NASCAR

Is magic gone for Johnson, Knaus?

SceneDaily.com JEFF OWENS
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Barring another miraculous comeback – which is not out of the question – Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign as NASCAR Sprint Cup champion may finally come to an end this season.

Jeff Owens 72x92 20091216182021 JPG

Jeff Owens

After two Chase races, Johnson has plummeted to 10th in the standings, the lowest he has ever been in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Even more disconcerting is the fact that Johnson trails points leader Tony Stewart by 29 points – a seemingly overwhelming deficit under NASCAR’s new points system.

Under the point-per-position format, 29 points is the equivalent of 120 points under the old system. Johnson has made up such a deficit before – he rallied from 136 points behind to win his first title in 2006 – but he faces a much tougher road this year.

Not only does he have to surpass nine other drivers and race a points system that is still a bit foreign and unpredictable to everyone, he must make a dramatic turnaround in a season in which he has been very unJohnson-like.

If this is indeed the end of his long reign as Sprint Cup champion, it begs the question: Is it time for Johnson and brilliant crew chief Chad Knaus to go their separate ways?

Is it time for team owner Rick Hendrick to break up the dynamic duo and see if some new combination can spark Johnson to another title?

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Is it time to see if Knaus can lead another Hendrick driver – Dale Earnhardt Jr. perhaps – to the Promised Land?

Johnson and Knaus are arguably the greatest driver-crew chief tandem in NASCAR history, rivaling Richard Petty and Dale Inman, Dale Earnhardt and Kirk Shelmerdine and Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham. Only Petty and Inman won more races and more championships, but none of them ever won five straight.

For five years, Johnson and Knaus have been virtually unbeatable in the Chase. They won it in every way imaginable, including a dramatic rally in the final two races last year. They’ve not only mastered the 10-race playoff, but the strategy for the first 26 races to set themselves up for the playoff.

But now it appears that the shine may have worn off, that perhaps they have lost that golden touch.

Johnson and Knaus simply have not been themselves this season. They have just one victory, and that was in a three-wide photo finish at Talladega Superspeedway, where winning is basically a crapshoot and where teammate Earnhardt Jr. pushed Johnson to the win.

Johnson and Knaus, who have been together since Johnson was a rookie in 2002, have never won fewer than three races in a season and have won five or more for five straight years, including 10 in 2007. Unless they go on a dramatic winning streak in the next few weeks, that streak will end this season.

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Johnson also has not been as consistent as in years past. His longest streak of top-10 finishes this year is five, and that doesn’t bode well in a championship format that requires seven to 10 top finishes to win the title.

But more than anything, Johnson and Knaus just haven’t had the same confident swagger this year. They no longer seem invincible and instead have seemed vulnerable all season.

What’s more, they haven’t shown the same keen focus and mental toughness that has been their trademark. Whether he admits it or not, Johnson has been distracted at times this season and has allowed other drivers to get into his head, namely Kurt Busch, who revived a long-running feud with Johnson this summer.

Johnson admirably stood his ground against Busch, vowing not to be pushed around and retaliating when he believed Busch was out of line. But his insistence on getting even with Busch at Richmond International Raceway cost him, causing him to wreck in the 26th race of the season and sapping his momentum going into the Chase.

The old Jimmie Johnson used to never let nagging, hotheaded drivers like Busch bother him. He swatted such aggravation away like a fly.

Not this year. He’s traded barbs and paint with Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and others and seemed to take pride in being a part of NASCAR’s “Boys, have at it” mantra.

Johnson and Knaus also appear to have lost some of the magical, inexplicable chemistry that made them so great. They’ve missed on setups, missed on pit strategy, run poorly on tracks they used to dominate and failed to avoid some of the obstacles and roadblocks that plague every team but used to never get in the way of the sport’s most formidable combination.

Jimmie Johnson title reign

Champion's reign

Jimmie Johnson has five consecutive Sprint Cup titles. Here's a look at his run at the top.

Just last week, Johnson sniped at Knaus during the race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, telling him his cheerleading was getting annoying and to just let him do his thing.

Though it was likely a minor incident and typical in-race frustration, you used to never see or hear Johnson and Knaus at odds. To some, it appeared to be another sign that there is a chink in their armor and that perhaps desperation and panic have set in.

This is nothing new, of course. All great drivers and combinations eventually hit a slump. Some rebound and recapture the magic. Some don’t.

For some, the intensity, focus and demands required to succeed at such a high level for so long simply become too great, causing them to move on to the next stage of their career.

Earnhardt and Shelmerdine broke up after winning their fourth championship, with Shelmerdine starting his own team and pursuing a career as a driver.

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  • Who is the favorite entering the Chase?
    • Kyle Busch (four wins)
    • Kevin Harvick (four wins)
    • Jeff Gordon (three wins)
    • Matt Kenseth (two wins)
    • Jimmie Johnson (defending champ, 1 win)
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Gordon and Evernham, who won three championships from 1995-98, split during the 1999 season, with Evernham leaving Hendrick Motorsports to form his own team.

Will Knaus eventually get the same itch? Will he eventually grow tired of the pressure and rigors of leading a championship-caliber team week after week, season after season?

If Johnson and Knaus don’t win a sixth straight championship, the questions will arise. Do they still have the hunger and drive to make another title run? Or is time for them to call it quits and pursue a new venture?

They nearly split up once before, but Hendrick intervened, helped them resolve their differences and put them on a path to five straight titles. Can he do that again? Or is it time to break them up and give both a fresh start in a new direction?

For years, Johnson and Knaus have been surrounded by the same mystery that clouds every great driver-crew chief tandem.

Would Johnson be as great without Knaus?

Could Knaus win races and championships with another driver? Could he succeed with another team, or as a team owner?

If they come up short this season, and their reign finally ends, it might be time to find out.

Tagged: Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kirk Shelmerdine

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