Darrell Waltrip: There’s always one!
It really isn’t that surprising to me to see a team that’s better than everyone else. If you go back and look at the NASCAR history, you’ll see there is always a period where one team is the dominant team in the sport. There was always a team that seemed to win more. They always seemed to have the best sponsors, the best crew chief and, naturally, the best driver. They always were just a little bit better than everyone else.
Back in the 1970s, it was Richard Petty. You couldn’t beat Richard and that No. 43 car. He had the best car, he had the best sponsor in STP and on top of that, he had the best crew chief in the business at that time in Dale Inman. The car fit the rules package at the time. Richard was on top of his game. It was his moment in history and you couldn’t beat him. The only one that came close was Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough who won three championships in a row in the mid-‘70s.
In the 1980s, I was blessed to have my moment in the sun. I had the best car owner at the time in Junior Johnson, who was an innovator’s innovator. We were doing things that people hadn’t even thought of yet. I had the best cars in those Buicks. I had Hammond making the right calls in the pits. We were bulletproof.
Then you had Dale Earnhardt coupled with Richard Childress and those black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolets. It then became their era to dominate the sport.
In 1992, Richard Petty said goodbye to the sport and we all said hello to Jeff Gordon. It wasn’t that long until Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham were the toast of the town each and every week. They were blessed to have DuPont as their sponsor and Rick Hendrick as their owner. They dominated the sport.
We have been witness to and are currently witnessing the era of Jimmie Johnson. No one thought Cale’s three consecutive championships would ever be touched. Thirty years later, Jimmie not only touches it but crushes it by putting five consecutive championships on the board. Here he is with two races to go, potentially sitting on championship No. 6, which if it happens he will join really elite air as only the third driver in NASCAR history to win six or more championships.
This is his time. He’s got the best sponsor. He’s got the best owner in Rick Hendrick and he has the best crew chief in Chad Knaus. It’s hard to overcome and beat a team like the No. 48 when they have everything going for them like they do right now. They are capitalizing on the opportunity in front of them.
Earlier in the season it wasn’t that way. Some races slipped through their fingers both by the driver’s and the pit crew’s fault. Two months ago we all were asking the same thing — “What’s wrong with the No. 48?” — because they went through a very ugly span of race after race not getting the finishes to match how well they were running.
That’s all ancient history now. The reason is it’s the Chase for the Sprint Cup. No matter what happens, that No. 48 seemingly has another gear when it comes to the Chase. Jimmie and the No. 48 camp have won 25 percent of all the Chase races ever run.
Stop and think about that for a second. That’s simply incredible. It doesn’t matter the points system we run, the No. 48 goes to the top of the board when it’s championship time.
Jimmie makes winning look really easy. The irony of that is it is anything but. It’s a hard, season-long struggle. Don’t be fooled. Jimmie makes it look easy but it really isn’t. What he showed everyone Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway made everybody think it’s easy. Trust me, you have to work hard to do that.
The tracks we go to in the Chase are for all intents and purposes tracks tailor-made for Jimmie. You honestly couldn’t script 10 better race tracks for Jimmie Johnson. I love the irony that has played out in this year’s Chase. We go to Kansas expecting it to be a Matt track and Jimmie comes out ahead. We go to Martinsville of all places, where Jimmie had won eight races and the best Matt has ever mustered was eight top 10s. At the end of the day, Matt led the most laps and finished second beating Jimmie.
Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway most everyone was giving the nod to Matt because it was a high-banked fast mile-and-a-half track, which has been Matt’s bread and butter this year on his way to seven wins. But at the end it was Jimmie in Victory Lane and Matt struggling somewhat.
We’re down to two drivers, two races and separated by seven points. Jimmie has taken the lead and will be a hard man to beat. The only way you’ll beat the No. 48 is if they beat themselves. This is where it really gets interesting, because exactly one year ago with two races to go and seven points being the gap, the No. 48 did just that – they beat themselves. They went to Phoenix and blew a tire. They went to Homestead and had a drive-train issue. Heck, for that matter, Jimmie didn’t even finish second at the end of the year. He left Texas with the points lead and then those last two races slipped to third spot for 2012.
Now the real question becomes, will history repeat itself? I have to think it won’t. I know that what happened in Phoenix and Homestead in 2012 haunted Jimmie and Chad. They both are perfectionists. They didn’t get beat on the race track by a competitor. They got beat internally.
I always loved racing at Phoenix. In reality it’s a one-mile short-track. It’s a tight track and remember, it’s a short race. Historically you don’t get a lot of chances to work on your car in the pits. Anything can happen there. Here’s a tip – watch how the No. 48 qualifies at Phoenix. Jimmie struggles in qualifying sometimes and if he struggles with that this weekend, the door might just be cracked open for Matt to make his move.
You don’t want to start too far back at Phoenix for a number of reasons. Naturally the top two are a bad pit selection with a bad qualifying spot plus, like I just mentioned, it’s a fast race with only 312 laps, so there isn’t a lot of chances to make up time on pit road. That means qualifying well this weekend will be a premium for both Jimmie and Matt. If Jimmie were to stumble a little bit in qualifying and Matt would qualify up front, we could be looking at another swing of the pendulum back in Matt’s favor.
That would put the pressure back on Jimmie and Chad. That’s why these last two races are going to be fun to watch. Who is going to blink? Who is going to make a mistake? Who is going to crack under the pressure?
Both Matt and Jimmie have ice water in their veins. We all know that. Is our five-time champion going to be able to hold off Matt Kenseth who is a past champion under the old points system, but who is enjoying easily the greatest season of his career? That’s the other irony of this 2013 season. Matt is doing all this in his first season with only the second car owner of his entire NASCAR Sprint Cup career. He’s doing it with a new crew chief and team. He’s doing it with a new sponsor and manufacturer. If all that wasn’t enough, he’s doing it all with the brand new Generation-6 car. That’s impressive itself, no matter if he wins or loses the championship.
Don’t get me wrong, Matt has a steep incline to overcome. He better go to Phoenix with his game face on. He better get up on that wheel. He better put his work clothes on and be the real Matt Kenseth, the wheelman on the short tracks from where he got his start and come to Phoenix putting up an epic battle against the No. 48. That’s what it’s going to take, an all-out epic fight. By the time we get to Phoenix we all know we are down to two drivers left standing.
By the time we leave Phoenix, it could be over. I doubt it and I hope it doesn’t happen, but it could be.