Just making it into the Chase is quite an accomplishment for any driver, but the cruelty of Sprint Cup racing is that there is no time to enjoy being in the elite field of drivers. Once a team is in, the line of thinking that got it into the 12-man Chase field must change if it wants to make a serious run at the title.
The 10-race Chase schedule is so short, especially when you compare it to the 26 races that it took just to set the field, that any finish outside of the top 10 and in many cases outside of the top 5 means that a driver is going to be losing ground to the leader that week. This forces teams to unload each week with a very aggressive game plan for both qualifying and the race.
Having success in the Chase is not an accident, it’s the fruits of a well thought-out game plan and there are not two in the business as good as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus for creating a plan that ends with them as the series champion. The two have combined for five Chase titles in the past six years and with a two-point lead with only three races left, wouldn’t you feel safe in putting a bet down that the numbers are about to change to six out of seven?
That is not to say over the years that there haven’t been some teams worthy of winning the title, it’s more about the attitude that this duo has been able to show during their dominant run in the sport. Tony Stewart showed last year that they don’t have a monopoly on the trophy, but they do have a big say in who will be crowned each season.
Two seasons ago, Denny Hamlin went into the last race of the season with the point lead, but in the days leading up to that race Johnson and Knaus sounded like the trophy had already been engraved with their names on it. Some might call their attitude in which they approach the Chase as cocky, but really it is nothing more than a level of confidence in what they do that other teams for whatever reason can’t come close to duplicating.
This past weekend the two put on a clinic for the rest of the garage as they came into Martinsville with the game plan to not only win the race, but to also win the Chase. Qualifying may not be as important at other tracks as it is at Martinsville, but with the track being so small and narrow starting up front becomes the quickest way to victory lane. Johnson took the pole on Friday as points leader Brad Keselowski qualified 32nd.
Johnson fired the first shot of the weekend with his pole, but it was his battle with Clint Bowyer late in the race that showed he knows what it takes to win a championship. Bowyer was trying to make the pass on Johnson and was laying the bumper to him as at that point he may have had the fastest car, but Johnson did some great driving to stay in front and to continue to lead laps. Eventually Bowyer used up his car and Johnson went on to claim the win, but by holding off Bowyer he was able to earn the bonus point for leading the most laps.
Last year Stewart showed that every point was important and with a point differential of just two going into Texas this weekend, the holding off of Bowyer may be looked back at as being a pivotal point in this year’s Chase. That’s the attitude you have to have, don’t leave any points on the track, and this combination of Johnson and Knaus is the best of getting everything they can at each stop on the Chase schedule.
Event: AAA Texas 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5
mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in
Date: Nov. 4, 3 p.m.
Defending Champion: Tony