The most impressive run turned in by Jimmie Johnson this season might not have been Sunday's dominant victory at Martinsville Speedway, where he led more than half the event and took home his eighth grandfather clock. It might not have been the Daytona 500, where he held on over a final restart to record his second victory in the Great American Race.
No, Johnson's most notable run might have been one that was completely overlooked amid a scuffle on pit road and a driver being carried off on a backboard. The odds-on favorite to win at Auto Club Speedway on March 24 was absolute junk for most of the event -- the car didn't draft very well, it didn't seem to have enough speed, it got mired in traffic. It all began to feel reminiscent of a complete whiff at Las Vegas in 2008, which owner Rick Hendrick has called the worst race in the history of the No. 48 team.
It never got as bad as that two-laps-down slog, but it wasn't going well, either, especially with Johnson running 25th and his frustration growing as the event wore on. "What's Jimmie doing back here?" a surprised Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked over his radio after losing track position due to a four-tire stop. Truth was, his more decorated teammate had been back there for much of the race.
All of which made his eventual 12th-place finish that day something of a shock, even if no one noticed given all the shenanigans going on elsewhere. Crew chief Chad Knaus took a big swing on a late pit stop, Johnson milked all he could out of a car that had no business being in the front half of the field, and the positions gained over those final green-flag runs helped the five-time champion retake the points lead following his victory this past Sunday at Martinsville.
Johnson gets a lot of credit for being one of the best of his (or any) generation, and rightly so, given his ability to find perfect lines and wheel a car with such smooth, clinical efficiency. But he admittedly isn't the most technical-minded guy in the garage area -- "Work on it? Come on, are you crazy?" Johnson said at Martinsville when asked if he performs maintenance on the 1949 Chevrolet pickup he often drives around town -- which only emphasizes the role his crew chief plays in setting up the car.
And yet, those individual attributes mask what is perhaps the No. 48 team's greatest strength -- its ability to adapt over the course of a race weekend, or a race distance, or even a season, rarely letting the lows get so low that they threaten to spiral out of control. That miserable event at Las Vegas five years ago stands out precisely because it's such an aberration, the kind of run that happens to other outfits with a shallower pool of tactics and talent to draw upon. The No. 48 team succeeds, year after year and weekend after weekend, because of the superior way it adjusts to the ever-changing conditions that define NASCAR.
That much is evident, on scales both large and small, again and again. This year at Las Vegas, on a track where a cool test day and a warm race day left crew chiefs scrambling to fix an epidemic of loose race cars, Johnson led 66 laps and cruised home in sixth. At Fontana, late adjustments allowed Johnson and Knaus to salvage 12th after going backward all day. At Martinsville, where Johnson's traditional advantages seemed mitigated by a new car and tire, that near-perfect weekend was the result of research over the Easter break -- what, you thought Knaus would be hiding pastel-colored eggs? -- and a highly educated guess.
"I was actually talking to my father last week when we were coming to the race track, and he said, 'Man, you guys have got a really good setup for Martinsville, you ought to be in pretty good shape.' And I said, 'Well, we did until they changed all the rules,' " Knaus, whose father John was an accomplished short-track driver, said after race.
"With the new car and everything that we had coming in here with the new tire, we really had to dig in deep. And the off weekend gave us an opportunity to really look back over some past history and draw some conclusions that we were hoping were going to work out. So my father, he's like, 'Well, how do you know where you're going to start?' I said, 'Well, I guess we're just going to guess.' Fortunately enough, we guessed right."
In fairness, a guess from somebody like Chad Knaus isn't really a guess at all. And other teams also adjust well, although they don't often maintain such a high level of performance in the process. It all goes to show why Johnson relished the idea of the Generation-6 race car, which leveled the scales in terms of setups and preparation. No question, the vehicle's more brand-identifiable characteristics have the greater interest of the sport in mind. But given that Johnson earned most of his race wins and four of his five titles in the previous vehicle, you'd think he'd hate to see it go.
Hardly. "I like change," he said last year before the Car of Tomorrow was put out to pasture. "I think change is good for the 48 (team). ? And we like new challenges."
No wonder he's led the points after four of six races in this season where adaptability is as important as it's ever been. Drop spike strips on the track or stick a cougar in the back seat, and they'd still find a way. Now it's on to Texas Motor Speedway, where teams will test Thursday ahead of the race weekend, and where the No. 48 team's penchant for situational creativity has shown brightly in things like the mid-race pit crew switch and the on-the-fly rebuild of a car wrecked in a collision with Sam Hornish Jr.
The United States Marine Corps has long had an unofficial slogan -- improvise, adapt and overcome. Granted, Johnson and his No. 48 team aren't exactly storming the halls of Montezuma or taking the shores of Tripoli. But they also never assume what worked once will work again. They're experts at making something out of nothing. Through seven years of historic success, they've never grown content. And whether it's a late adjustment at Fontana or preparation for Martinsville, they improvise, adapt and overcome, over and over, better than anyone else.
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