The gig is up, Jimmie Johnson.
We've always known there was something going that defied explanation, something that's produced all those race victories and all those championships in an era where the competitive field at NASCAR's highest level is as deep as it's ever been. We've always had a nagging curiosity over what's really been behind the most dominant stretch ever by one single driver, which Johnson extended in South Florida this past Sunday night. Not even Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt were able to manage a run of six titles in eight years.
But Johnson has, and shows no sign of stopping. And now we know why, thanks to crew chief Chad Knaus, who gave up the secret in the media center following the season's final race.
"He can do things with a race car that most mortals can't," Knaus said. "Let's just be straight with it."
And there is it. Before he became Five-Time, before that nickname last Sunday night was updated to Six-Time, Johnson was often referred to by another, less common but still wholly accurate moniker -- Superman. It was certainly appropriate, given the Hollywood jawline and the fit of his fire suit and the general air of indestructability Johnson carried with him at all times. Particularly at the height of his run of five straight titles, when he matched and then exceeded Cale Yarborough's former record of three in a row and could dominate just by showing up, he was every bit the Man of Steel. He likely even spent his spare time rescuing kittens stuck in trees.
The final weeks of this past regular season harkened back to that, from Johnson plowing through everyone at Texas just like he did in the old days, to a near-effortless finale at Homestead that once again turned into a coronation. He now has six championships and 66 race victories over the course of a career that's bedeviled the competition ever since he was a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And finally, we know the reason behind it. The guy just might really be Superman, flying high above us mere mortals after all.
Certainly he's efficient behind the wheel, using clean lines around the race track and maximizing everything -- with the exception of the occasional fuel-mileage stumble -- from his car. He has a wonderfully uncluttered professional life, allowing him to focus fully on what he does best. His commitment to physical conditioning sets a new standard of athleticism in the garage area. The synthesis with his crew chief is like nothing we've seen since the days of Petty and Dale Inman. His Hendrick Motorsports organization is the best around, having now complied 11 championships at the sport's highest level.
Those are all real, tangible reasons behind Johnson's greatness. But there's something else there, too, something that's much more difficult to put a finger on. When Knaus attempts to explain it, he wanders into an area that sounds almost supernatural.
"Jimmie is good. He does a good job of understanding the car," the crew chief said. "When I say that, he doesn't know a damn thing about setup, but he understands what the car's doing. He can feel the car. He can be one with the car. I know that sounds foolish, it sounds weird. But, seriously, go to a surfer and ask him about his surfboard. Go to a snowboarder and ask him about his snowboard. Go to a skier, ask him about his skis. When they're able to get in that position and they feel the car, understand what the car is going to do, it's pretty amazing. Jimmie can really do that. He feels what's going on. He says the craziest things. He feels a bump here, a gust of wind there."
He's not making this up. After a victory at Dover a several years ago, Knaus remembers debriefing with Johnson and the driver telling him about a gap in the Turn 1 grandstands that let the wind get through. Johnson was able to use that wind to help plant the nose of his No. 48 car, and get the vehicle to turn more effectively through the corner. At the time, Johnson's program was stabled at Hendrick with the team of Jeff Gordon, and No. 24 crew chief Robbie Loomis was incredulous. "Is he bat---- crazy?" Loomis asked, according to Knaus.
Nope. "Let me tell you something, it's true," Knaus remembered. "We had a huge wind coming through the gaping hole in the grandstands the whole day, and Jimmie picked it up. He said, 'Man, I think the wind is blowing right there. If I come in there right, the wind is turning the car right for me.' You don't have a lot of guys that can do that. You don't. Jimmie can do it. Does he do it every time? No. But there are certain times at certain tracks that he can make things happen that other drivers just really can't."
The numbers would seem to bear that out. And Knaus would know, given that he works with Johnson every day, and can see up close all the little things that separate Johnson from the rest. Of course, it's also easy to claim that he's biased. But here's the thing -- we're getting to a point where all this is pretty undeniable, where even Johnson's rivals on the race track are approaching a consensus. "The best that there ever was," Denny Hamlin called him, and this from a driver who was so devastated by losing the 2010 title race to Johnson that he fell into a funk for much of the next season.
Oh, but all of this is the product of Knaus and his mechanical wizardry, right? Then ask Darian Grubb, a former No. 48 team engineer turned championship crew chief in his own right, what the secret to Knaus' success is. "I think the biggest thing is Jimmie Johnson," said Grubb, who now sits atop Hamlin's pit box. "If you look at Chad before that, he didn't really have any stats to come by until he started working with Jimmie."
It all comes back to Johnson, who is content to let others debate his accomplishments while he makes his statements behind the wheel. "I don't think my opinion matters," he said. Six championships later, he's still just a genuine dude from El Cajon, even though he might be able to stop speeding bullets or leap Daytona International Speedway in a single bound. In that case, teams hoping to deny Johnson a record-tying seventh title next season had better pack a little something extra in the toolbox.
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