Wednesday, March 03, 2010

And the Beat Goes On ... Knaus, Johnson Just Win

Knaus outsmarts everyone – again

LAS VEGAS – In searching for an excuse why Jimmie Johnson dominates, the haters are quick to scream that his crew chief Chad Knaus is a cheater.

It’s time to put that talk to bed.

Cheating is not what won the 48 team four championships in a row; it’s not what has had them competing for a title in each of Johnson’s eight going on nine Cup seasons; and it’s not what put them in victory lane Sunday for the second week in a row and the 49th time overall.

When everyone else opted to take two tires on the final pit stop of Sunday’s Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Knaus made the call to take four. It was a typical Knaus move and one that perfectly explains why Johnson perpetually is in a league of his own.

By not running with the pack, the 48 team gives themselves the chance to be ahead of it. Once that decision is made, it’s up to them to perform, and as we’ve seen, they usually do. Knaus made the call Sunday, the pit crew changed the four tires in less than 12 seconds to send their driver back on the track in fourth, and Johnson took care of the rest, passing Jeff Gordon with 18 laps to go.

Afterward, Johnson was asked the question that’s become as routine as him winning: How lucky can one guy get?

“If people are trying to find a way not to accept the quality of this race team, that’s cool,” Johnson said. “We’ll just come back this week and take the trophy again.”

Johnson acknowledged that his was a “smart-ass” remark, but who’s going to argue that he won’t?

For most of the day, Gordon dominated, leading 219 of the 267 laps. With a little more than 30 laps to go, a caution came out, setting up the leaders for one final stop. Originally, crew chief Steve Letarte ordered Gordon not to pit but changed his mind at the last second, calling for a two-tire stop. Behind him, Johnson was taking four.

On the restart, Johnson bolted from fourth to second almost immediately, setting up a two-car duel to the finish. Gordon held off his teammate for a stretch but couldn’t indefinitely.

“I knew we were a sitting duck,” Gordon said. “It was just a matter of time because two vs. four.

“When you’re leading, that’s the toughest position to be in – to make that call,” he explained. “If we won the race, we’d look like geniuses, Steve would have. The fact that we lost the race, now Chad looks like the genius.

“I talked to Steve briefly after the race. He’s pretty upset obviously. I think he just felt like more people were going to take two tires.”

Had they – had Johnson – Gordon is confident he would have won. So are Johnson and Knaus, which is why they made the decision they did. All afternoon they were stuck behind Gordon and Matt Kenseth, unable to make any gains because the cars were so equal. So when the opportunity to break from the pack arose, they took it.

Johnson sprays Knaus and team. AP

“If you’re prepared and a situation arises that you can take advantage of a top-five or a victory, I don’t think that’s luck,” Knaus said. “If we’d had been out there today and wrecked on Lap 5 because we were midway in the pack, that’s not luck; that’s because we qualified so poorly that we were somewhere where we shouldn’t have been.”

Knaus pointed to last year’s Chase race at Texas when Johnson qualified poorly, then got caught in a wreck on Lap 2.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of luck,” he said. “There’s opportunities that arise throughout the race. If you’re prepared to capitalize on them, then good for you.”

Undoubtedly some will view Knaus as being arrogant when really he’s more proud. He’s the one, after all, who has put in the work and dedicated his life to figuring out how to get his driver to the checkered flag before everyone else. So if you’re looking for an explanation of Johnson’s dominance, there it is, and there’s nothing unseemly about it.

Jay Hart is the NASCAR editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jay a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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