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“I think Jimmie is probably the most underrated champion we have in this industry. He is by far the most powerful driver over the course of the last 25, 35 years in this sport.”
Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Chad Knaus is not known for his use of hyperbole. Knaus is thoughtful, measured and well-spoken when interacting with the media. And the man’s a genius at his trade: making cars go fast.
So when the champion crew chief heaps that sort of praise on a driver — even if it’s his own — people have a tendency to stop, look and listen.
“He’s able to dig deeper, pull out his cape, make things happen in winning moments of these races that other people cannot do. It’s pretty spectacular,” Knaus continued.
His statements, of course, were directed at Jimmie Johnson, with whom Knaus has won 65 races and five NASCAR Sprint Cup titles. They said following another masterful performance by both driver and crew chief, this at Dover International Speedway, where the No. 48 team laid waste to the field, leading 243-of-400 laps in the AAA 400 en route to its first victory of the 2013 Chase. It was also Johnson’s record eighth career win on Dover’s high banks.
Despite the praise and the accomplishment — Johnson surpassed Richard Petty’s and Bobby Allison’s seven Dover wins on Sunday — it was his smooth, workman-like effort that has come to define a driver that will go down as this generation’s best in NASCAR.
“You’ve got to win when you’re at your best track,” Johnson said matter-of-factly. “That being said, we had to win here today. I think any points (gained) on the 18 (Kyle Busch) or the 20 (Matt Kenseth) would have been a very good day, (but) max points? It’s an awesome day.”
In order to score the win, Johnson had to outrun teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the event’s closing laps.
A caution flag 29 laps from the race’s conclusion brought the field to pit road. There, Knaus made the call to change two tires while many of the leaders — including Earnhardt — bolted on four. The quick work in the pits found Johnson lined up first, with the preferred outside groove, alongside Earnhardt. When the race resumed with 25 laps to go, Johnson eased out into the lead and never faltered, leading the rest of the way to score a .446-second victory.
“I felt like as we got (into) traffic, Jimmie was starting to struggle a little bit in the last couple of laps,” Earnhardt said. “My car actually got better the longer I ran and drove better. It wasn’t quite clicking just yet, (but) our car was starting to come around.
“I think the difference in the tires between our two cars was about to show. But the race is 400 laps.”
Johnson’s quest for a sixth title was bolstered by the win, as he leapt over Kyle Busch for second in the championship standings and gained six points on leader Matt Kenseth. Johnson sits eight points behind Kenseth; Busch is 12 back.
Kenseth, who has found success at Dover in the past, finished seventh after winning the first two Chase races. Busch was fifth, his third top-5 showing in NASCAR’s playoff.
“Overall, for how bad I felt like we struggled with the car, that was a decent finish,” Kenseth said. “(But) when you look up, it’s everybody that finished in front of you. (They are) all the cars that you’re racing for points.
“I feel like this is one of our best racetracks and you want to do better than seventh at one of your best tracks. Overall, it was a solid day, but we wished for a little more.”
While Busch gained two points on his teammate, Kenseth, the fifth-place run still left him with a hollow feeling.
“It’s certainly appealing and you could be happy with it, but we’re a little disappointed at the same time,” he said. “We felt like we wanted to come in here, we wanted to run better — we could run better here. We have before, and we just could never really get the feel that I was looking for the whole weekend.”
With Kenseth, Johnson and Busch having separated themselves from the Chase pack, Dover’s race winner is narrowing his focus.
“My whole thought process was just how tough this championship’s going to be,” Johnson said. “They’re bringing their best and doing their best. You’ve got to deliver. That was my mindset when I was racing with both of those guys for three-quarters of the race.
“We need to win at our best tracks, and we did that.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.