NASCAR

It’s Jimmie versus everyone else

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, poses with team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Chad Knaus
Jimmie Johnson (right) with crew chief Chad Knaus (left) and owner Rick Hendrick (center).
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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So now it’s finally here. It’s the last race of the Chase and the last race of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. It’s hard to believe that it all started back in February and now here we are at this point. Actually February should have been our clue to how this all played out. Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 which as you all know is our biggest race of the season, and now unless something unbelievable should happen Sunday, Jimmie will be crowned a six-time champion.

The first 26 races are run to set the field for the Chase. Everyone hypes the start of the Chase and the much-over used saying “this is going to be the best one we’ve ever had.” This year even featured the twist of a 13th driver being added in the 11th hour to the Chase field because of all the drama that came out of Richmond.

I mean, on paper, we were set up for some real drama. We went into the Chase with drama. We also had Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch red hot. Jimmie Johnson was not. Matt comes out of the box and wins the first two races with Kyle finishing second. All eyes were on the Joe Gibbs drivers and not so much the cat sitting behind the wheel of the No. 48.

But as you can see, as the Chase wore on, the No. 48 got hot and everyone else wore out. I still maintain the Chase is too long. Ten races – 10 consecutive weeks to decide your champion – is just a long time. I think the Chase should be shortened to five or maybe six races max. It would put some urgency back into this thing.

There is all kind of debate swirling about what gimmicks, like throwing out your worst race of the Chase, that could be used to jump-start the drama/excitement of the Chase. Listen to me, we don’t need gimmicks. Let it be decided all on the racetrack, not by some gimmick or tricks. A rabbit once told me, “Tricks are for kids.”

You take your best shot, go head to head with the other Chase contenders and give it all you got. If you are good enough, you become our champion. If you aren’t, well, then there is always next year. That’s racing. That’s what it’s all about. Let it be settled on the track.

Speaking of next year, and again, unless something catastrophic happens on like lap one of the race Sunday to the No. 48, next year we’ll be referring to Jimmie Johnson as the six-time champion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. He is one cool customer. He doesn’t do it alone. Sure, there is one driver behind the wheel, but there is a team that supports that driver.

I don’t buy into that crap where folks say Jimmie is only successful because of crew chief Chad Knaus. It’s not just Chad. It’s not just Jimmie. The reality is it’s a triangle. You take Rick Hendrick and the resources he gives the No. 48, combine that with Chad calling the shots and Jimmie making it happen on the track and you know what you get? Yup – six championships.

The thing I love about Jimmie is his poise. When he does an interview about something that happened on the track or a call that NASCAR made that went against the team, you never see him explode and lose his cool or throw a water bottle or anything animated like that. He’s always under control and to the best of his ability measures his words before he speaks. He presents his case. He tells his side of the story and then he moves on.

That’s one of the intangibles that the No. 48 has collectively that everyone else wishes they could emulate. They have the ability to put a bad race, a bad weekend or bad call behind them and move on. That’s the confidence they have in each other. I tease Jimmie all the time that if they were in the middle of a race and Chad radioed to bring the car into the garage – Jimmie would radio back “10-4, headed to the garage.” That’s how much he trusts and believes in Chad Knaus and the way Chad runs that program.

Jimmie Johnson will never, ever have to worry about hubris. You won’t find him believing his own press clippings and bragging about himself. He’s never one of those guys that are in your face and stirring up controversy. He’s not trash-talking the competition. He just goes about his business in a gentlemanly kind of manner.

That’s what makes Jimmie so good. He and Chad both have ice water running through their veins. They don’t panic. They don’t make knee-jerk reactions when things are going wrong. They sit on that hot stove and pee ice water time and time again.

I have said this before, but there’s a saying “You have to be able to play with pressure but you can’t let pressure play with you.” I think we see the No. 48 team as the gold standard of that saying. They simply never let the pressure get to them. That doesn’t mean they win all the races and win all the championships. It simply means more times than not, when the pressure is at its highest, it’s the No. 48 looking the coolest.

That makes them just so hard to beat. You know, honestly, they are just a little better than everyone else. The sum of all their parts is greater in most cases than the competition. It definitely has been six out of the last eight years.

This is not to take anything away from Matt Kenseth or Kevin Harvick. They both have had unbelievable seasons. Matt has won seven races for a new team, manufacturer, crew chief and sponsor. It’s the most he’s won in a single season of his entire career. They easily exceeded all expectations for the 2013 season. However, I think their string of exceeded expectations ran out of gas down the stretch here in the Chase.

I also think they might have focused too much on performing well at tracks where Jimmie was strong at but didn’t focus as much on the tracks where Matt could have capitalized at. Winning the first two races of the Chase sent a notice throughout the garage that they were the ones to beat.

Then, however, they seemed to cool off while Jimmie was just getting started. Jimmie dusted the field at Dover while Matt finished seventh. We rolled into Kansas where Matt was going for his third win in a row. That No. 20 did nothing but struggle. It didn’t drive or handle well. The best they could put on the board was an 11th-place finish while Jimmie finished sixth.

COVER HIS TRACKS

Get to know what makes J.J. special. Check out his top racing accomplishments.

Charlotte was a toss-up. Talladega was a race that Matt should have won but finished 20th, which cost him a lot of points. Martinsville was basically a toss-up as well. When it came time to go to Texas Motor Speedway, it was Jimmie who put a Texas-sized whuppin on the other 42 drivers. Then last Sunday at Phoenix it was nothing but ugly for the No. 20 car, and really the end of their championship dream.

Matt’s average finish in the Chase is like sixth while Jimmie’s is something like 4.5. Jimmie is close to setting a record this year for average finish in the Chase. That’s just how much better the No. 48 has been than the No. 20.

Then there is Kevin. Mr. Harvick announced a year ago that 2013 was going to be his final season with Richard Childress Racing. Naturally everyone wrote off the No. 29 car. It was clear back on Saturday evening Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway that Kevin, Richard Childress and the entire No. 29 group served notice they were going to make a lot of noise in their farewell year together. It was the No. 29 car in Victory Lane that night after Kevin won the Sprint Unlimited.

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Kevin has gone on to put up four wins, one as recently as last Sunday, on the board. He’s also posted 20 top-10 finishes in 35 races. That Phoenix win was one for the record books in my opinion. Back in Martinsville a few weeks earlier in the Truck Series race, Kevin made fire rain from the sky when he slammed driver Ty Dillon to the media. For those of you who might have missed it, Ty is also the grandson of one Richard Childress – Kevin’s car owner.

To say there was bad blood was an understatement. Kevin apologized. Then he, Richard, the No. 29 team and the entire RCR organization showed everyone what true professionalism is. They went back to work and at Phoenix, there they were in Victory Lane. That was a sweet moment in time for that bunch.

So like I said earlier, it’s finally here. The season all wraps up Sunday at Homestead. The No. 48 has a comfortable points lead. If they finish something like 23rd or better the championship is theirs no matter what anyone else does. Now to be fair, in the 35 races that have been run so far, Jimmie has had five races where he finished worse than 23rd. So it is possible unless you look at the other side of the coin where Jimmie has finished 30 of the 35 races 23rd or better.

I look for the No. 48 to go about business as usual. I wouldn’t be surprised if they run a clean race with no mistakes in the pits and come home with a top-10 finish. Oh yeah, they will also come home with their sixth championship.

The only thing the No. 20 and No. 29 can do is go like hell. It’s their only option come Sunday. That’s what it is going to take. They are going to have to go like hell and hope Jimmie has some kind of catastrophic trouble early in the race. If it doesn’t happen, then it’s a six-pack for Mr. Johnson.
 

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski

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