“Jimmy loves Dover.”
Perhaps its the understatement of the year, coming from crew chief Chad Knaus. It came while speaking to the media soon after his driver Jimmie Johnson had delivered a flawless performance, winning the FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, the team's second win in a row.
This team had come to Dover with high expectations after winning the Coca-Cola 600 the previous weekend—a win that ended a mini dry spell.
“We came here with a brand new race car and things went really well for us straight out of the gate,” added Knaus in the post-race press conference.
Having gone winless since Daytona led to endless speculation in the media as to the reason or reasons why. Some, like Brant James with ESPN and Jeff Gluck with USA Today, would have us believe that it might have been due to Johnson's previously undisclosed offseason surgery. There really isn't any evidence of that.
Johnson and Knaus stood in the middle of it all, never doubting themselves while all those around them (read: the media) wondered if the secret to their success that produced an amazing six championship years had come unraveled.
His team’s slow start out of the gate, Knaus had explained at Charlotte, was in part due to its focus on winning the championship at the end of last season. It is a time when most teams are looking ahead with preparations for the next season.
And key to those preparations, which included another year working with the latest version race car, the Gen 6, were new rules mandated by NASCAR that targeted the all-important 1.5-mile tracks. That meant new cars were to be built that could better give Knaus' genius more space and some added flexibility to work within those new rules.
New cars were being built for more than just those tracks. Knaus was working on a fleet of new cars, including the one he brought to Dover. He explained to the media his confidence in Johnson going forward with the team's best cars at its disposal:
Going into the 600 last weekend I told Jimmie we were taking his favorite race car to the racetrack for the 600 and then I told him that his new favorite car was going to be going to Dover the following week, and then I told him his next favorite car was going to be going to Indianapolis. So far I'm doing pretty good, and hopefully we can keep it true.
It was soon after taking the checkered flag that Knaus reminded Johnson over the team radio, “I knew you would love this car.”
They’re not really special cars, but Knaus seems to have found another way with which to make his driver feel comfortable behind the wheel. The new cars, which are capable of speeds well over 200 miles per hour and designed to be driven on the edge, reward the drivers who can do this consistently with wins at the Sprint Cup level.
“You need a race car that's loose and turns very strong here to get it done and to be fast on the long haul,” Johnson said about the car that took him to Victory Lane at Dover, a track that features an all-concrete surface and banking all the way around its 1-mile length.
It’s design begs you to go faster and to push the envelope just a bit more.
“There's something, too…when you come off the straightaway and land down in the corner that fits with me well," Johnson said. "I make up a lot of time on people through that portion of the corner, and then the fact that I like a loose race car helps us stay fast for long runs and those two things together work really well.”
But don’t kid yourself. It’s not the car—it’s Johnson who makes the magic happen, and when you witness the kind of performance that race fans saw on Sunday, Johnson makes it look so effortless.
After going winless for the first 11 races of the season, the team seemed vulnerable. Last weekend, when the No. 48 Lowe’s sponsored team made it clear to the rest of the Sprint Cup field that it was back, it did it in dominating fashion in the sport’s longest and toughest race.
Johnson had stated in Charlotte that he wanted the garage to “fear the 48 team again.”
“Multiple wins do that,” he added. “If we can take advantage of the next few tracks that are great tracks for us, it would be great momentum.”
On Sunday, it came down to a final restart and the cars of Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer to see who could deny Johnson of his second win in a row. At the checkers, Johnson crossed the finish line nearly a full second over Keselowski, which itself is remarkable in a time when race victories are usually measured in hundredths and even thousandths of a second.
“I think for sure when you come to Dover it's always the 48,” said Matt Kenseth, who finished third. “I mean they are just unbelievable here. If you're going to have a shot to win here, that's the car you're going to have to beat every time unless they break.”
Next week, it’s Pocono and a track that Johnson described in the post-race press conference as “Chad’s favorite track.”
There doesn’t seem to be a reason to doubt that this team can make it three in a row next weekend. Two was bad enough for the morale of the Sprint Cup field. Johnson and Knaus have made a statement. Is there a team that can stop them?
*All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
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