Johnson, Knaus display more All-Star mojo
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus showed again late Saturday night they have regained their touch in NASCAR’s All-Star race.
Now the question remains if they can win the Coca-Cola 600 and bring back part of the magic of nearly a decade ago when they won five of six points races from 2003-2205 at the track now known as Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The All-Star victory was the second in a row and record fourth for Johnson, who went into the event tied with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most wins.
But, he hasn’t won a points race at the 1.5-mile track since its fall race of 2009.
Johnson maintains he lost his touch at CMS when it was repaved in 2006.
“We’ve had decent finishes and been competitive and led laps, but the track is just so different now than it was then, and we had it scienced out,” Johnson said. “We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork, didn’t matter the year, just every single time. It’s not that way anymore. It’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again. We’re knocking on the door, but like I was saying earlier, we’re one of three or one of five that can make something happen here now, where before we had a pretty strict advantage.”
Winning in the All-Star race is easier, according to Knaus, because of the race’s structure, which this year included a mandatory pit stop before a 10-lap final segment that capped the 90-lap event. The rest of the race was divided into four 20-lap sprints.
“You know when the cautions are coming, you know when the breaks are going to happen,” Knaus said. “You can kind of sit back and kind of strategize and understand what’s going to happen. In a normal race, we have no idea what’s going to happen.”
They knew that cars were going to come into the pits for a mandatory pit stop before the final 10-lap segment in order of their average finishes from the first four segments. They knew that Johnson had to overcome a poor starting position so that he would have a shot coming out of the pits for the final segment in first or second because passing for the lead on new tires at high-speed tracks is difficult.
Johnson accomplished the mission. He went from 15th to fifth in the second segment, then finished third in the next two and went to the pits fourth.
“I don’t want to say I counted myself out, but starting 20th or 23rd or whatever we were, it wasn’t good,” Johnson said. “The way this average worked out I knew I wouldn’t have a shot at the front row unless I really made something happen. I had trouble early in the first segment. But the second and third and fourth segments, we were able to make some stuff happen and put us in position for a good pit stop.”
The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, went in 1-2 with Johnson’s teammate, Kasey Kahne, third. Johnson came in fourth as a graphic on Speed’s telecast of the event incorrectly showed he ranked lower in the order.
Kahne came out first with Johnson second, putting them on the front row for the restart. Kyle Busch was third, Joey Logano fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.
Johnson and Kahne raced side-by-side while Kyle Busch bobbled going through turns one and two, dropping briefly to sixth. Johnson edged ahead of Kahne after nearly a lap and began pulling away. Kahne eventually faded. Logano finished second, with Kyle Busch third, Kahne fourth and Kurt Busch fifth.
Now, the 600-mile race, the longest of the season, presents a different challenge in Johnson’s quest to recapture the magic.
Johnson says he is among five or so drivers that he considers favorites.
“If we can take and translate what we had in this race car this evening and bring that next week, I think we’ll have a good shot at it,” Knaus said. “But the setups are completely different when you can go between 50 and 56 laps on a fuel run and tonight we only went 20 laps.
“You may have had a break, but you knew when that break was coming. So, if you got yourself into a position where you were running hard and you were leading or running third, you could pull back and save your tires a little bit. Sunday night you can’t do that. You’re going to have to run hard the whole time, so it’s a completely different setup.”