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Johnson Narrows Chase Gap
by Matt Taliaferro
For those who have followed Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his performance in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is none-too-alarming. A deceptive 10th-place run to start the playoffs, followed by an 18th-place hiccup placed the five-time defending champion in a 29-point hole out of the gate. Were fans, pundits and competitors watching and wondering intently? Of course. Were they writing off Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus as afterthoughts under a new, simplified, points-format. Absolutely not.
Johnson and Knaus proved why they are not to be counted out with so many miles left to go in NASCAR’s grueling 10-race Chase marathon, making statements with second- and first-place showings in the latest two events. The win — a dominating run in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — landed Team 48 in third place in the Chase standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards, who has proven to be the playoffs’ most consistent driver thus far in 2011.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” Johnson said of any naysayers. “If you’re watching and reading all the headlines, you can get caught up in a lot of stuff that just really isn’t important.
“I’ve known in my heart the speed that we’ve had as a race team when we were in Chicago and unfortunately finished 10th because of fuel mileage. I know we were a heck of a lot better than 18th at New Hampshire but the damage to the car put us in 18th; Dover we were strong, and then (the win) here.
“Again, I don’t pay attention to that stuff that’s out there — I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed today what we’re capable of when we’re all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks.”
The praise Johnson heaped on his team was well deserved. His pit crew — at times the Achilles heel of the operation and Knaus’ target for multiple changes — was spot on throughout the day, maintaining all-important track position.
The event came down to a green-white-checker restart — NASCAR’s version of overtime — when Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, suffered a blown engine. The field was bunched up for what would be the deciding three laps, and Johnson wasted no time in disposing of second-place (and eventual runner-up) Kasey Kahne, on the restart and cruised to a .548-second win. Brad Keselowski was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
Edwards had an especially eventful day, realizing just two laps into the 272-lap affair that he and crew chief Bob Osborne had missed the setup. His No. 99 team diligently went to work adjusting his Ford, and although they lost a lap at one point, screamed through the field late to record the top-5 finish.
It was the type of effort that wins championships, though Edwards was more apt to shrug it off as good old-fashioned racing luck.
“We’re lucky because we had to have luck go our way,” he said. “We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. But we’ve messed up enough in the past that I’m pretty proud of our ability to just kind of take our bad days and just keep plugging along. It’s kind of a little test when you go through something like this to see if somebody melts down or if you can kind of keep going through it, and I’m glad it worked out today, but there was a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Kevin Harvick, who sits second in the point standings, was sixth. Last week’s winner, Kurt Busch, was 13th, now 16 points out of the Chase lead.
Gordon, whose blown engine with three laps remaining brought out the final caution, finished 34th and fell a whopping 47 points back in the standings with six races remaining.