Jimmie Johnson’s fourth straight championship was arguably his most dominant performance; with three races left, he had a seemingly insurmountable 184-point edge over teammate Mark Martin under the old point system. But as Denny Hamlin should remember, entering this coming weekend after Martinsville’s mechanical monster, anything can and will happen. Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr. and got into it on lap 8, a three-wide choice turned into catastrophe when Johnson lost control, then spun off Turn 2. The man then known as “Three-Time” would run 38th, see Martin cut the deficit to 73 points and spend his post-race disgusted over what could have been the first opportunity ever to clinch the title pre-Homestead under the Chase format. What’s worse for the No. 48 group? Hornish never apologized, leaving hurt feelings that lasted months afterwards— even though J.J. still cruised to the title.
by Tom Bowles
9. Fall 2005: Edwards vs. Martin
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Texas hasn’t been a track where late-race passes for the lead are the norm. But Carl Edwards, one of five Roush drivers in contention for the 2005 season title, made this fall edition one to remember. Leading 82 laps, Edwards jumped out in front until one last caution, for debris, sent him scurrying to pit road. That left Martin out front, but with new tires Cousin Carl was able to race down the No. 6, then blow by him on the top side to secure an easy victory and pull within 77 points of Tony Stewart for the championship. As for Mark? It was his last, best chance to secure a victory in the No. 6 Roush car; he would never win again in Cup driving the famed Ford he put on the map.
by Tom Bowles
8. 1997: Lap 1 … And Done
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Turns out everything’s bigger in Texas—even the wrecks. The start of the first ever Cup race at the 1.5-mile oval, the first in the Lone Star State since 1981, didn’t even make it half-a-lap before nearly half the field was all torn up. With the new track basically a one-groove speedway, everyone was desperate to cut to the inside, including Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, who thought his No. 17 was clear of Johnny Benson’s No. 30. The second their sheet metal tangled, Waltrip went spinning in an incident that left him knocked out of the race in dead last. In all, 13 cars were involved, though most made it back on track. Only Dale Earnhardt (from a lap back to sixth) was able to work his way back into contention. And for DW, it would be a “double whammy.” One year later, he’d be a centerpiece of another major multi-car wreck to start the 1998 event. In two races, he’d struggle to complete more than two laps as the first key to this racetrack was “survival.”
by Tom Bowles
7. 1997: Throwing Caution To The Wind
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We all know the only real way to listen to a race is in Dutch. That said, you want to know why NASCAR doesn’t race back to the caution? Because there’s a risk of incidents like this one. After a multi-car crash off Turn 4, cars were racing back to the line with one particular problem: Greg Sacks’ hobbled No. 20 was slowing considerably, anticipating the dangerous incident that had happened on the tri-oval ahead. In the meantime, Ernie Irvan was focused on passing leader Terry Labonte to get a lap back instead of the mess of shattered sheet metal ahead. He didn’t see Sacks slowing until it was far too late, slamming into the No. 20 like a speeding car plowing into a safety vehicle on the highway in a wreck that left the stands eerily quiet. Until 2003, when a similar near-disaster with Dale Jarrett occurred at New Hampshire, this incident became the poster child in trying to get the rules changed. Luckily both drivers were unhurt, although each was obviously done for the day.
by Tom Bowles
6. 1997: Burton Gets First Win
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Hard to believe it has been 15-plus years since Jeff Burton, now 45, etched his name in the NASCAR record books. During a Demolition Derby of an inaugural edition, the No. 99 team and crew chief Buddy Parrott hit on the setup down the stretch. Pushing their way to the front, they avoided a late-race incident when Todd Bodine spun in front, pulled away from the homestate Labonte brothers, then outlasted Dale Jarrett to win his first Cup race by 4.067 seconds. Added bonus in this video: Kim Burton debuts on the NASCAR scene as “That NASCAR wife,” capping her emotional speech with the words “this is all he’s ever wanted his whole life.” What a nice reminder that back in the day, winning Cup Series races for the first time actually meant something more than a nice paycheck and an extra Monday appearance for your sponsor.
by Tom Bowles
5. Fall 2010: The Jeffs Play Pattycakes
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Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks—or throw good uppercuts? Respected veterans Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon got into it when the two were involved a vicious wreck exiting Turn 2. Each man had his version of the incident to tell, but with Burton at full speed, the drivers connected and Gordon took a vicious hit into the outside wall. It was surprising enough that these two wrecked, but what people didn’t expect was the duo—known more for their intellectual pursuits—trying to solve this puzzling incident with punches. The funniest part of the whole thing? NASCAR still made both men ride inside the same ambulance (of note: the two haven’t wrecked each other on the racetrack since).
by Tom Bowles
4. 2000: The Son Rises
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Way, way back, before the Most Popular Driver Awards, the concussions and the “overrated” comments, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just a wide-eyed, introverted 25-year-old who loved computers, had a famous dad and was simply trying to make it in the wild world of the Cup Series. Big things were expected of the rookie, and some wondered if he could excel with a new team run by dad Dale Earnhardt Sr. But in just his 12th race at NASCAR’s highest level, Junior cashed in, leading a race-high 106 laps and virtually coasting to the checkers by 5.9 seconds in a performance that impressed everyone—even the old man. The tender moments between them, replayed all over the country, showcased how their relationship had progressed, back to an unbreakable bond after the elder Earnhardt was MIA at times during Junior’s childhood. Also not to be missed: a loving hug from Teresa Earnhardt, a sign of her love that’s eerie considering how badly their relationship would deteriorate in the coming years, following Senior’s death in 2001.
by Tom Bowles
3. Fall 2010: Knaus’ Switch-eroo
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At the time, it was a move that reeked of something unusual out of the 48 camp: Desperation. After several slow stops with crew consistently losing time to the No. 11 team and Denny Hamlin, crew chief Chad Knaus pulled something virtually unprecedented—he called in reinforcements. A team that, in some cases, had taken the car to four straight championships on the back of its tire-changing, fuel-pumping and chassis-adjusting knowledge was suddenly on the bench. In its place, at least for the rest of this race, was Jeff Gordon’s crew, which had been pulling off faster stops in the 24’s pit box, but in the end could never really do enough to put Johnson up front to catch Hamlin. The challenger went on to a dominating win in what seemed at the time a nail in Johnson’s coffin. Of course, Johnson, Knaus and the boys took advantage of the No. 11 team’s choke job one week later and sailed to Title No. 5.
by Tom Bowles
2. 2008: McBarrell Rolls
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In six years of covering races live, there have been only two instances where I thought a driver was dead. One was during an ARCA Daytona event, when a stopped Patrick Sheltra was broadsided at full speed. This one was the other. The full clip shows you how normal a qualifying run can be, a driver progressing through his normal rhythm before a split-second mistake, as simple as one bad deceleration point, which can turn things into a possible tragedy. End over end, flip over flip, a succession of barrel rolls. Miraculously, Michael McDowell walked away, surviving in part through NASCAR’s substantial safety innovations. But his experience, limited that year in his progression through to the Cup level, was questioned for months afterward. The danger, perhaps, of what can happen as a rookie at the sport’s top level.
by Tom Bowles
1. 2004: Sadler Sneaks One In
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Kasey Kahne’s rookie season was defined by two words: “near miss.” So many times, he had the No. 9 car in position to win only to be denied, sometimes by inches in the final laps. Texas was yet another example, as Jeff Gordon’s motor problem left Kahne in position to challenge Elliott Sadler for the victory. Sadler himself had not won since Bristol in 2001, and was desperate to score another for new employer Yates Racing. The problem? Kahne was clearly the faster car. Using the high line, he came off Turn 2 like a bullet, then appeared ready to jettison by through Turns 3 and 4 as Sadler was a sitting duck. But the lapped car of Johnny Sauter, which initially looked like it would hurt Sadler by not pulling out of the way, actually cost Kahne a shot. His insistence on running full speed, keeping the inside line, forced Sadler up and Kahne was unwilling to wreck either driver, unsure what to do and slowing up just enough he didn’t have enough momentum to make the pass down the tri-oval. Either way, it was the best Texas race for the victory we’ve seen. And based on NASCAR’s current intermediate package, not one we’ll get again anytime soon.
by Tom Bowles
BONUS 2011: Kyle’s “No No”
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This list is based on Cup, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention the one-year anniversary of the wreck that changed the career of Kyle Busch. After a three-wide incident put both he and Ron Hornaday in the wall, Busch’s anger got the best of him as the caution waved. While others slowed down, the No. 18 sped up, slammimg into the back of the No. 33 of Hornaday—a title contender in the Truck Series— and wrecked both in a move that conceivably cost his rival the big trophy while putting his own professionalism, and aggression, under the microscope. NASCAR’s response was swift and severe, parking Busch for the rest of the Texas weekend while sponsor M&M’s pulled out for the final three races of 2011. A tamer Kyle Busch has been seen ever since … and for good reason.
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the draft. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Mike Neff
On Wednesday, SBNation.com’s Jeff Gluck reported that prior to the Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega on Sunday, crew chief Chad Knaus was overheard on NASCAR.com’s RaceBuddy telling Jimmie Johnson that, should he win the race, he needed to inflict some damage on the car’s rear end during his victory celebration. While there wasn’t a post-race celebration for Johnson, this conversation has certainly stirred the pot that always seems to swirl around Knaus and his history of pushing the envelope of NASCAR’s rule book. Johnson’s car passed three different inspections last weekend, so it was certainly within the parameters set by the sanctioning body — but hearing dialogue between crew chief and driver is going to cause people to, once again, point the “cheater finger” at Knaus.
There is definitely a history of Knaus pushing the limits in NASCAR’s infamous gray area (and some of the black and white areas, as well), so it is certainly justified for people to question what might have been going on with the 48 car’s rear end. Remember that Knaus was told to leave the track days before Johnson won the 2006 Daytona 500 thanks to a design on the car that allowed the rear window to be changed when it appeared a wedge adjustment was being made to the car. While it might have appeared to fall within the gray area of the rule book, NASCAR felt it was altering a piece of the car that was not supposed to be touched, thus an expulsion and suspension.
Knaus found himself in hot water at Infineon Raceway shortly after the Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007 when his team massaged the fenders of the car between the points where NASCAR’s inspection “claw” touched the body. While the car passed the requirements of touching the template at all of the required points, it was different from other cars in the areas between the points, and therefore, was deemed to provide an unfair advantage. It must be noted that there is room for debate as to whether this instance was actually cheating or simply working within the gray area, but Knaus was fined $100,000 and suspended for six races, an example of NASCAR sending a message to the garage area to be mindful of it’s hard-line CoT specs.
There was also “Shockgate” at Dover in 2005, when the shock absorbers on Johnson’s car actually raised up after use rather than sank, as shocks normally do. The shocks were perfectly legal within the rules as far as parts and compression rates, but the way they were assembled and how that ultimately made them function was not in the spirit of the rules. NASCAR quickly issued a rule change to prevent that from ever happening again, but it was a classic gray-area play by Knaus.
These are but a few examples of Knaus’s ingenuity — he’s had at least seven violations with at least four being technical in nature that have resulted in no less than $190,000 in fines. Interestingly enough, he has not been fined since 2007.
No one but Knaus and his team know if there were any shenanigans going on with the No. 48 last weekend. Knaus explained that his pre-race “request” to Johnson was based on the fact that there is a tremendous amount of bumping that takes place during tandem racing at plate tracks. With the tight tolerances that NASCAR imposes on restrictor plate tracks, it would be very easy for a car to get knocked outside of those measurements simply through the aggressive bump drafting that occurs at 200 mph.
While that certainly seems like a plausible enough explanation, it would seem as though NASCAR’s technical inspectors would take that kind of contact into account and allow for some leeway. Then again, Richard Childress Racing claimed that Clint Bowyer’s car was knocked out of alignment by a tow truck at New Hampshire last season but NASCAR didn’t buy that explanation — so better safe than sorry, right?
Of course, it’s also very possible that Knaus was just trying to cover his bases, reasoning that it would be better, should his car win the race, to make an on-track modification that would prevent any post-race scrutiny rather than have to deal with the inspection nuances over the position of the rear bumper.
It is sad that the current “spec” environment in NASCAR has come to the point that teams will consider damaging their racecars rather than have them probed, measured and dissected so closely after winning a race. Fortunately, that does mean that the playing field is as level as it can possibly be — and that ensures that the racing is as fair as NASCAR can make it.
In the end, even if the No. 48 was legal from tip to tail, it might have been in Knaus’s best interest to keep his mouth shut and let the chips fall where they may. Because as another rule-breaker once said, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”