Commentary

Late four-tire stop the difference for JJ

Updated: February 28, 2010, 11:21 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- Don't call Jimmie Johnson lucky this time. Luck had nothing to do with winning Sunday.

"No luck involved in that one, my friend," Chad Knaus told Johnson on the radio.

True, unless you consider Johnson lucky to have Knaus as his crew chief.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon had the best car. Johnson had the best man on the pit box.

Gordon should have won the Shelby American. The No. 24 Chevy had the field covered.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJimmie Johnson, right, reeled in Jeff Gordon with 17 laps to go in Sunday's Shelby American at Vegas.

He looked like the Gordon of a decade ago, lapping cars as if they were standing still. He led all but 48 of 267 laps, the most laps ever led in this event.

But on the money stop, the money team made the right call. The 24 team didn't.

Gordon came into the pits first, and Johnson was second. Steve Letarte, Gordon's crew chief, elected to take only right-side tires. Knaus called for four tires.

Gordon restarted second with 34 laps to go. (Clint Bowyer was first because he didn't pit.) Johnson restarted fourth.

"You're the first one on four tires, brother," Knaus told Johnson before the restart. "This thing has Jimmie Johnson written all over it."

How right he was. It took a while, but Johnson's fresher tires enabled him to pass Gordon down low with 17 laps to go.

"That was one heck of a race," said Johnson, who has four victories at Las Vegas. "All afternoon long, Jeff and I were racing each other hard. It really came down to those four tires. I wasn't sure I could get by him but was able to get around him in the end."

See ya. Johnson went to the front, and the race was over. Gordon didn't even finish second. Kevin Harvick, the points leader after three races, passed him for the runner-up spot.

"It's very disappointing, to get beat by two [tires] versus a four [tire] stop," Gordon said. "Steve and I talked all week long about coming today to win, and we knew we had to take chances and risks to do it. It just didn't work out."

But why take such a surprising risk at that moment when it was clear you had the car to beat? This won't help quell the Gordon fans who have wanted to see a crew chief change for a couple of years.

Knaus came to Letarte's defense about what happened Sunday.

"I didn't outsmart him," Knaus said. "He didn't make the wrong call. They wanted to maintain track position. The only way for us to beat them was to do something different.

"Steve is a fantastic crew chief. He did what he thought was the right thing to win the race."

We haven't dominated a race like this in a very long time. I feel we've stepped up a notch. We showed today we can beat [Johnson], and that's what I'm more excited about than anything else.

-- Jeff Gordon

But the fact remains that Knaus' call won the race and Letarte's call lost it.

"I talked to Steve afterward, and he's pretty upset," Gordon said. "But I felt like two tires was the right call, too."

It wasn't, and it wasn't long into the run when Gordon realized it.

"I knew we were a sitting duck," Gordon said. "It was just a matter of time. I was so tight. I blocked [Johnson] and did everything I could."

Everyone said Johnson was lucky last week when he got off pit road under caution a split second before going a lap down.

And some might say Knaus made the lucky call Sunday at the end. Hogwash.

Johnson and the 48 team win because they consistently make the right decision at the key moments of a race.

Johnson also made history Sunday, becoming the first man to win 15 times on 1.5-mile ovals. Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty had 14 wins on these tracks.

And guess who would have been the leader on 1.5-mile tracks had he won? Gordon, of course.

For Gordon, this loss was painful and profitable at the same time.

"We haven't dominated a race like this in a very long time," Gordon said. "I feel we've stepped up a notch. We showed today we can beat [Johnson], and that's what I'm more excited about than anything else."

Harvick, who also was the runner-up to Johnson last week at Fontana, feels the same way.

"We can run with them, and they know it," Harvick said Sunday.

Run with them? Yes. Beat them? We'll see.

But lucky? Not this time.

"It's not luck to do everything right as a team," Gordon said. "That's you creating things to go in the right direction. That's just being a well-prepared team that executes. And today it all came down to one decision."

The right one for Johnson and the 48 team. But that's nothing new.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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