A five-time champion in their respective sport is rarely in need of motivation. So when you hand it to them on a silver platter, whatever the reason, you better hide yourself inside a bunker and hope for the best. After Dover’s fluky finish a week ago, where a restart penalty all but took a win away from Jimmie Johnson, something inside the 37-year-old snapped. Struggling to hold his tongue on several occasions, it was clear “Mr. Politically Correct” felt NASCAR made the wrong call, robbing him of what would be a record-setting Dover performance.
For a regular season race — sometimes used as test sessions for the No. 48 team — it’s been a long time since I’ve seen them enter the following Sunday so focused. Johnson, typically unflappable, was angry, even borderline insulted over it all. And we see what happens when star athletes get mad. Just ask LeBron James, Michael Jordan or even Joe Namath.
The Dover penalty, no matter what side you’re on, made Johnson “want it” more than anyone else at Pocono. And when a driver of that talent level gets prodded to the point they feel a statement must be made, what you get is the type of dominating snoozer Pocono turned out to be. It may not have been pretty — and at times, borderline unwatchable — but that kind of “whip the field” mentality is what’s made this guy the best NASCAR driver of the last decade … maybe more. Superstars are called that for a reason, and it’s not because they push their sport towards record ratings. That’s unfortunate for stock car racing, which has suffered under the Johnson era but you can’t suspend raw talent. You can only hope to contain it.
After seeing Sunday’s race, I doubt it will be contained anytime soon, especially after chief rivals seemed to stumble all over themselves. Their rough road ahead is what brings us “Through the Gears” after Pocono …
FIRST GEAR: Toyota’s loss is Jimmie Johnson’s gain
It’s easy to wax poetic about Johnson’s dominating performance, his first victory at Pocono since 2004. But to a point, that was expected considering the team’s level of anger, track position at a repaved facility (he started on the pole) and the momentum his No. 48 team has built over the past few months. Consistency-wise, they’re the best in the sport right now — no one else is remotely close.
Perhaps the bigger piece of news for Chevy’s top dog is how the top finishers shook out behind him. For the first time all season, not a single Toyota driver found his way inside the top 5 at race’s end. Mid-week changes at Toyota Racing Development to dial the engines back after a series of reliability problems turned the cars from Superman to Clark Kent. Denny Hamlin, the prototypical favorite at this track, failed to lead a lap, finished a quiet eighth and explained how suddenly, his Camry’s engine appeared to be hindered by kryptonite.
“By no means did we have a winning car this weekend,” he said. “I think all of us had to play defense on the straightaway, which is really tough.”
Add in Matt Kenseth’s rough day, slumping to 25th from fourth after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya, and a so-so sixth for Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole had an average finish of 13.0 with “Toyota engine, Version II.” That’s crucial for Johnson, whose lone obstacle, it seemed, entering the postseason was whether the durability of these rival motors would hold up. If the Toyotas have to dial it back that much, just to make each race the distance, they’re threatening to gift wrap the 2013 trophy for Johnson and hand it to him at Phoenix, the penultimate race — because he’ll still be able to skip Homestead and still win No. 6.
SECOND GEAR: Tough times for the Gen-6
Clearly, Pocono Raceway is not at fault for Johnson stomping the field. When a driver has a car that good, there’s only so much you can do to make the races exciting. To the Tricky Triangle’s credit, the crowd looked fairly full as track president Brandon Igdalsky continues to come up with great ways to maximize fan experience both inside and outside the track.
But no amount of free concerts, celebrity poker tournaments or cheap tickets can hide how awful NASCAR’s product was on Sunday. Behind Johnson, most of the field kept running in place while even a series of late restarts struggled to live up to their typical excitement. Several drivers appeared on cruise control, running in place, while side-by-side competition was nowhere to be found. It’s a puzzling development, especially at a triangular-shaped facility whose shortened distance last June provided one of the season’s best races and finishes.
When you end up with that type of flat, across-the-board product so soon after, it’s hard to point guilt anywhere other than NASCAR’s Gen-6. Fontana, at this point, seems a distant memory as the same type of aerodynamic issues are plaguing this new generation of car. High speeds, while good for the record books, have posed a problem when it comes to aggressive competition; drivers are chasing the racetrack, so much it makes running two-abreast too big of a risk to take. Add in the conservatism of making the Chase, with such a close battle for those positions (see point four below) and the final equation leaves what you’re watching seem like a conservative, single-file parade.
Is there a fix? One thought would be to slow the cars down; that, in turn, cuts down on the aero push and gives drivers more freedom to maneuver around the track. What made Fontana so great was its multiple grooves, giving drivers control over where to plant the car. Since then, I’ve heard the term “one-groove” track too many times to my liking. If drivers don’t feel they can control a car in a second groove (and under this point system) they’re not going to go there unless forced to — on those crazy restarts.
How you get those multiple grooves back in play? I’m not certain of the answer. But the right people should be racking their brains, because the optimism — and hype — this new car generated is threatening to fade.