NASCAR Playoffs: Is Jimmie Johnson a Championship Contender?

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

With playoffs in sight, Jimmie Johnson is set to chase a record eighth Championship title.

One week before the NASCAR playoffs begin, and the whispers have intensified, “Will the real Jimmie Johnson reemerge in time to capture the Cup?”  While the seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion won three races in quick succession earlier this year, Johnson’s customary summer swoon has been in full effect.

Since his last victory in June at Dover Speedway, Johnson’s best result is a 10th place finish at both Michigan and New Hampshire.

Vegas oddsmakers still respect Johnson’s championship prowess, favoring the Team Lowe’s Racing driver to make the Championship four finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, along with Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Kyle Larson.

Uninspiringly, Johnson is a paltry 10th in the current regular season point standings, having managed only three top 5 finishes, all wins from earlier in the year.

Still, Johnson has embarrassed his doubters before, those who unwisely dismiss Team Lowe’s Racing chances for capturing the Cup trophy yet again.

The prevailing wisdom is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus rely on the regular season to tune up and refine their best car equipment for the Championship run.  Once the playoffs commence, Team Lowe’s Racing will simply “flip the switch” to transform into playoff shape.

Johnson last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Johnson’s last win was in June at Dover, a track where he has dominated with 11 career victories.

Additionally, the prevalent blend of intermediate speedways in the ten-race playoff stretch are right in Johnson’s and Knaus’ wheelhouse of performance expertise, the type of tracks where Johnson has captured over one-half of his 83 career wins.

Yet, there is a novel “X factor” that Johnson must contend with in this year’s playoff.  Certainly, Johnson knows how to win on the circuits in the playoffs.  However, Johnson has yet to master the unique stage racing format introduced this season that awards bonus points for performance within three race segments, which may prove crucial to moving through this year’s playoff eliminations.

To capture provisional stage wins, drivers must qualify well to maximize their opportunity to run up front early and score the cherished extra bonus points.  Currently, Johnson has only one stage win this year, while playoff contenders Truex Jr and Kyle Busch have 17 and 10 wins, respectively.

Uncharacteristically, Johnson has genuinely struggled to qualify well this year, as revealed when comparing this year’s performance with his seven previous Championship seasons:

  • During his Championship runs, Johnson’s average qualifying spot was 9.8. Conversely, in 2017, Johnson has lacked speed, with an average starting position of 17.3.
  • In four of his previous Championship seasons, Johnson ranked 1st in season laps led, and never outside the top six in the other three seasons. This year, Johnson ranks a pedestrian 10th in laps led, and hasn’t led a lap since Daytona in July.
  • More concerning is Johnson’s 2017 average finish of 17.0, evidence that the Hendrick Motorsports #48 is not progressing up through the field in most races, which has classically been a perennial strength of Johnson’s prior Championship runs.

There is little question that the entire Hendrick Motorsports stable has lacked speed, as all four drivers (including Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chase Elliott, and Kasey Kahne) have struggled to run up front this year.  While Elliott leads the Hendrick organization with an average finish of 13.7, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr are both edgy, with average finishes that fall outside the top 20.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe's team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

Crew Chief Knaus acknowledges that the Lowe’s team must improve its qualifying results in the playoffs.

It is possible that the loss of Hendrick Motorsports’ former Chevy “alliance” partner, Stewart-Haas Racing, (which switched to Ford powerplants for 2017) has impacted the robust data set that the Hendrick organization could draw upon to improve on-track performance.

Additionally, the front-running teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have capitalized on the new Toyota Camry to generate more speed over the season, while Hendrick Motorsports’ outdated Chevrolet SS platform originally introduced in 2013 will be replaced by the Camaro ZL1 for 2018.

Recently, Johnson was quizzed about where he currently stands under NASCAR’s new point system.  Johnson candidly replied that he had “no idea”, and that he just seeks to go hard every time he straps in the car and deliver the best result with the equipment provided.

Of course, no driver wins every time they strap into the car.  Racing streaks come in waves, in a sport that depends on the synergistic connection of car, crew and driver all coming together.  Race teams in the garage are always looking to improve this combination, and that’s called competition.

In the past, Johnson has habitually made it look almost too easy in securing Championships through dominant playoff runs, displaying a cool, confident demeanor that sometimes does not resonate with the old school stalwarts in NASCAR’s fan base.

This year, should Johnson overcome the hurdles of a new playoff format and an underperforming car to secure a record eighth Championship, he surely should be revered by fans for his grit and tenacity, as Johnson will undeniably stand atop NASCAR’s Championship pinnacle.

By Ron Bottano

Give your take: Will Jimmie Johnson make it to the Championship 4 Final Round? Take our Twitter poll at @rbottano

It Took 12 Races, But Johnson’s Team Found What Was Needed

Jimmie Johnson got off to a slow start in 2014, but that has changed with two straight wins. Much of the credit is given to crew chief Chad Knaus and team.

Jimmie Johnson got off to a slow start in 2014, but that has changed with two straight wins. Much of the credit is given to crew chief Chad Knaus and team.

After suffering through the first 12 races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, during which he didn’t win a race, Jimmie Johnson rebounded nicely with two victories in successive weeks.

That effectively ended the widespread speculation that something was wrong with Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports team, or both.

There’s a reason why Johnson was in something of a funk through the first dozen races of the season.

There’s also a reason why he broke out of it so spectacularly.

Johnson will tell you there was never a thing wrong with him. It was with his Chevrolet – or more specifically, how he was unable to get comfortable with it and produce more much-needed speed.

“Those are two completely different things,” Johnson said.

So the cure for what ailed Johnson and his team had to be found within the car.

Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, explained that the problems began as early as last season.

“What happens, and I’ve said this before, when you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship,” he said. “So as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. 

“But that’s just inherent.  That’s what happens because you have to focus on the goal that’s directly in front of you.”

NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Portraits

Together, Johnson and Knaus have won six championships. They hope to earn a seventh, but Knaus says there are still some improvements to make.

So when the 2014 season began, Johnson’s team found itself a bit behind in preparation. That can cause immediate problems, especially when dealing with what is effectively a “new” car.

“With the new ride height changes and rules that they’ve got out there, the car is a different animal,” Knaus said. “I know it’s difficult to understand and it’s not easy for everybody to understand, but it does change the way you approach a race car. 

“The advantages that we had last year were minimized with these new rules, so we had to try to find some new advantages and new ways to get the car set up to where Jimmie is happy with it.”

Searching for new advantages was what the Hendrick team was doing through the first 12 weeks of racing.

Performance-wise, Johnson was far from spectacular. He did finish second at Martinsville – and six more times among the top 10 – but he also had very uncharacteristic finishes of 19th, 23rd, 24th, 25th and 32nd. He was seventh in points coming into Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.

In that event everything changed. Johnson won the pole and the race. Before the green flag dropped, he was the hands-down favorite

“Actually going into the 600 I told Jimmie we were taking his favorite car to the track for the race,” Knaus said. “And I told him that his new favorite car was going to be going to Dover the following week.

“And then I told him his next favorite car was going to be going to Indianapolis.  So far I’m doing pretty good, and hopefully we can keep it true.”

Obviously promising Johnson his “favorite” race car was not enough to turn things around. Knaus won’t say specifically what did it, but he acknowledges the work that went into it.

“The one thing I’m really impressed with at Hendrick Motorsports is when we do get behind, which we feel like we’ve been just a pinch behind this year, everybody digs down really, really deep and they work hard,” he said. “From the pit crew, from the guys that hang the bodies to the guys that build the chassis to the guys that build the engines – they try to find an advantage.”

Johnson won at Dover for the ninth time in his career, which makes him the track’s all-time winner. He has led more than 50 percent of the laps he’s run at the one-mile track, including the 272 he led in the FedEx 400 last weekend.

Knaus admits Charlotte and Dover are two of Johnson’s favorite tracks and that he’s always expected to do well on both of them.

“We came to Dover with high expectations, obviously, after winning the 600,” Knaus said. “We came here with a brand new race car and things went really well for us straight out of the gate.

“But I feel like we’ve still got to room to grow.  I’m looking forward to the next series of race cars that we build at Hendrick Motorsports.  I’m excited about that. 

“We’re close. We had good race cars at Charlotte and Dover. But it needs to be a bit better. 

“So I think if we can start digging in a little bit deeper we’ll finally have what we want when we get to about September time.”

Which does not bode well for the competition.

 

 

 

 

 

Johnson, Knaus Once Again Display Power Of Crew Chief-Driver Chemistry

Ray Evernham (left) was Jeff Gordon’s crew chief for seven years, during which time, with 47 wins and three titles, he earned a stellar reputation.

There is no other position on a NASCAR Sprint Cup team that is more demanding and requires multiple talents than the crew chief.

Today he is a lot more than a master mechanic and pit strategist; he’s everything from a shop overseer to, in many cases, a human resources director.

In days past a crew chief was indeed a very important part of a team. But with organizations being so much smaller, and simpler, than they are today, his responsibilities weren’t nearly as numerous.

However, they were every bit as important. And the crew chiefs that performed them well have earned a place in NASCAR history.

There’s something else. You have heard it said many times that good chemistry between a crew chief and his driver builds success.

It’s true.

There are many crew chiefs who have jumped from team to team – or been asked outright to leave – because they cannot lock themselves into a productive relationship with the driver, or the team owner, for that matter.

You know full well that if a team falls into a slump the first guy to go is the crew chief.

In recent years a crew chief and his entire on-track personnel have been swapped for members of one of an organization’s other teams.

Dale Inman’s long tenure with Richard Petty saw 198 victories and seven championships. Inman is now a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The crew chiefs’ role today is considered one of leadership. Even NASCAR recognizes that. It’s why whenever a team is penalized for an infraction, blame is placed upon the pit boss.

He gets fined, suspended, or both. He might not have known something was fishy, but that doesn’t mean anything to NASCAR.

NASCAR would tell him, “You are supposed to know everything that is going on. You have no excuse.”

And then the axe falls.

Although it is true that many crew chiefs seem to regularly shift to other teams, like Jake “Suitcase” Elder, the ones who can cultivate a lengthy and productive tenure with a single driver or team are the ones who earn stellar reputations.

Leonard Wood, the de facto crew chief of the Wood Brothers team – he also built engines and changed tires – was considered the driving force behind the team’s many wins.

This was said often during David Pearson’s highly successful stint with the Woods, which, among other things, included 11 wins in 18 races in 1973.

He didn’t get much attention – which is the way he wanted it – but the late Herb Nab was the crew chief for owner Junior Johnson and driver Cale Yarborough during the time they earned three consecutive championships, from 1976-1978.

Dale Inman, Richard Petty’s cousin, was Petty’s crew chief during all the glory years, and there were plenty of them.

Inman’s efforts earned him and Petty 198 victories and seven championships. And while some thought it was all because of family, it should be noted that Inman won another championship with Terry Labonte in 1984.

Wood and Inman are members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Ray Evernham is now a member of the NMPA Hall of Fame and, in time, will also be a part of NASCAR’s hall.

In 1991, Evernham was paid by Ford to work on Bill Davis’ Nationwide Series team with driver Jeff Gordon. That came about because Gordon and Evernham hit it off so well – yet Davis didn’t want to hire Evernham.

In 1992 Evernham became Gordon’s crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. Over seven years they won 47 races and three championships.

I think Evernham was like the big brother Gordon never had. He could advise the young driver – and on things other than racing.

Example: After a victory, Gordon said over the radio: “I did it! I did it!”

Evernham calmly but emphatically responded, “No, Jeff. WE did it.”

Gordon played a big role in the hiring of driver Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports.

He encouraged owner Rick Hendrick to hire Johnson and even made appearances for Lowe’s – which Hendrick was courting as sponsor.

Since 2002 Johnson and Knaus have won 66 races. They reeled off a NASCAR record of five consecutive championships and earned their sixth title this year.

I would bet they can read each other’s minds.

Yes, Knaus has been snagged by NASCAR for violations. But then, so has every aforementioned crew chief. It’s the nature of the game.

Johnson is a certainty for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And, in one man’s opinion, so is Knaus.

There are several other examples of crew chief successes and longevity. I am sure you are well aware of that.

And it’s very likely we’ll see much more of this sort of thing in the future.

For example, the Jason Ratcliff-Matt Kenseth union produced seven victories and a runnerup finish in the championship in only their first season together.

There could be more success in the years ahead.

Others might come to the forefront. But it will happen only if the old adage – there must be good chemistry between crew chief and driver – remains true.

Which it will.

 

 

The Latest Chad Knaus Episode Should Again Show NASCAR’s Intolerance For Tampering

At Daytona, when the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet was found unacceptable for competition after inspection, the blame fell on the shoulders of crew chief Chad Knaus.

Before the start of yet another Sprint Cup season, Chad Knaus, crew chief for Hendrick Motorsports and driver Jimmie Johnson, is again in the news leading up to NASCAR’s most prestigious race, the Daytona 500. But it’s not a story about the glory of winning on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway in storybook fashion. It’s about trying to find ways to make a car go faster outside of NASCAR’s rules. Once again, the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet failed inspection and once again, team owner Rick Hendrick and his officials have to explain what went wrong with their most successful team. Knaus is ultimately responsible for every car used on the 36-race schedule. The Daytona Chevrolet was found illegal by NASCAR officials last Friday when it didn’t meet body specifications, specifically those around the pillars at the space between the rear window and the side window. Body modifications are pretty high on NASCAR’s list of villainy – especially at Daytona. This is not the first time Knaus has faced NASCAR judgment. He was accused of disregarding the rulebook after Johnson’s 2006 Daytona 500 qualifying run. Knaus made an illegal adjustment to the rear window, which resulted in his suspension for several races. Despite the loss of his crew chief, Johnson won the 500 that year, as well two of the first three races overall with interim crew chief Darian Grubb, who is now Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. Knaus was again at the center of controversy during the road race debut of NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” on June 23, 2007 at Infineon Raceway. He and Steve Letarte, then crew chief for Jeff Gordon, brought cars that fit the templates, but NASCAR officials questioned the shape of the fenders in between the template’s measuring points. Johnson was not allowed to qualify the car, and he started at the back of the field. Knaus was fined $100,000 and was suspended for six races. Knaus faces penalties and possibly another suspension; but that decision will be made Tuesday after the winner of the 500 has been crowned. Knaus will be able to call the shots atop of the pit box Sunday – but he may not need to pack his suitcase for upcoming events. After NASCAR determined the C-posts on Johnson’s car were modified outside of legal measurements, websites were abuzz in disbelief. The C-posts are the body panel of the car that runs from the rear of the roof to the deck lid. NASCAR officials had the C-posts cut off the car during inspection Friday and the team fashion new ones and replaced them. Even though frowned upon when teams search for advantages in what’s known as “gray” areas of the car, some may fall into a “questionable” category. But the pieces confiscated off of Johnson’s Chevrolet were not under scrutiny of template rules, which makes the violation seemingly even more blatant.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have won five straight championships together. But Knaus has been severely punished more than once for rules infractions.

When NASCAR officials begin the inspection process, they have a routine they follow. It goes over a car from top to bottom through numerous top templates joined together that have been dubbed, “the claw.” The C-pillars, the areas between the top and rear deck lid, were not part of the template process but were measured nonetheless and discovered to be in violation. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby addressed the situation with media members assembled at the rear of the NASCAR hauler in Daytona’s garage area. It wasn’t he first time Knaus has been Darby’s topic of conversation. “There were obvious modifications that the template inspectors picked up on and did some additional inspections with some gauges and stuff and found they were too far out of tolerance to fix so they were removed from the car,” Darby said. “It falls in line with other body modifications we’ve seen in the past. We’re pretty serious about the body configurations of the cars for all the right reasons, and this was a modification that had been made to the car that put it outside that box.” Darby said the infraction would be treated like other body modifications. In the past, penalties for body infractions could be as much as the loss of 25 points under the current point system. The question that millions of race fans, as well as those in the garage area have been asking, with NASCAR so incredibly strict about following its rulebook to the letter, why would any team, especially a championship-caliber team, take such a risk that is clearly in violation? Additionally, some longtime NASCAR mechanics have questioned what modifications to the C-pillars would offer. The change would supposedly add down force but at this point, all it offers is a certain fine, a possible suspension of Knaus and more – not to mention bad press. The parts were on display Friday afternoon at the NASCAR transporter, something done any time illegal equipment is removed from any of the teams. The No. 48 team was allowed to repair the area to make it conform to requirements, but the illegal parts were taken to NASCAR’s Research and Development Center in Concord, N.C., for further review. Interestingly, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon all passed inspection. The cars are built individually by the direction of the crew chief and are not identical. Each of the three other cars was allowed to race. There are some in the sport who feel the NASCAR rulebook is a place to start as a baseline for bending the rules in hopes of finding some type of advantage. Their argument is that with the competition so incredibly close it’s the only way to finish at the front. But the bad press generated when caught does nothing but shame the team, shame the driver – who most likely doesn’t know his car is illegal – and most importantly, shame the corporate sponsors who spend incredible amounts of money to support them. Sadly, the reputations of everyone associated with the specific team caught for infractions are tainted. Some believe sponsors associated with the organization condone such behavior – which couldn‘t be further from the truth. Fans may also wonder about the legitimacy of past wins and championships when rules are clearly broken. And, using the No. 48 team and Knaus as an example, there will always be questions as to how honestly a team operates after being caught for infractions time after time. In short, no one wins when established rules are deliberately broken. It’s a bad practice that, obviously, shouldn’t be accepted. Thankfully, we know, and have known, that NASCAR doesn’t tolerate tampering with its rules. And it has applied stringent punishments to let us all know that is, indeed, the case.

Johnson, Schumacher: A Tale of Two Champions

Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson and Formula One driver, Michael Schumacher have a lot in common. Multiple championships and a mastery over placing themselves at the center. Michele Rahal of The Motorsports Channel and http://www.motorsportsunplugged.com suggests that both have a method.

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