Well, well, well. Looks like the heat's gotten a little high for the men in blue.
In the last four years, Jimmie Johnson has run the Chase for the Cup in two enviable positions, either as the fast-closing hunter (2006, 2007) or as the runaway leader (2008, 2009). In the first two years, he and his team had nothing to lose by gambling and challenging on every turn, every pit stop. In the last two years, he's only had to make appearances at the last two races in order to secure his championships.
Now, however, he's the prey, and he and his team aren't exactly handling it with the grace of champions.
Now, they're not crying foul, spinning fellow drivers or — just to pick an example out of thin air — flicking off people when things don't go their way. What they are doing is getting twitchy in the details, and that twitchiness is starting to manifest itself on-track.
You can't blame Johnson and the 48 team for getting nervous. After all, they've run seven straight top-10 races, and yet they're behind Denny Hamlin and only a handful of points up on Kevin Harvick. They've run virtually as well as they could possibly run, and it hasn't been good enough to put away two competitors. In other words, they're feeling like pretty much the rest of the field has felt over the last four seasons.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Sunday's stunning mass crew replacement. Frustrated by pit stops that were costing Johnson places in the field, and gifted with a wreck that ended Jeff Gordon's day, 48 crew chief Chad Knaus performed an in-race transplant, sending his guys to the showers and bringing in Gordon's men. After the race, he rationalized it thusly: "The 24-48 shop has always operated as a team and that's the way that we see it. It's sad that we have to do that but you know, in the interest of Hendrick Motorsports and what we've got to do, you've got to do that stuff."
That's fascinating material right there, heartless and revealing all at once. What happened to team integrity, pushing through challenges as a group? (There's no "I" in team, but there isn't a "Gordon" either.)
UPDATE: Hendrick Motorsports has announced it will swap the 48 and 24 pit crews for the remainder of the season.
What about that whole "24/48 team" thing? I'd bet that came as a surprise to some of Johnson's crew. Certainly, they knew they could be replaced — Kevin Harvick performed a mass crew swap with Clint Bowyer just a couple weeks back — but the idea that they could be yanked midrace in the most critical moments of the year? That had to be a somber plane ride back ... if indeed the 48 crew didn't get bumped from the flight by the 24 crew.
Johnson has said all the right things as this Chase has remained tight, welcoming challenges and looking forward to battles and all that. But as Sunday showed, the fabled all-for-one, one-for-all of the 48 team doesn't hold up any longer. And now it's anybody's guess whether Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson can rally the troops for two more charges.
Certainly, Johnson and Harvick could overtake Hamlin and win it all. But right about now, it might be wise to ride with the one guy who's still with the date he brought to the dance.