of their childishness – salvaged
NASCAR’s revised rules for
entry into the Chase for the
It breaks down like the this: The
top 10 drivers in points after 26 races
will make the field for the 10-race
championship round. There will also be
two wild cards – drivers in points
positions 11th through 20th who
have the most race victories.
Could one of these wild cards
actually win the Chase? History
suggests, no. Since its inception, only
one driver has won the title after
starting the Chase outside the top
three in points. And that was the first
Chase in 2004, when Kurt Busch
began NASCAR’s playoff in seventh.
Nevertheless, there are a couple
of drivers to keep an eye on. Brad
Keselowski (BELOW) has two wins,
one of which came four days after
suffering a broken ankle in a savage
crash in testing. Brash and cocky,
Keselowski has a ton of confidence.
“I came here to win,” he said after
his near-miraculous triumph at
Pocono Raceway. “When you let the
pain get into your head so far that
you don’t believe you can win
anymore, you’ll never win.”
Denny Hamlin, who at press time
was outside the top 10 in points, is
someone who could go on a hot streak
at any time, especially if Joe Gibbs
Racing solves its engine woes. After
all, he nearly won the Cup last year.
As for Tony Stewart, who’s been
on the edge of the top 10 all season,
he has a simple philosophy: “This is
the time of the year when you want
to be building momentum and we’ve
had strong runs recently. I hope that
trend keeps going. I’d much rather be
in this situation than leading the points
when it doesn’t get you anything.”
the relationship. Johnson sees a parallel
between what he and Knaus have been
through and what Edwards and his
crew chief Bob Osborne endured when
they rebounded strongly from a 70-race
winless streak that finally ended last
November in Phoenix.
“I really look back at the tough
times that the 99 team and the Roush
organization have been through in the
last year or so – how they stuck together
as a team and came through that,” says
Johnson. “There’s a lot to be said for that.
I feel that they can face adversity. When
you get into the Chase, it’s very rare to
have all 10 races go your way. To be able
to overcome adversity and stick together
as a team is an important asset or quality
you need to become champions. They’ve
proven they can do that through tough
times over a long period of time. I find
that to be their most dangerous asset.”
“I think it’s going to be a very di;cult
Chase to predict. Even at this point, I
don’t see a clear favorite.”
That said, the field is as wide open as
it has been in years.
Says Johnson: “Some race weekends
we leave kind of down and knowing that
we need some speed and knowing there
are some areas to work in. Other weeks,
things go really well for us.