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Johnson's intermediate acumen will pay off in NASCAR's Chase


It’s said that racetracks don’t owe anyone anything. Rarely, if ever, will you hear a driver, following a victory, proclaim that “this old place owed us one” after a string of disappointments finally results in paydirt.

In racing it’s taboo to suggest that the reason one loses is because of the track. Instead, a driver and team take the onus upon themselves; they should have prepared harder, executed better or employed a different strategy. Take credit when you win, take the blame when you lose. There are no excuses.

And surely no one is “owed” anything.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus know this all too well. The most successful and feared driver-crew chief duo in NASCAR have won nearly everything there is to win in the sport over a dominant 12-plus-year reign. 

Six championships. Four wins each in the Brickyard 400 and the All-Star Race. Two apiece at fickle Darlington and treacherous Talladega. And, of course, a pair of Harley J. Earl trophies courtesy of Daytona 500 triumphs. If it’s prestigious and pays big money, their No. 48 team has conquered it.

That’s what made their unfortunate luck at Michigan International Speedway over the years so peculiar. On a number of occasions the team has seen defeat clutched from its seemingly victorious hands. Flat tires, blown engines, empty fuel cells — the one team that’s consistently made its own luck elsewhere has had it thrown back in their face in 24 previous visits to the Irish Hills.

As fate would have it, Johnson, Knaus and crew slayed their white whale on a day when they didn’t have the fastest car. For once, the hills smiled down on them. The Quicken Loans 400 is no “crown jewel” NASCAR event, but it is one of the last few new triumphs the group that has won most everything can enjoy.  

“I heard 10 (laps) to go, and I’ve been there before with the lead,” Johnson said of his poor Michigan luck. “I heard 5 to go — I’ve been there before and didn’t win;  (I’ve) taken the white (flag) with the lead and didn’t make it back. So I wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around, and about 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I’d still slide across the finish line and it didn’t matter.

“That’s finally when I relaxed and let it go.”

Perhaps Johnson should “relax and let it go” at the four other tracks where he has yet to cash in. His record at Chicagoland Speedway, with seven top 5s in 12 starts, is impressive yet there are no W’s. Also, it’s now NASCAR’s first stop in the 10-race Chase for the Championship — and the 48 team’s ability to turn it on when it counts is legendary.

An absence of wins at Kentucky Speedway is excusable in that the sample size is a mere three events. Watkins Glen, the tricky-fast road course in upstate New York, has played host to a pair of Johnson pole wins, yet no Sunday victories.

And then there’s Homestead-Miami Speedway. His lack of a trophy here is explained away in the fact that Johnson has never had to win on the 1.5-mile track. In six of his 13 starts he’s simply had to finish seventh, ninth, 13th ... whatever ... to wrap up a title. There were bigger matters on the agenda.

Johnson’s 2010 season was a “bucket list” year of sorts. Nine years into his undeniable Hall of Fame career, Johnson tamed the bullring of Bristol and the Sonoma roadie (if there is one flaw in this driver’s arsenal, it’s his road course acumen) en route to a record-extending fifth consecutive title.

With three wins at aero-sensitive venues already in the bag this year, might the 48 team — a team suddenly hitting on all cylinders — score an additional win on a similar intermediate-size oval?

NASCAR’s new game show of a championship format is expected to reward winning (as opposed to consistency) above all else — at least that’s the narrative. A victory in the opening round at Chicagoland is an automatic transfer to the next round. And the ultimate triumph — in a winner-take-all showdown in Homestead, Fla. — would most likely deliver a record-tying seventh championship to the team.

Obtaining those bucket list wins would have meaning far beyond simply checking a heretofore accomplishment off the to-do list.

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.