Johnson looks for NASCAR crown

Published 10:52 pm Saturday, November 18, 2006

When Jimmie Johnson whacked the wall at New Hampshire, his crew chief slumped in his seat atop the pit box. Another season had just been wrecked, this time in Round 1 of the Chase for the championship, and it would probably cost the most dominant team in NASCAR the Nextel Cup title.

Chad Knaus took a deep breath, composed himself and told his driver to meet him back in the garage. He wasn’t giving up that easily, and it was his job to convince his team they could still make a run at the title.

Nine weeks later, Knaus has rallied his crew and driver, and Johnson is poised to wrap up the championship in Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He has a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth and needs only to finish 12th or better to clinch the title.

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“His biggest accomplishment isn’t that they were leading the points most of the season and that they went into the Chase as the top seed,” Nextel Cup director John Darby said Friday. “The biggest accomplishment is that after losing all those points and falling all the way back to ninth in the standings, it would have been so easy to hang his head and say ‘We’re out of it. We can’t do it. We’ll come back next year and try again.’

“He refused to let his team do that, and now here they are. That’s competition at the highest level and it starts with him.”

It’s no surprise that Johnson and the No. 48 team completed yet another comeback. They had done it the past two years, after collapses early in the Chase derailed their regular-season dominance. Both times, Johnson went into the finale mathematically eligible to win the title.

But it had been so draining for Knaus, who had exhausted all his energy long before the Chase even began. That frantic pace clearly wasn’t working, and Knaus promised he would change.

“I was spent before we got to the final 10 races and I knew that had a lot to do with why we didn’t perform up to our potential,” Knaus said. “I made it a goal of myself to take a little bit more time off and relax this year. We sat down well before the season ever began and laid out a plan of how things were going to happen.”

Only all those offseason vows that this year would be different were shattered when he was caught cheating during the season-opening Daytona 500. Kicked out of the garage and suspended for four weeks, Knaus had no choice but to take some time off.

He was sidelined for two of Johnson’s victories, including the Daytona 500. Knaus insists the suspension has nothing to do with his new laid-back approach, but others aren’t so sure.

“I know that just tore him to pieces, sitting at home and watching his car win the Daytona 500 on TV,” Darby said. “Knowing how much work and effort he’d put into the car and team, when you are sitting at home watching it go on without you, that’s probably the biggest reality check a guy can get.”

Knaus was different when he returned to the track a month later. Quibbling about why and when it happened is not important. The only thing that matters is that Knaus has chilled out, and it’s a large part of why Johnson is poised to take the final step. “He’s not changed in just one way,” Johnson said. “He’s changed in about 15 different ways and it’s been the best thing for the team, but more importantly, the best thing for him.”