Two and a half weeks ago, a NASCAR storyline was growing: Jimmie Johnson was doomed. The No. 48 was winless, crew chief Chad Knaus and his driver were fighting with one another and a Chase bid, let alone a bid for a seventh championship, could be in jeopardy.
Now? Johnson’s won two straight, jumped atop the charts in laps led (963) and is tied with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano for the Cup lead in victories. Fourth in points, he’d be tops there too without a couple of inconvenient flat tires at Bristol and Fontana. Turns out the demise of the No. 48 team, as always, was greatly exaggerated.
Oh, almost forgot the best part for all the Jimmie haters out there (of which there are many who show their dislike through the cruelest form of unflattery: indifference): turns out this group still thinks it’s running at about a B to B-minus pace.
“I think we’re behind on just a little bit of everything,” said crew chief Chad Knaus after Sunday’s win. “As we pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. But that’s just inherent. That’s what happens because you have to focus on one goal that’s directly in front of you.
“I feel like we’ve got a long ways to go yet to understand exactly what we need. With the new ride height changes and rules that they’ve got out there, it’s a different animal, and I know it’s difficult to understand and it’s not easy for everybody. The advantages we had last year were minimized … the last couple weeks have shown great strides, but we’re not where we need to be.”
Oh, how quickly things can change. Perhaps it is wishful thinking when there’s a dynasty dominating the way in which Johnson and Co. has imposed their will on the sport. But there are a whole lot of us feeling very, very stupid right now. There’s no question who’s still the heavy favorite to end Homestead on top, no matter how much we try and write around it.
The question is whether the fans feel the same way, strongly enough, that they’re just not going to bother watching the coronation all over again.
“Through the Gears” we go, following the FedEx 400 in Dover …
FIRST GEAR: Dover domination
Johnson laid waste to the field Sunday, recording his record ninth win on the one-mile oval he’s taken to task since debuting as a rookie in the Cup Series in 2002. It’s one of his most impressive accomplishments, turning a track into the type of personal playground rarely achieved by anyone in NASCAR history. For comparison’s sake, you think of Darrell Waltrip’s 12 career victories at Bristol — against lesser competition — along with Richard Petty’s 15 wins apiece at North Wilkesboro and Martinsville. There’s David Pearson’s 10 Darlington trophies, taming the Lady in Black in a way no one else has.
And then? Well, that’s about it. Johnson’s record-breaking performance includes 2,976 laps led, more than any other driver in the history of Dover. He’s won six of the last 11 events there, led at least 143 laps in 10 of the last 11 and completed all but two laps during that stretch. The only misses include fuel mileage (second, 2011); a restart penalty (17th, 2013) and a handful of flat tires. Without them, a record like 10-for-11 would easily be within reach.
Walking around Dover this weekend, I got a sense the rest of the field was in a bit of a daze. Drivers hate talking about Johnson’s dominance to the point where I’m honestly starting to feel it’s getting inside people’s heads. How could it not? You can only get beaten into submission so many times.
“I think for sure when you come to Dover, it's always the 48,” said third-place runner Matt Kenseth with a hint of sarcasm. “I mean, they are just unbelievable here. If you're going to have a shot to win, that's the car you're going to have to beat every time unless they break.
“It’s not unexpected when they come here, and I don’t know if you guys notice, but (Johnson’s) pretty good at all the racetracks.”
Latent frustration, laid out for all to see. Also telling, because it’s when the mental wear and tear gets into their competitors that the Johnson/Knaus combo truly jumps out and pounces. In the month of June, I see a giant Lowe’s Chevrolet coming at you. Watch out.
SECOND GEAR: A giant hole in the proceedings
The Dover race, already a bit of a rout up front between Johnson and Kevin Harvick, was grinded to a halt on Lap 159 once Jamie McMurray hit a piece of concrete that came loose from the track. The resulting hit sent the No. 1 Chevy into the wall, sprayed pieces up into the glass on one of Dover’s pedestrian bridges and resulted in a 22-minute red-flag repair that left some drivers complaining about the track surface.
For most, though, it was a non-issue, as praise was given to the speediness of a repair that held up for the rest of the 400-lap race distance. “It is an epoxy type filler that we use,” explained NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton. “And it's basically the same filler that's used any time we make a repair at the track, whether it be asphalt or concrete.”
Race-winner Johnson was among several drivers who noticed the breakage during driver intros before the race but no one apparently informed NASCAR of the problem. The biggest losers from it were McMurray, whose repairs could not be performed under red flag conditions, and perhaps Harvick, who insinuated a piece of concrete broke the valve stem on his tire after returning to green-flag conditions. The resulting pit stop left him two laps down and unable to mount a charge against Johnson, perhaps one of two drivers that could have done so.
Should the track be repaved? Dover’s surface is 19 years old at this point. But as we’ve seen throughout the sport’s history, these things happen and can never be completely prevented. I also have a sinking feeling that if the racing here is struggling now, new asphalt won’t exactly make it better. See: Michigan, Phoenix, Kansas, Charlotte … need I say more?
THIRD GEAR: Game-changing debris cautions
Dover’s finish was altered by a debris caution with about 40 laps left in the midst of teams saving fuel for what they expected to be a finish based on mileage. Johnson seemed capable of going the distance, not changing the outcome several others were hoping to stretch it in hopes of a better result.
Yet FOX, like it has too often done this season, never showed the piece of whatever that changed race strategy for the entire field. Could you imagine if a penalty was thrown in the NFL that put a team in field goal range and it was never shown? How about a home run negated with no replay and no chance to challenge the call? You can see why it’s not just NASCAR fans, but drivers and teams in the garage, who get increasingly frustrated.
“I tell you, if it wasn’t for debris cautions and stuff like that that keep coming out I think we can be in contention to win one of these things,” insinuated Clint Bowyer. “We certainly had the fuel mileage and everything else. (We) did our homework with the facts that were given, and unfortunately, those facts changed.”
Johnson later added that you “expect” cautions to come out late in the going — a passive-aggressive way of tilting their opinions on how NASCAR might be injecting too much of its own officiating into the outcome. The last caution for debris clearly shown on the backstretch was also controversial, as it bunched up the field one last time with less than 10 laps to go. Many drivers thought they could have raced around it, but this scenario is exactly how the sanctioning body paints itself in a box. How could you avoid calling a late debris caution for pieces you clearly see on the racetrack when you do it for something that might not exist?
The philosophy, much better early in the season, is creeping back to “overreaching” on these cautions and there’s plenty within the sport who hope it changes back ASAP, as the meat of the summer schedule to determine the Chase looms dead ahead.
FOURTH GEAR: Kyle Busch’s triple torn apart
Another great weekend for Kyle Busch had a tough ending, courtesy of Clint Bowyer midway through the Dover event. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, who had already won Truck and Nationwide Series races at the Monster Mile in the two previous days, got clipped when Bowyer’s spotter said he was clear of the No. 18. That left Busch, who led 81 of the first 124 laps before Johnson’s car got going, sitting dormant in the garage, wondering what might have been after unsuccessfully trying to enact revenge on the racetrack.
“I hated to be in that situation with the 18,” said Bowyer. “It’s one of those deals where I thought I was clear, obviously, and wasn’t. Ruined his day and certainly didn’t help mine.”
Busch, who left the track without comment, is now unofficially one-for-nine on these “triple” opportunities. Typically, it’s the Cup race where he whiffs, a pattern which doesn’t help a reputation some say is built on consistently beating up lesser opponents. If Busch reaches 201 victories in NASCAR’s top three series, beating Petty’s mythical 200, but only earns about 35 of those on the Cup level, what does that say about his career? Do you really want to be known as the minor leaguer who outgrew your competition but never left, needing a continual injection of confidence to keep going?
These are questions Busch will eventually need to answer, rather uncomfortably. “No comment” never works when it comes to making that type of history.
Let’s give a “Barney Hall call” to Brett Moffitt. Driving the underfunded No. 66, a test ride of sorts that, at times, is a joint venture with Michael Waltrip Racing. The rookie driver ran 22nd in his Cup debut. Only Jeff Burton (17th) has had a better finish with the car all season and the team just has one other top 25, courtesy of Michael Waltrip himself, at Talladega. Not bad for a 21-year-old TRD test driver with three combined starts in Nationwide and Trucks. … Could Tony Stewart be on the verge of turning things around? The Cup driver ran seventh at Dover after secretly testing and nearly running a Sprint car in a race last week. It’s a labor of love the busy driver/owner needs after injuring his leg pursuing his “hobby competition” last August. Without it, his mental game suffers on and off the track and it makes him even lesser than 100 percent while recovering from that serious injury. … Martin Truex Jr. also hit the Dover jackpot, running sixth for his best result all year. It’s the best the No. 78 team has looked since the New Jersey native, who considers this his home track, took over for Kurt Busch. … The Dover crowd wasn’t as bad as made out to be. Keep in mind the track has 135,000 seats. You put Fontana’s “sold out” crowd of 70,000 in there from a few months ago and the buzz would be that California should lose its day. Visual perception means everything; that said, interest has fallen fast in the one-mile facility and as one of NASCAR’s last independent tracks, a 2015 schedule revamp could put a second date in jeopardy. … NASCAR On FOX director Artie Kempner waved the green flag while spreading the cause for Autism Awareness. His latest campaign has already raised nearly $20,000 as the generosity of NASCAR fans shine through.