Chase time is Jimmie's time
LOUDON, N.H. -- For a team seeking to four-peat the NASCAR championship, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 crew are a little off-key and a lot off-stride coming into Sunday's Chase opener.
This is the team whose momentum you can usually sense, scent, see like a thunderstorm on the horizon as NASCAR's playoffs begin.
This time last year, the 48 folks arrived at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after winning the last two regular-season races. Now, they go into the Sylvania 300 off finishes of 36th and 11th the past two weeks.
They're not just winless since Indianapolis in July but have a best finish of just eighth in the six races since then. The best thing they have going is a tie for the second seed in the Chase, by virtue of three regular-season wins.
"Definitely it's a little bit different," Johnson said of the team feeling here Friday. "Coming off two victories going into the Chase in the past -- there's no way to get around the fact that there's a lot of momentum and confidence that go with that."
But now there is no mo'.
At least on the surface.
Maybe this is just their latest sleight of hand, their way of putting a little suspense in the Chase before they blow it open.
Chad Knaus, Johnson's ice-nerved crew chief, declined through a team publicist to talk with me, or any other media, Friday morning. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything one way or the other. Knaus always goes lock-jawed, laser-focused, by this point in the season.
"They haven't been as ferocious on the racetrack the last few races," Mark Martin, top seed in the Chase with four wins, conceded of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates.
But then Martin smiled his patented little not-a-problem smile and said of the 48 arm of the team, "All they have to do is just hit it."
Their stride, that is.
If they're late hitting it this time, there's plenty of time in the 10-race Chase.
Doug Duchardt, Hendrick's vice president of development, who oversees cars and engines for all four teams, pointed out the first of Johnson's three straight championship paths.
"In '06, we came here and stubbed our toe with a plug wire [coming loose] and a wreck with Sterling Marlin and finished 39th," Duchardt said. "And we didn't get a top-10 finish until Charlotte [the halfway point] in that Chase, and finished strong."
"We're not going to know anything after this race, I'm telling you," Martin said. "You can have a terrible finish here and then come back and rebound from it. So it's going to take five races to see. When there's four races to go, it's going to get much clearer."
"I think you'd be foolish to think they're not on their game," said Steve Letarte, crew chief for Johnson's mentor, Jeff Gordon, who is seeded sixth in the Chase. "The last several races haven't mattered. The next 10 do."
"The thing that this team has that no one else has," Duchardt said, "is that they've been in every one of these [Chases]. And they know how to mentally prepare themselves for the intensity and focus and to pace themselves for the 10 races. So I think they're going to be just fine."
Tony Stewart, owner-driver for Hendrick satellite team Stewart-Haas Racing and tied with Johnson for the No. 2 seed, doesn't like to talk about other teams, but in explaining his own team's superficial slump in recent weeks, he went a long way toward explaining Johnson's lull.
As runaway points leader in the regular season, "We got into a unique situation whether it was either win it or it didn't matter that we were even there," Stewart said. Big losses couldn't hurt him, so he went all-out for wins. "I don't think we kept the intensity up quite as high as we needed to. But we've all sat down and met this week and said, 'Hey, it's game time again.'"
Similarly, locked into a Chase berth early, Johnson, Knaus & Co. played around a bit in the late-season races.
"When I look back at Michigan and Bristol [in August], we were going for all-out wins," Johnson said. "We ran out of gas [at Michigan for the second time this season], and then at Bristol we had nothing to lose and had one of our best performances ever at that track," before a lug-nut problem dropped him back to an eighth-place finish.
"From there it was like, 'All right, Atlanta's not our best track, let's be smart, let's get a good finish,' and we had a difficult night [finishing 36th]. The Richmond [race], we thought, would be a really good night for us, and it still turned out to be a decent finish [11th], but a night where we were slipping after each pit stop and losing a little more ground, and a little more ground. That was kind of frustrating."
But Duchardt, looking at the past several races with his engineer's analytical eye, said, "I certainly feel like at Michigan they had the best car. And at Bristol they were leading coming into the last pit stop and had a lug-nut problem.
"So we very easily could be saying they have five wins [instead of three this season] and are coming in with momentum," Duchardt said.
But now, by consensus of the other Chasers, it's not a matter of if, but when, the 48 team will flip the switch into full playoff mode.
Johnson said the matter is a lot more practical than that.
"It's not so much a switch, or some type of feeling that changes," he said. "I think we come into a stretch of good racetracks."
The stops on the Chase tour are mostly tracks to his liking, and that's a given every autumn. He is a maestro of intermediate-size tracks, and of the tiniest track in NASCAR, at Martinsville, Va. Five of the 10 Chase tracks are intermediates, and Martinsville is a mid-playoff stop.
There's even a hidden bonus in the schedule this year that might have helped make the 48 team look bad in recent weeks but will benefit it later -- the switch of iffy Atlanta with Johnson favorite Fontana, Calif., on the schedule, which makes the Fontana race, which will be Oct. 11, part of the Chase.
"So I'm hoping that it's helpful for us, that we have a track in the Chase where we're able to win," Johnson said.
As for New Hampshire, "This has been a decent track for us," he said, although he hasn't won here since he swept both races in 2003. He has run well in the past few races here. "I'm optimistic -- I think we've got a chance of winning, but we've got a real chance of running in the top five."
Decent finishes here, and next week at another quirky 1-mile track, Dover, Del., and Johnson will be off and running to the intermediate tracks -- three in a row -- then Martinsville.
Like Martin, Duchardt has his own patented little smile, one reserved for tipping off understatement.
Asked whether the dry spell has affected Johnson's and Knaus' mindset, Duchardt smiled and said, "Between Chad and Jimmie, I think they're pretty confident in their combined capabilities."
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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