Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Jimmie Johnson’s Continued Struggle a Golden Opportunity for Teams to Take Advantage

Taking a few minutes to peruse the Jayski links, there are a number of articles wishing to assuage the fears that everything is well and with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, and that the No. 48 team will be just fine come Chase time. While I was inclined to believe that and commented as such a couple of weeks ago in my Voice of Vito column, I am starting to have second thoughts on that assumption.

Do not adjust your TV screen – what you are seeing is not the fault of your picture settings – there actually are a few chinks in the formerly unblemished armor of the No. 48 team.

Sure they are still the car that everybody looks to beat every weekend, but one thing the past couple of months has eliminated besides a fleet of Lowe’s-emblazoned Hendrick Chevrolets, is that air of superiority and invincibility that they had been displaying for the last year and a half.

Well, OK, four years.

What has given credence to the new-found vulnerability of Johnson and Co., has been because the majority of trouble the No. 48 has suffered this year has been self-induced. Superman has stepped on his own cape more than a few times, wrecking himself while driving in a straight line at Talladega and while suffering a night to forget at Darlington, well before AJ Allmendinger stole the line I had long since patented playing NASCAR Thunder 2003.

A pit-road speeding penalty turned what had been a dominant machine at Dover into just another car one lap down in the final box score, and two weekends of futility at Charlotte began with an unassisted spin out of the All-Star Race, followed by walling it early in the going of the Coca-Cola 600 and culminating into plowing into the backstretch wall on lap 274.

Pepper all of this with a lack of harmony with his teammate, a sit down with the boss man and the stark reality that fatherhood is just around the corner (congratulations by the way) and you can see how the distractions and tensions are beginning to mount and manifest themselves into various forms of unpleasantness come race day.

Perhaps it is just perception, but the comments from Knaus over the airwaves, the crew chief who performs as both mastermind and/or arch nemesis – depending what side of the fence you are on about NASCAR’s premier organization – have seemed a bit more pointed as of late.

Yeah, you can cite all the stats you want from previous seasons when they seemed to be stroking the first half while preparing an ass-whoopin’ for the Chase, but this is a different kind of disconnect than we’ve seen in the past. It’s almost as if they are regressing into the team that was branded with the close-but-no-cigar tag for their first four years together, doing everything they needed to do to challenge for a title, but doing just enough wrong to prevent them from winning it all.

Yes, I realize just saying that makes you marvel at how far they were able to come so quickly – those four Sprint Cups notwithstanding – but it also explains how Tony Stewart was able to win his second championship in 2005, the season that almost split up the dynamic duo after a falling out of sorts following a Chase run gone awry, ending in Johnson wrecking after riding around with a tire he knew was failing for several laps, tearing the car to pieces in the process.

With Knaus having just recently signed an extension with Hendrick Motorsports, the possibility of anybody leaving anytime soon is laughable at best. What it does provide though is the perfect opportunity for a team on the upswing to take advantage of the situation and dethrone the champ while he has a little case of the wobbly boot.

The team that is the best positioned to exploit the struggles of Johnson and the No. 48 group right now is Joe Gibbs Racing. Naturally, their drivers have elected to start fighting each other not the competition instead. Both are ready to take a swing at one another, with Busch threatening to kill him, and Hamlin asserting his desire to not work with Kyle. Hey, you’re only in Charlotte for a fortnight of media coverage in the hub of the sport, why not have a complete corporate meltdown in front of everybody?!

Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon looked to be the fastest thing on the track the first part of the year, but has slowed a bit the last couple of weeks and has his own struggles with running into school-bus yellow walls and getting a handle on a car that not that long ago looked every bit as stout as the ones built directly across the ship from them.

Last year’s runner up in the championship chase Mark Martin and the No. 5 team have been a rolling contradiction most of the year, finishing top five with cars that are middling around in the teens most of the day, or getting wrecked when they truly have a contending car. Some of this may be attributed to getting the No. 88 team more involved with the No. 5 – which has appeared to be more of a boat anchor than a benefit.

The only team that seems capable of beating the No. 48 just so happens to be the No. 48 after all. Forty-two teams have waited four years for the opportunity to get one over on Johnson and Knaus, and they have an opening right now to take advantage of their recent troubles, but by the looks of things, nobody is poised to seize the moment and make the most of the situation.

Taking all of that into consideration, maybe this really is no big deal and the No. 48 will be just fine after all.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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