Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says “it’s been business as usual“ this week at the Monster Mile.
But has it?
Certainly, last week’s radio transmission from the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team at New Hampshire Motor Speedway could indicate there’s trouble in paradise.
When crew chief Chad Knaus asked if Johnson was “ready” on the radio during the race, the driver took offense at the tone.
“Dude, your cheerleading is terrible,” Johnson said. “I’m going to drive my ass off. Don’t sweat it. Just watch.”
“Prove it, baby,” Knaus replied. “Come on.”
“You’re actually annoying instead of helping,” Johnson said. “Just let me go out and do my thing.”
After the race, Johnson reiterated he was “going 100 percent regardless of what’s being said on the radio.” As far as his relationship with Knaus, sometimes it takes on the complexion of an old married couple. Every family has its feuds — even those who have won five titles together.
“After 10 years of working together, there are plenty of things that we know about each other and a lot of discussions that have taken place,” Johnson said. “There hasn’t been anything more than normal. I mean, when you work with someone as long as we have, for over 10 years now, there are hot spots and buttons that can be pushed that send someone over the edge.
“So, it’s nothing new to us. I know a lot of people are reacting to it and think that it is something abnormal. There’s a lot of other instances throughout the last 10 years where stuff like this has gone on and during our review of races and review of things and how to be a better group, a better team, we talk about this stuff all the time. So, yes, it wasn’t our finest moment on Sunday, but it is what we deal with. It’s been part of what we’ve been dealing with for 10 years.”
Johnson, 36, has always been a driver who can stand and deliver. When the team hits an obstacle — other than, say, a retaining wall or Kyle Busch — Johnson is always able to rally the troops and recover.
But a tough time in the pits — coupled with the contact by Busch with less that 25 laps remaining in the race that Johnson described as so severe that it “whipped the wheel out of his hand” and bent the car’s right-front suspension — led to an 18th-place finish at the Magic Mile, just his third result outside of the top 15 in 20 starts.
In the past two races, Johnson has dropped four positions in the points standings and is currently 10th. It’s the lowest the No. 48 team has been in the points this late in the season since Johnson graduated full time to the Sprint Cup Series in 2002.
Johnson could not have picked a better time for the tour to come to Dover International Speedway, a track where he leads the series with six victories, including three wins in his past five starts.
Despite the caliber of his fellow NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup competition, Johnson is not concerned — yet.
“I don’t think we’re in a position where it’s win or nothing,” Johnson said. “We need to get a top-three run here. There’s still eight races left. When we look at how well we performed at Chicago, fuel got ahold of us there and we should have been top-three and we ended up 10th. Last weekend, even with some of the creative radio chatter that took place, I was in position to finish probably top 10 if I didn’t have that contact with the No. 18 car (Kyle Busch), and that was just racing stuff. So, if could we take back and didn’t have an 18th and had a 10th at Loudon, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“I don’t think we’re looking for the walk-off home run by any means right now. It’s just finishing where we should. At Chicago we didn’t have the fortune to finish where we should have and that is just the way it works with fuel mileage. Last weekend was some contact on-track and this weekend, we’ve got to go out and finish where we should. That is really the way I see it right now.”
WHAT’S THE POINT?
For the past two years, Kevin Harvick has watched the Sprint Cup points lead dwindle away.
Harvick had a 228-point lead after 26 races in 2010 until the standings were reset for the Chase.
This season, Harvick was tied with Kyle Busch in points after Richmond. Harvick held a seven-point lead over the field after finishing second the following week at Chicagoland Speedway but lost the top spot after New Hampshire by the same margin to current points leader Tony Stewart after the No. 14 team won consecutive races.
“Those guys have got off to a good start, and to be able to win the first two races is the best way to make up ground and to make maximum points,” Harvick said. “We just have to keep doing what we are doing and concentrate on the little things and go from there.”
Dover has not been a stellar track for Harvick in the past. He has two top-five finishes in 21 starts and an average finish of 17th. His best lap in practice on Friday was 155.039 mph — 16th fastest in the first practice.
Still, as competitive as the Chase field is this season, Harvick cannot afford to have a bad week. With a 12th-place finish last week in Loudon and Harvick currently second in the point standings, when does the team start monitoring the leaderboard?
“I mean, you do every week,” Harvick said. “Anybody who tells you they are not paying attention to the points is lying.
“You go out and you try to gain the maximum points every week and you want to know who is around you to know what you need to do as far as the points goes. It is a weekly battle for sure.”
Matt Kenseth has more to worry about this weekend than recovering from seventh in the Chase for the Sprint Cup points standings.
Kenseth’s wife, Katie, broke her right shoulder blade during a practice crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Monday. Katie was driving a Bandolero car in preparation for “the Better Half Dash” — a charity powder-puff race scheduled for Oct. 15 to benefit Motor Racing Outreach and Speedway Children’s Charities.
Kenseth said the greatest challenge for Katie is trying to keep up with two toddlers.
“I just blame myself for putting her in the car to start with, but, yeah, she’s doing pretty well,” Kenseth said. “She’s about the same. She’s really sore but getting a little bit better.
“I’m trying to help as much as I can, but I think it’s hard for her to heal up with two kids and one arm, so I think it will be a while. But I think she was feeling pretty good yesterday. She’s probably a little bit more sore today.”
DON’T COME A KNOCKIN’
If you haven’t heard of crew chief Paul Wolfe, you will.
Wolfe is a former race car driver and a first-year Sprint Cup crew chief who has led Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 Penske Racing team from 23rd to third in the standings in the past nine races.
Strangely enough, the 34-year-old Milford, NY, native’s phone has not been ringing off the hook with inquiries about his status for next year. Wolfe, who won the 2010 Nationwide Series championship with Keselowski, has another year remaining on his contract — and he also has no desire to leave.
And why should he? Wolfe says the biggest change from the start of the season until now is, “It’s a lot more fun.”
After Stewart’s somewhat enigmatic comment about unloading “dead weight” after his win in New Hampshire, his driver/teammate Ryan Newman was asked if he too had left dead weight anywhere along the NASCAR tour this season.
“I don’t know exactly how to answer that, other than, no, I don’t think so,” Newman said.
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