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Knaus pulls right strings for Johnson

06/16/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Knaus pulls right strings for Johnson

BROOKLYN, Mich. — A month or so ago, after an 0-for-13 start to the year had everyone wondering what was wrong with Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 Chevrolet, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion smiled, sort of, and said: “I guess it’s a compliment if it’s a story that we haven’t won in 13 races.”

Three of the four races since have gone to Johnson, which is certainly a story. The latter win was Sunday at Michigan International Speedway and that, race fans, is a huge story.

The guy who may someday go down as the greatest stock car driver of them all, certainly in the modern era, had won 68 races prior to Sunday. But there were five active Sprint Cup series tracks where he had never taken the checkered flag. And only one of those, MIS, offers two chances annually.

So he had been here 24 times and the nine top-10 finishes and four top-10 finishes were good, but for this champion close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

His team had bet wrong and lost fuel mileage races. He had suffered blown engines in the late laps, gotten in the way of wrecks and, a year ago to the day, had the best car in sight until having a tire shred.

“We’ve figured out every way to lose this race,” Johnson said. “Today, we got it right.”

Johnson does the driving and he does it as well as anybody. But Knaus is the brains. He sits on the top shelf of the box on pit road and does the math, translates gallons into miles, formulates the strategy from minute to minute, makes all the calls, and can be the unsung hero or goat.

At MIS, like Johnson, Knaus has at times worn the horns. In Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400, he was flawless.

Johnson had an ample lead with 35 laps to go, running under a green flag, when Knaus called him in to the pits for four fresh tires and a full tank of fuel.

“I could tell in Chad’s voice, off the tone of his voice, that he was setting up for something,” Johnson said. “I could sense what it was … [knowing] the gap I had over the second spot at that time. He made the call and nailed it just right. He saw the opportunity, let it develop, and we made the most of it. We really were in a win-win situation … the catbird’s seat.”

Johnson returned to the track in 19th place and loitered in that general neighborhood for about 20 laps and then everything Knaus envisioned came true as all the cars ahead of No. 48 had to cycle through the pits.

The last two, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, were forced off on lap 191, Johnson retook the lead, and all he had to do was finish it off.

Sometimes that is easier said than done. Sunday’s race had gone to caution eight times, good for 36 laps. Heck, they couldn’t even complete Lap 1 without cars kissing the wall and sheet metal shrieking. The track was slick from the start, sun-baked on a hot and breezy day, and cars were going sideways far too regularly.

So that was the risk in Knaus’ strategy. He had Johnson give up a big lead to set him up for an easy finish, but the plan also could have gone sideways had there been another yellow flag under which those ahead of Johnson might have pitted.

With nine laps to go, though, even that threat was removed. Caution laps would not have changed anything as long as Johnson wasn’t the one creating them. Or as long as his engine and tires held up. As Team 48 knows well, anything can happen at MIS.

This time, nothing happened except the finish line.

“I’ve said it before and I said it again in Victory Lane; I could never be a crew chief,” said car owner Rick Hendrick, who had a team member win for the fifth straight week. “It’s a tribute to Chad. It played out the way we needed it to. And it’s great to see Jimmie close the deal here.”

Knaus said MIS is a place where “you know there’s going to be some opportunities to play some strategy. We had a fast car and hit the strategy correct at the right time. It was a long time coming. It doesn’t always pan out, but we always try really hard.”

There had been setbacks and heartbreaks here in the Irish Hills.

“When I heard 10 [laps] to go, I’ve been there before with the lead,” Johnson said. “I heard five to go; I’ve been there before, didn’t win. [I’ve] taken the white [flag] with the lead and didn’t make it back. I wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around, [but] about 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I’d still slide across the finish line. ... I relaxed and let it go.”

Finally.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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