Since his move to the Cup Series in 2002, Jimmie Johnson has recorded 48 victories and four straight championships thanks to fast race cars, great calls from crew chief Chad Knaus and a touch of luck. Sunday’s victory at the Auto Club Speedway was no exception.
The dominant car on the day, Johnson’s race nearly took a turn for the worse when a caution flew as his team completed work on pit road. Able to beat race leader Jeff Burton to the pit exit, Johnson avoided losing a lap and when the leaders headed to pit road for service he stayed out and grabbed the lead.
Some fans saw this as a gift from NASCAR and runner-up Kevin Harvick said Johnson has a “golden horseshoe” stuck where the sun doesn’t shine. The four-time defending champion knows luck was on his side on Sunday, but explained luck is not everything.
“The deal on pit road, we got lucky,” Johnson said. “We were in our pit box and the caution came out. We were able to just beat the 31 car off of pit road where the scoring line is at the end of pit road. You know, certainly got lucky. We were running third or fourth or fifth at the time, so it’s not like we totally backed into this thing. We got a really nice gift with the way things worked out, then it was kind of up to me to hang onto it.”
To Knaus, the timing of the caution was not a potential problem, but a potential chance to get out front and take advantage of a situation. Fast pit work got Johnson out in time and – on a day when NASCAR was watching the speed traps more than usual – the four-time champ edged race leader Jeff Burton to the pit exit.
“When that opportunity arises, that’s when you have to have the team that’s capable of reacting,” Knaus said. “Our guys executed a great pit stop right there. We made some significant changes to the car and were able to beat the 31 car out of the pits.”
“I knew people were on pit road,” Burton said. “There’s a fine line between slowing down and not slowing down. I don’t know where that line is. I came around as quick as I thought I could without NASCAR getting upset at me.”
The other cars on pit road at the same time of the caution were Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle. While Johnson was able to get out ahead of Burton, these two were not so lucky. Trapped a lap down, they stayed out when the leaders pit – becoming the wave around cars on the restart – and were forced to work their way through the field, all while Johnson restarted out front.
“I think the 18 was in the pits, and the leader of the race passed him a few seconds before the 18 was able to get that I line,” Johnson said. “That’s why we were able to be on the lead lap still. Then everybody pitted and we were the leader.”
Knowing his driver could get the job done, Knaus radioed Johnson before they went to green saying, "We just got the break of the #%$*ing race, dude."
While Johnson was lucky on pit road, luck was not the reason he scored his 48th career win. Johnson led a race-high 101 laps, was one of the fastest cars throughout the entire race and held off the hard-charging Kevin Harvick in the closing laps.
“You don’t get lucky and win four championships and 48 races. Things went our way today with the pit stop. But I had to go out there and hold Kevin off, (Burton), all that kind of thing,” Johnson said. “I’m not discrediting the fact we were handed a huge gift when we were on pit road and the caution came out. It is what it is, and we’ve had plenty of races go the other way on us. From how consistent we’ve been from the first races we’ve been in from eight seasons ago till now, it’s ’cause we’re a good race team.”
A week ago in Daytona, when problems developed late in the race the No. 48 crew appeared unorganized and a bit rusty. As crew members looked around the rear of the car, Knaus had to order car chief Ron Malec under the car to get the job done. With frustration in his voice, the champion crew chief simply told his guys to push the car to the garage.
This week was a complete turnaround. The team got Johnson off pit road fast and stepped up when it mattered most. Looking the like the team of old, Sunday’s performance was a reminder to the competition that five championships in a row is very real possibility – especially with a little luck.
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