LONG POND, Pa. -- Let it burn.
That was the advice Jimmie Johnson gave to his pit crew last Sunday night after a lengthy pit stop cost the four-time Brickyard champion a chance at a fifth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson led a race-best 73 laps, but an uncharacteristically slow stop of 17.2 seconds helped Ryan Newman claim one of the crown jewels of the Sprint Cup Series schedule.
Johnson salvaged second, and afterward refused to place the blame on his pit crew. On Friday at Pocono Raceway, the five-time champion of NASCAR's premier series said he delivered a simple message to his crew the same evening after the race got away.
"I talked to the guys Sunday night, and just asked them to enjoy the pain. Let it sit there, let it hurt. Let it bother you," Johnson said. "But Monday morning, when they started hitting lug nuts and jacking the car and going though their routine, it was out of their mind. I asked them also to be fearless when they hopped off the wall this weekend, and just do their jobs. The worst thing any of us can do that have to go out and perform is to carry something in the back of your mind mentally. That will do more damage than you can ever imagine."
It's no surprise the No. 48 is one of the tightest-knit units on the Sprint Cup tour, and one that always keeps the bigger picture in mind. Johnson may not have won at Indianapolis, but he still emerged from the Brickyard with a 75-point lead -- the largest ever under the current system -- and comes to Pocono, where he led 128 laps en route to a dominant victory in June.
But Johnson is well aware that most or all of his lead in the standings will evaporate after points are reset prior to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, and drivers are seeded by victories -- which right now would knot Johnson at the top with Matt Kenseth, who have four wins apiece. No question, the No. 48 car has shown speed almost every weekend. But race wins are what will separate the top contenders once the playoff begins in six weeks, and toward that end, Johnson knows he's let some -- Dover, Kentucky and Indy spring immediately to mind -- get away.
"I feel like the team, the cars, our racing ability, the things needed to be dominant, it's right there if not a touch ahead of my best year when I think I won 10 races," he said. "The difference is execution. We've left races sitting on the table. We have the foundation of our most dominant year, but finishing it off, executing, we've given up some races in it. That would be the only difference in it, the only thing that would pull it back down."
That was the case at the Brickyard, where Johnson's crew was a touch slow on the left-rear of a four-tire stop with 27 laps left. Newman's team did the opposite, taking two tires and vaulting from second place to 7 seconds ahead, and winning by 2.6 seconds. For a team trying to tie the record for victories on Indy's oval layout, it was a stinging outcome. And yet, those kind of self-inflicted mistakes are often what it takes to beat Johnson, given that he and crew chief Chad Knaus have built a program where speed and performance are a given.
"Jimmie, obviously, he has no Achilles heel. He's good everywhere," Newman said. "?I get to see the feedback of the drivers with our alliance with (Hendrick), and Jimmie has amazing feedback, which I think definitely keeps things sharp, keeps the pencil sharp at least for Chad to be able to keep doing the things they do. They are not just good, they are great, and that's why it's additionally gratifying last week to beat somebody that's obviously one of the best, and had proven to be the best last year at that race track."
"It's hard to talk about the 48, and Jimmie what they do, because what they've been doing is expected of them," Jeff Burton added. "They've set the bar so high that when they do phenomenal things, it's just, 'Oh, well, there's Jimmie.' It's not that big of a deal. It is a big deal, but it's not perceived as a big deal. So it's really hard to put your finger on them, because they have such a lofty expectation level. It's like a football team that wins 14 regular season games and nobody talks about it, because it's expected. What they've been doing is phenomenal, but it's almost expected of them."
Which made the final pit stop at Indianapolis all the more glaring by comparison. Afterward, Johnson refused to point fingers -- "We win as a team, we lose as a team," he said. There's still a much larger goal out there, and Johnson wants his crew focusing on a potential sixth series championship rather than one Brickyard that eluded them.
"Indy means so much to everybody," he said. "I think that one stings universally, it doesn't matter if you're a regular up front or wherever you run. But to me, my eye has always been on the big prize, and that's the championship. The comments I made following the race were sincere in how I felt, because of where my viewpoint is. I'm not going to make a comment that's going to tear down my race team and prevent us from winning he big prize, from winning the championship. And that's the way we all think at the 48."
The best way to do that? Climb into the car and try to sweep Pocono, which Johnson did in 2004.
"You hate to give away race wins for any reason, especially when you have a dominant car," he said. "Whatever the mistake may be, wherever it comes from, driver or team, you just hate having that on your shoulders for the week following. You're just eager to get back on the track and get that behind you. For me, it hasn't brought any more focus or drive or meaning to the next event. It's in some ways, a relief. It's something new to talk about, something new to put your mind on, and to move forward from there."
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