November 8, 2012
Chase leader Johnson won't relax
By DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency
Ageless Mark Martin calls Jimmie Johnson “Superman” because over the past seven seasons the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has been faster than a speeding bullet and just as impossible to beat.
Five consecutive championships, one off year in 2011 — when Johnson finished sixth behind winner Tony Stewart — and he and crew chief Chad Knaus are back leading the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for the sixth time with a seven-point cushion over second-place Brad Keselowski with only Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway and next week’s Ford 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway, to go.
Johnson goes into the race at PIR an overwhelming favourite to win his third consecutive race in this year’s version of the Chase.
He and the No. 48 team have won the last two races — at Martinsville Speedway and last week at Texas Motor Speedway — from the pole, collecting maximum points in both races and in the process erasing the lead that Keselowski had held from his opening Chase victory at Chicagoland Speedway two months and eight races ago.
Johnson’s record at PIR is just as impressive as his recent Chase stats: He has four wins — November 2007, 2008, 2009 and April 2008 and in his 18 starts, he has finished in the Top 10 an incredible 15 times with 12 of those top fives.
No wonder after his Texas win Johnson said he wanted to drive right to Phoenix and run the race immediately.
“I really wish we were in Phoenix right now getting ready to start the next race,” he said last Sunday night. “Things are rolling. We’re enjoying it.”
His experience winning those five in a row championships also tells him that he doesn’t have to play catch up. The pressure is all on Keselowski to beat the champ.
“We’re definitely in control,” Johnson said. “It’s a small amount of control, but we’re definitely in control. We don’t have to catch any or make up any points.”
He isn’t so confident, however, that he thinks his sixth championship is already in he bag. One mistake by him or the team on Sunday and his points lead could be history and Johnson knows it.
“Seven points is nothing to feel comfortable about and to relax on,” he said. “We’re still going to go into Phoenix and act as if we’re behind and go in there to try to sit on the pole and win the race again.”
Johnson’s relationship with Knaus, of course, is key to getting the six-pack of NASCAR championships he so craves.
The crew chief many fans love to hate for his history of challenging the rules — some would call it out and out cheating — prepares race cars better than anyone in the sport.
And he is convinced that Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge team has to ramp things up to beat Johnson, but all the No. 48 team has to do is stay the course.
“Everybody thinks once you get to the Chase, you’ve got to ramp everything up,” Knaus said. “Being part of (our No.) 48 car, you’re expected to win every single week, so we really can’t prepare any differently. ... once we get into the Chase.
“We’re really operating in our comfort zone.
“Where I think what happens to a lot of the other teams, it takes them out of the comfort zone,” he said. “They try to do more. They try to push that further. They do things that are outside the norm. I think that’s where usually people get in trouble.”
There still is one thing for Johnson to worry about and that is the unexpected — as in being caught up in a wreck. He said the new PIR layout — the one-mile tri-oval was repaved and reconfigured last season — causes him concern.
“The dogleg, kink, turn three, whatever it is on the back straightaway, there was a bit of chaos in navigating that thing — guys shooting across the flat — which led to some issues into the real turn three,” Johnson said. “I think that is really the thing to be focused on. There might be some crashes as a result of that.”
NO REWARD FOR HAT THEIF
Brad Keselowski faced a bit of a moral dilemma last week at Texas Motor Speedway.
The driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge was asked by a young female fan to sign one of his hats.
The dilemma was that Keselowski knew the hat was stolen — from him — after a practice for last Sunday’s AAA Texas 500.
“I took off my hat and I sat it on the car ,” he recalled this week. “I see my hat there and so I toss it on top of the pit box. Right about that time, Jimmie (Johnson) and I were both getting back into our cars to make our runs and a bunch of fans had started to hang around our garage area and our tool boxes where I flung my hat.
“I go out and make my run and I pull back in and my hat’s gone. Where did my hat go? I’m walking around and media is chasing me around and my hair is all over, it’s crazy and I’m sweating so it has that weird look to it. I’ve got helmet head. And I think, ‘Somebody stole my hat.’”
A big time Twitter user, Keselowski checked his tweets.
“The first tweet was someone who wrote me and said: ‘Hey Brad, I just took your hat, thank you. ...’
“There will be more hats. I wasn’t frowning. But somebody stole my hat either way.”
The next day — race day — things got more weird.
“Before the race, I’m going to get into my car ... and this girl comes walking up with this hat and goes, ‘Hey, Brad, I’m the girl that stole your hat the other day. Can you sign it?’
“I thought it was pretty incredible that someone would one, steal your hat, two, go on Twitter and tell you they stole your hat, and three, walk up to you and be like, ‘Hey, right before you get in your car to race for the championship, can you sign this hat that I just stole from you and told you about yesterday?’”
So did Keselowski sign the hat?
No. He said “it just felt wrong” to reward a thief.