For those who have followed Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his performance in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is none-too-alarming. A deceptive 10th-place run to start the playoffs, followed by an 18th-place hiccup placed the five-time defending champion in a 29-point hole out of the gate. Were fans, pundits and competitors watching and wondering intently? Of course. Were they writing off Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus as afterthoughts under a new, simplified, points-format. Absolutely not.
Johnson and Knaus proved why they are not to be counted out with so many miles left to go in NASCAR’s grueling 10-race Chase marathon, making statements with second- and first-place showings in the latest two events. The win — a dominating run in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — landed Team 48 in third place in the Chase standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards, who has proven to be the playoffs’ most consistent driver thus far in 2011.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” Johnson said of any naysayers. “If you’re watching and reading all the headlines, you can get caught up in a lot of stuff that just really isn’t important.
“I’ve known in my heart the speed that we’ve had as a race team when we were in Chicago and unfortunately finished 10th because of fuel mileage. I know we were a heck of a lot better than 18th at New Hampshire but the damage to the car put us in 18th; Dover we were strong, and then (the win) here.
“Again, I don’t pay attention to that stuff that’s out there — I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed today what we’re capable of when we’re all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks.”
The praise Johnson heaped on his team was well deserved. His pit crew — at times the Achilles heel of the operation and Knaus’ target for multiple changes — was spot on throughout the day, maintaining all-important track position.
The event came down to a green-white-checker restart — NASCAR’s version of overtime — when Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, suffered a blown engine. The field was bunched up for what would be the deciding three laps, and Johnson wasted no time in disposing of second-place (and eventual runner-up) Kasey Kahne, on the restart and cruised to a .548-second win. Brad Keselowski was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
Edwards had an especially eventful day, realizing just two laps into the 272-lap affair that he and crew chief Bob Osborne had missed the setup. His No. 99 team diligently went to work adjusting his Ford, and although they lost a lap at one point, screamed through the field late to record the top-5 finish.
It was the type of effort that wins championships, though Edwards was more apt to shrug it off as good old-fashioned racing luck.
“We’re lucky because we had to have luck go our way,” he said. “We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. But we’ve messed up enough in the past that I’m pretty proud of our ability to just kind of take our bad days and just keep plugging along. It’s kind of a little test when you go through something like this to see if somebody melts down or if you can kind of keep going through it, and I’m glad it worked out today, but there was a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Kevin Harvick, who sits second in the point standings, was sixth. Last week’s winner, Kurt Busch, was 13th, now 16 points out of the Chase lead.
Gordon, whose blown engine with three laps remaining brought out the final caution, finished 34th and fell a whopping 47 points back in the standings with six races remaining.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Brian France is doubling down on Kansas Speedway, bringing a second Cup race to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in Kansas City, an annual late September or early October stop since 2001. And with a sparkling new casino, the hope by NASCAR and its track operating wing, International Speedway Corp., is that Kansas will draw in more fans despite its cookie-cutter configuration and penchant for aero-racing.
In June, Bard Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe rolled the dice in a high-stakes game of fuel strategy and hit the jackpot, outlasting Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Keselowski’s Penske Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, led a race-high 152 laps after starting on the pole. However, the fuel mileage wasn’t as kind to the Las Vegas native, and he slid to ninth at the finish.
Last year, Greg Biffle made winning at Kansas look like easy money, taking the checkers by 7.638 seconds ahead of 2008 winner Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and two-timer (2006, ’09) Tony Stewart. In his past four stops in K.C., Biffle has two wins and a pair of thirds.
Crew Chief’s Take
“As with many of the circuit’s 1.5- and 2-mile ovals, bump stops on the shocks play an important role at Kansas. A team must find an optimal setting for the bump stops or the car will be negatively affected by being too low — which drags the splitter and affects handling — or too high — which gets air under the car and results in a lack of front-end downforce. Kansas is a simple track, which means there are probably more teams that can win there than at most places.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Kurt Busch sat on the pole and led 152 laps before fuel mileage bit him to the tune of a ninth-place finish. Pretty Solid Pick: If Greg Biffle has a win in him this season, this is where he’ll get it. Good Sleeper Pick: If it comes down to fuel mileage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't a bad pick. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not that he’d be on your squad anyway, but Joey Logano averages a 26.8-place finish here. Insider Tip: Brad Keselowski won the June race here on fuel mileage. It’ll likely come down to that again.
Classic Moments at Kansas
Kansas Speedway has been the site of many oddball finishes, and with its traditional date in the Chase, it’s often had championship ramifications. The 2006 Banquet 400 is no different.
Jimmie Johnson has led 105 laps on the day and leads late when fuel mileage comes into play. Johnson surrenders the lead with four laps remaining to Tony Stewart, who runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap. However, with pit stops ongoing, Stewart has a nearly 20-second lead over Casey Mears and coasts the final half-lap to win with an empty fuel cell.
Johnson’s title hopes appear to take a fatal hit when he is caught speeding on pit road while coming in for a splash of gas and two tires. His 14th-place finish finds him 165 points out of the Chase lead. He rebounds, though, averaging a third-place finish over the final six races to win his first Cup.
If not for Kenseth's smile, you'd think these two were having it out again. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Attention race fans: Do not count Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase until he is mathematically eliminated (which probably will not happen). Thank you. That is all.
2. Carl Edwards The preseason favorite to unseat Johnson had a quiet regular season but has pieced together six straight top 10s — including runs of fourth, eighth and third in the Chase — to tie for the points lead.
3. Tony Stewart Stewart seemed resigned to the fact that Dover would be unkind ... and it was. Expect the team to regroup at Kansas, where Stewart has two wins and was eighth earlier this season.
4. Jeff Gordon Gordon came into the Chase hot, but has cooled with finishes of 12th and 24th sandwiching a fourth-place run. You have to figure his No. 24 team will get it together, but the performance bears watching.
5. Brad Keselowski The eight-week breakout run Keselowski enjoyed — which may be the story of the year in the sport — comes to an end. However, this team’s strength remains that it doesn’t know it shouldn’t be here.
"Honestly Doc, I don't even know what Fastenal is." (ASP, Inc.)
6. Kevin Harvick Clinging to the points lead thanks to his four regular season wins and top-12 finishes. Still, Harvick seems to be lacking some of the mojo that got him here. Maybe he should pick a fight with Kyle Busch.
7. Matt Kenseth Running out of fuel in the Chase’s first race at Chicago may come back to haunt Kenseth, who had one of the best cars there. The result was a 21st, with fifth- and sixth-place runs since.
8. Kurt Busch Busch throws his hat back into the championship hunt with an impressive — and somewhat unexpected — win in Dover over Johnson, who he described as his “arch-nemesis.”
9. Kyle Busch A sixth at Dover helped his cause after subpar 22nd- and 11th-place showings. Leading laps is Kyle’s calling card, but he hasn’t done that since the onset of the Chase.
10. Ryan Newman There’s quite a gap between ninth and 10th on the list. Newman is sliding down the rankings thanks to 25th- and 23rd-place runs which have deep-sixed his Chase chances.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That third-place run to open the Chase is proving to be the fuel-mileage fluke we believed it to be.
12. Clint Bowyer If he expects to run better at Michael Waltrip Racing next season he needs to think again.
13. AJ Allmendinger Back to his seventh- to 12th-place ways after a couple of down weeks.
14. Denny Hamlin Averaged an eighth-place finish in the three races prior to the Chase. Averaging a 26th-place finish in it.
15. Greg Biffle If a non-Chaser is to win a Chase race, Biffle may be that guy at Kansas.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.
Count out this cool customer? Not a good idea. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Mike Neff
For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.
So before you stick a fork in the five-time defending champion — who happens to be in a 29-point hole after two Chase events — you might want to remember that this isn’t the first time the No. 48 team has faced playoff adversity. Taking a little trip down memory lane just may help freshen the memories of the doubters who are certain that this is the year Johnson’s dynasty crumbles.
In 2006, the first year of his five-year run, the Chase started at Loudon and Johnson not only stumbled out of the gate, he fell straight on his face. Johnson came home 39th, the bottom finisher of the title contenders and ahead of only Jeff Green, Morgan Shepherd, Ted Christopher and Bobby Labonte for the afternoon. Things didn’t get any better over the next three races, as Johnson finished 13th, 14th and 24th — the last of which came courtesy of a wreck at Talladega that included teammate Brian Vickers and future teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, from that point until Homestead, Johnson and his team were nearly perfect. They didn’t finish worse than second over the next five races and only finished ninth at Homestead because that was all they had to do to clinch the title, which they did by 56 points.
The following season was the year where even those fans who don’t like Johnson had to admit they never really felt like he was going to lose it. He finished outside of the top 10 twice during the final 10 races, both of which were 14th-place runs. Six of the final 10 races he finished in the top three, and four of those were consecutive wins from Martinsville through Phoenix. Even though his Chase performance was one of dominance that season, he was third in the standings after the first two races. That said, there’s no question that ’07 was the most dominant of Johnson’s five Chase wins.
Another strong year came in 2008, as Johnson cruised through the Chase with only two finishes outside the top 10, but they were both 15th-place showings. He began the Chase with second- and fifth-place finishes, but still sat third after two events. By the time the checkers fell at Homestead, though, Johnson had three wins and six top 5s in the playoffs and beat Carl Edwards by 69 points for his third championship.
Edwards was supposed to lay it on Johnson in 2009, but faltered to an 11th-place points finish. Instead, it was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin, that went toe-to-toe with the mighty 48. Johnson started the Chase off in a better position than the previous years, with a fourth and a first in the first two races. Still, Johnson ranked second to Martin through two.
However, Johnson beat Martin into submission from there, scoring single-digit finishes in all but one of the playoff races to win his fourth title by a comfortable 141 points.
Last season presented another foe for Johnson to outlast — check that, it brought two foes, in Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Johnson started the Chase with another bad run at Loudon, coming home 25th. He followed that with a win in Dover, but still in a 35-point hole to Hamlin. As is usually the case, Johnson and Knaus went on a run from there, averaging a 4.5-place finish over the final eight races to turn the tables on a choking Hamlin, and winning title No. 5 by 39 points.
The Chase for the Cup in 2011 has not opened up like a house on fire for Johnson, who is staring at his worst points position in since the beginning of the dynasty. And for all the talk of a rift between Johnson and Knaus, it could just as easily be the case that the two make a run like a scalded dog the rest of the Chase and everyone forgets about the talk of discord.
The only way we’ll find out is to run the rest of the races. Because while it may not appear so now, as long as the 48 team is in the playoffs it’s the team to beat.
From the Spotter’s Stand
Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson combined to lead 324 of the first 364 laps and were poised for a late-race showdown with late-comer Clint Bowyer in May. However, a late-race caution punctuated what was an otherwise staid event and pit strategy turned the field — and the results — upside down.
Bowyer, Edwards and Johnson took the time to take four fresh tires during the caution, while Mark Martin stayed out to inherit the lead. Meanwhile, a slew of teams elected to put on only two tires, including the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth, who led the pack off pit road.
And just as the Southern 500 the week prior proved that track position trumped fresh Goodyears, the FedEx 400 solidified it, as Martin and Kenseth sprinted away, while those who dominated the race remained mired in heavy traffic. By the time Kenseth slipped under Martin, only 31 laps remained on the fast, one-mile oval, and he ran away uncontested for a 2.122-second victory, his second career win at Dover.
Jimmie Johnson has been rock solid at the concrete 1-mile oval in Dover, and last year was no different. The 48 dominated for the sixth time at “The Monster Mile” — and for the third time in four races — by starting at the pole, leading a race-high 191 laps and taking the checkers by a 2.637-second margin over runner-up Jeff Burton in the second race of the Chase.
Earlier in 2010, Johnson led 225 laps but could not hold it together after being busted for speeding on pit road while going mano a mano with wild child and eventual winner Kyle Busch. Rowdy led 131 laps before raising the “Miles the Monster” trophy in Victory Lane for the second time in his career.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Dover is an all-concrete track and is banked all the way around; even the straights have nine degrees of banking. Therefore, right-side tire management is a race-long concern. Dover provides drivers with multiple grooves from which to choose, but normally, the best cars are the ones that will run the low line around the track. The transitions from turns to straights are unique. Drivers call it ‘falling down’ in the turns. Back in the 1990s, it was asphalt, but it was so rough it was more like a gravel road. Concrete has its pluses and minuses, but it made this track a lot better.”
Looking at Checkers: It’s hard to overlook Jimmie Johnson’s six wins at Dover. Pretty Solid Pick: Mark Martin has made no secret of his love of Dover. His four wins are proof of it. Good Sleeper Pick: Guys turn it up a notch when racing at their home track, and this is Martin Truex’s turf. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Juan Pablo Montoya has led only five of the 3,415 laps he’s completed at Dover. Insider Tip: Trouble happens quick here. Having a good qualifier who stays up front is a bonus.
Classic Moments at Dover
Proving his shocking win in the Daytona 500 earlier in the season was no fluke, Derrike Cope leads 93 laps and wins the 1990 Budweiser 500 in Dover.
Cope shoots to the lead by lap 160, but a miscalculation by his crew chief causes his No. 10 Purolator Chevy to run out of gas while pacing the field, dropping him off the lead lap.
Cope has a strong car, though, and races his way back onto the lead lap (without the aid of Lucky Dogs or wave-arounds). A fast pit stop under a lap 421 caution bumps him up to second, and on lap 446, he passes Rusty Wallace, who leads 131 laps in the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiac, for the lead. From there, Cope holds off Ken Schrader to earn his second, and final, career victory.
Tony Stewart passes Clint Bowyer in the Sylvania 300. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”