Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: What Differentiates NASCAR Champions from the Rest

The Pepsi 500 in California this past weekend was a watershed race for NASCAR’s 2009 Chase. Jimmie Johnson won for the third straight year at Fontana during the Chase and he assumed the points lead for the first time during the Chase this year. While Johnson was pulling away from the field, there were other drivers who were just hanging on, hoping for the best possible result. That subtle difference in attitude is the defining difference between the No. 48 team and the rest of the teams running for the championship.

See also
Jimmie Johnson Wins 3rd Straight Pepsi 500 at Fontana

Everyone knows that Chad Knaus is one of the brightest minds in the garage area, and there is no doubt that he has figured out this Chase format better than anyone else in the garage. And while that fact most certainly is in the back of other crew chiefs’ minds, the thing that must really have them concerned is the total confidence Knaus has in making adjustments to this car configuration.

It is a fact that minute adjustments with this car can cause dramatic changes in the handling and cause a great running car to turn to junk with the slightest turn of a jacking bolt. However, Knaus is so in tune with how this car works, he isn’t afraid to take a car that is the fastest on the track and make tweaks to it to make sure it stays out front.

Listening to the race on the radio while driving down the road this weekend, the pit reporters more than once made a comment about drivers who were happy with their cars and, even though they weren’t as fast as Johnson, told their crew chief not to make a change because they were afraid that it could cause the handling to go away and result in them dropping back in the field. At the same time, Johnson’s reporter was saying that the team was making minor adjustments to try and improve their car over and above the dominant car that it already was.

As the race was winding down and the final round of pit stops came about, drivers once again were telling their crew chiefs that they had the car as good as it could possibly be, it just wasn’t as fast as Johnson. Meanwhile, Knaus was making another tweak to Johnson’s car to make it even more dominant and drive the final nail in the coffins of the other drivers who were now battling for who would be the first loser.

Even before the race started this weekend, the No. 48 team was making a change that many people would probably think was crazy. The pit crew has been among the steadiest and fastest all season. However, as they came into the California race weekend, they changed two members on the over the wall crew. The three-time defending championship team, with one of the best over the wall crews in the garage, changes personnel in the middle of the Chase because they think it will make them better. Most importantly, they had the confidence to make that move and KNEW that it would be the best thing for their effort at making it four in a row.

There are without a doubt a ton of different factors that make a team a championship team. There is chemistry between the driver and crew chief. There is the finely tuned pit crew who not only doesn’t make mistakes, but makes the pit stops as fast, or faster, than everyone else on the pit lane. There are millions of dollars of technology in the shop and brilliant minds who know how to use that technology to its fullest to maximize the teams potential.

All of that makes the team the best it can be, but the bottom line is, when the money is on the line, the team that has the most confidence is the one that most often comes out on top. The No. 48 team right now is the team that is head and shoulders above everyone else in the garage.

About the author


What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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