Crew chiefs dissect the strengths of their drivers

When Chad Knaus was asked what Jimmie Johnson does better than

championship challengers Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the crew

chief didn’t hold back.

”I think Jimmie ultimately is a better race car driver than

both of those two,” Knaus said of the four-time defending



But Knaus wasn’t being drawn into the trash-talking that has

permeated the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship the last two

weeks. He was simply speaking what he believes to be true about

Johnson, who is not the points leader heading into the season

finale for the first time since 2005.

Johnson trails Hamlin by 15 points going into Sunday’s race at

Homestead-Miami Speedway, making it the closest championship battle

since the Chase format began in 2004. Harvick sits third, 46 points

back and well within striking distance.

The crew chiefs for the three championship contenders were asked

this week what their driver does better than the other two, and

what they wish their driver did as well as the others. Their

answers were, not surprisingly, all in support of their own


-Mike Ford on Hamlin: In his first few seasons in Cup, Hamlin

had a tendency to blame his team both over the radio and in the

press. He blasted pit road mistakes and parts failures, constantly

throwing his team under the bus with no regard to consequences.

It came to a head in a testy meeting two seasons ago, and Hamlin

has done a much better job since.

”Denny’s strong suit in the car this year has been that he

stays calm,” Ford said. ”I think that’s Jimmie’s strong suit, he

stays calm and works through issues. I don’t know that he learned

that from Jimmie, but I think that he saw that as the right thing

to do. Very difficult to do when you’re an emotional person. He

does that, (but) I won’t say better than (Johnson).

So what does Hamlin do better than Johnson?

It’s a push, Ford said.

”It’s almost, in my opinion, a mirror, of the two,” Ford


That calmness in the car gives both drivers an edge over

Harvick, who is usually good for at least one blowup a race on his

team radio. But Ford envies Harvick’s aggression.

”I think Denny stays calm in the car more than Kevin does,

(but) I think they’re very aggressive,” Ford said. ”I think they

find a way to sneak something out at the end of the day. They’ll

take chances whereas we won’t necessarily take those.”

-Knaus on Johnson: Knaus came out swinging when asked the same

question. In a head-to-head match, he firmly believes his driver is

just flat better than everybody else.

The pairing of Johnson and Knaus, who is considered one of the

best crew chiefs in NASCAR history, is widely considered to be a

huge factor in the success of their race team. But Johnson’s smarts

and skills are often overlooked, and Knaus thinks there’s nobody

better behind the wheel.

”I think week in and week out Jimmie does a better job of

racing then the other guys do as far as passing cars and whatnot,”

Knaus said.

Listening to their communication during a race, Johnson does a

great job of staying loose and allowing Knaus to dictate the ebbs

and flows. They pulled it off perfectly last week at Phoenix, when

Knaus figured out that Hamlin would have to stop to fuel.

He then coaxed Johnson over the final 25 laps into conserving

enough gas to get to the finish.

”I think I rely a lot on his race savvy to be able to race,”

Knaus said.

Despite their glowing resume, the crew chief doesn’t believe

Johnson is perfect and has an obvious area to improve.

”Jimmie isn’t the best qualifier, never really has been,”

Knaus said.

-Gil Martin on Harvick: There’s nobody tougher than Martin’s

driver, the crew chief said, and Harvick has proved since his first

season that he can handle any situation.

Thrown into Dale Earnhardt’s seat following the NASCAR star’s

death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick weathered the difficult

situation better than anyone imagined possible for a rookie thrust

into such an intense spotlight. In the years since, he’s often

found himself as the antagonist off the race track and a master at

manipulating the emotions of his competition.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain Sunday, Martin

believes Harvick is the best driver to be thrown into the fire.

”I think he works his best under these kinds of conditions,”

Martin said. ”Head games will not bother him because he’s one of

the best that there is at playing head games to start with. I’m

very happy that we have a driver with that strong of a mental

aspect about him going into this race.”

The ups and downs at Richard Childress Racing have prevented

Harvick from being a consistent contender, but the team has stormed

back onto the scene this season and Harvick dominated the points

standings during the regular season.

So Martin deferred on what he wishes his driver could do better

because, as far as he’s concerned, the team has been the bigger

problem over the years.

”The thing I wish that we had would be the four rings that

Jimmie Johnson has,” Martin said. ”That means we would have done

the things we needed to have done the past four years. As far as

the driver, I wouldn’t swap him for anybody right now.”