Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus and his crew showed on Sunday the kind of work that it takes to become a Sprint Cup champion. Johnson entered the race at Texas sitting on top of what was thought to be a very comfortable 184-point lead over teammate Mark Martin, but when the checkered flag finally waved after 500 miles, Johnson’s lead had been trimmed by 111 points.
Johnson had survived the two ‘wild card’ races at Martinsville and Talladega in the weeks leading up to Texas, but it only took three laps of racing on Sunday for Johnson to get involved in an accident not of his own making. Sam Hornish Jr. bumped into Johnson, sending him into the outside wall and then back across the track where he hit hard against the inside retaining wall.
The result was a badly mangled car that would require major repairs before it would ever get back on the track. Most teams would have made the decision to just put it back on the hauler and be content on starting to prepare for Phoenix the following week. Johnson and Knaus have assembled the type of team that pushing the car back on to the hauler was not an option. They would have left Texas with a 43rd-place finish and when you are just two races away from winning your fourth straight title, the only option for them was to roll up their sleeves and rebuild a race car.
It took just over an hour for the team to repair the car enough to get it back on the track and allow Johnson to start logging laps. The work paid off as he was able to move up five spots to 38th, which might not seem like much but the five spots did earn Johnson 15 more points than if he had just loaded up his wrecked car and headed back to his shop in Charlotte.
Those 15 points may prove to be the difference in what has now turned into a close race between a trio of Hendrick Motorsports drivers, which also includes Jeff Gordon in third place who was able to pick up 80 points on Johnson and now trails the leader by 112 points.
Even though Johnson saw much of his lead going into Texas disappear, he is still in charge of his championship run. If he can average a fourth-place finishing position at the two races left at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, the championship is his regardless of where any other driver finishes. If he could gain 89 points on Martin at Phoenix, all he would have to do to claim his fourth straight title is to take the green flag at Homestead-Miami and the title would be his.
Hendrick Motorsports is going to be the big winner at the end of the season when the final checkered flag waves at Miami-Homestead. The battle squarely falls now between Hendrick Motorsports drivers Johnson, Martin and Gordon with Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch in fourth place 171 points out of the top spot. If all three of Hendrick’s drivers hang on to the top-three spots, regardless of the order, it would be the first time in NASCAR history that one owner has swept the topthree spots in the Sprint Cup Series.
CHASE NOTES: Chevy drivers Johnson, Martin and Gordon should like going to Phoenix this weekend as Chevrolet drivers have won the last 10 races.
PIT NOTES: Kyle Busch entered Sunday’s race at Texas with a chance to make some history of his own by becoming the first NASCAR driver to win a race in each of the sanctioning body’s three national series races in the same weekend at the same track. Before the start of Sunday’s Dickies 500 he had already notched wins in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, leaving only a win in the Cup series to put his name in the record books. The way the race unfolded it looked as if that was going to be the case as he led 232 of the 334 laps, but he ran out of gas with only two laps remaining which left him with an 11th-place finish. It was the first race for Busch and his new crew chief Dave Rogers and in typical Kyle Busch style after a tough finish, he left the track without talking to reporters.
Race Preview — Event : Checker O’Reilly Auto parts 500. Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile tri-oval, 1 and 2 banked 11 degrees, 3 and 4, 9 degrees). Date: Nov. 15, 3:30 p.m. TV: ABC. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jimmie Johnson.