- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
- 0 Shares
CONCORD, N.C. -- A crew chief familiar with Jimmie Johnson's chassis tried to explain why the No. 48 car has been close to violating NASCAR's tolerances before Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"Because Jimmie can handle a car looser than anybody," he said. "They set it up so loose that most drivers would spin coming off pit road."
That may explain why NASCAR keeps inviting Johnson's car to its Research and Development Center for further evaluation, but that doesn't begin to explain why Johnson is stinking up the show, as some might say.
Saturday's victory at LMS, Johnson's second straight and third in the first five races of the 10-race Chase playoff, was a microcosm of why the Hendrick Motorsports team is on the verge of rewriting the history books with a fourth straight championship.
Here are a few examples:
• Johnson's car went away after dominating early, but crew chief Chad Knaus kept adjusting, motivating his driver and keeping him in position to win despite a few sarcastic -- and funny -- moments over the radio.
• Johnson's crew got him off pit road first by mere inches with 42 laps remaining, erasing what had been a seven-second lead by Kasey Kahne.
• Johnson got so loose with 16 laps to go as Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon took the lead on the final restart that many drivers would have lost it, but he held things together to retake the lead three laps later before pulling away.
Add it all up, and you'll have the total package.
Add it all up, and you'll understand why Johnson was able to extend his lead to 90 points over teammate Mark Martin with five races remaining.
Add it up, and you'll see such domination that many fans believe it's a waste to watch the final five races, arguing nobody can catch the 34-year-old California native.
"Man, I'm just doing my thing," Johnson said.
His thing, in the minds of many, is stinking up the show.
"I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it," Johnson said. "Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger [Woods] win. Everybody tunes in to watch [Roger] Federer win.
"There are a lot of people happy and rooting for us to win the fourth."
Many more weekends like this one, and there'll be no one else to root for. This one, as Knaus called it, was perfect.
Johnson had the fastest car in both practices, won the pole, led the most laps (92) and won the race, his sixth of the season.
"I don't think there's that much that team hasn't done," second-place finisher Matt Kenseth said. I don't know what leading every practice session brings you except bragging rights. I think you have to lead every lap to have a perfect weekend, so he still doesn't have it."
That's about all Johnson doesn't have. With several Chase contenders struggling -- Martin finished 17th and Juan Pablo Montoya 35th after both averaged a 3.5 finish in the first four playoff races -- Johnson has a stranglehold that is unthinkable for him to lose.
"Those guys are on an incredible roll," Gordon said after finishing fourth.
Incredible doesn't begin to describe it. Johnson's average finish is 3.2. He has led 556 of a possible 1,551 laps, an amazing 35.8 percent. He's collected the maximum points (195) three times.
It may not be perfect, but it's darn close.
Listen to Johnson and Knaus communicate during a race, and you'll understand why. Nothing seems to shake them. When Johnson lost the lead early and then fell to third when Denny Hamlin blew past, Knaus simply said to "keep it up, and we'll get you fixed up next time around."
At one point when Johnson asked what he should do, Knaus shrugged and said, "Drive faster."
Even when Johnson was a distant second to Kahne, there was no sense of panic.
"The 9's pretty fast, but you can get him," Knaus said.
OK, so it wasn't that simple. There was a moment early when Johnson said something about wanting to drive down pit road and strangle his crew chief because his car was losing ground so fast.
"Yeah, I hated going backwards," he said. "I could tell in Chad's voice he didn't like seeing the car go backwards. I hit the button [to the radio] and said what I was thinking. It took two or three runs before Chad's voice came back to normal."
He laughed again.
"Truthfully, the fact that I can be a smartass and come back to win the race shows the faith we have in one another and the honesty we have in our working relationship," Johnson continued. "I was doing all I could, and he was trying to whip me a little bit and keep me going. That was just the comment that came out."
Had that been the exchange between Johnson's teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief, Lance McGrew, it would have given cause for psychological evaluation. Earnhardt, by the way, finished 38th thanks to transmission problems.
For Johnson and Knaus, it was motivation.
"Those guys are awesome," Kenseth said. "Since those two got together, they've been, in my opinion, the group to beat every single year. Whenever it counts and it's crunch time, they do this.
"They've done this every year for the last four years, so it shouldn't really be a surprise to anybody."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson's car -- as well as Martin's for the fourth straight week -- will be analyzed more than perhaps any in the history of the sport. NASCAR officials say they're just trying to help the teams stay within the rules when they strip the cars at the R&D Center.
If you're a believer in conspiracy theories, you'd say they're trying to keep the Chase close.
"I don't like it," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "We were legal [the first time]. We were on the edge, but we were legal."
Then he changed his tone.
"In a way I'm kind of glad they're doing it, so nobody is questioning it," Hendrick said. "I guess in a way I'd love to see every car in the garage go through that same routine and see how far off a couple of the other cars may be. It's OK. At least this way there is no question about how straight-up we are."
You can't question how good Johnson is, for sure. He has 46 wins in eight seasons, tying him with Buck Baker for 13th on NASCAR's all-time wins list.
If he weren't an active driver, one could argue he'd deserve to be one of the five selected earlier in the week for the sport's first Hall of Fame class.
"You look at his record since he entered the sport, and you've got to say he'll go down as one of the greatest drivers that's ever been in the series," Hendrick said.
And it's not because his car is pushing tolerances. It's because he and his team are that good.
Or perfect, as they were on this night.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Leave it to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to blow this Chase wide-open just five races into the 10-race playoff. The 48 team is that good.