Commentary

JJ and crew are making others think

Updated: May 6, 2010, 12:02 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We're standing at the base of Glory Road, the centerpiece of NASCAR's soon-to-open Hall of Fame, where 18 cars and trucks that define the sport are showcased. We're here to watch Darrell Waltrip unveil the famous No. 11 Mountain Dew car that defined his career.

Competitors knew they were in for the battle of their lives when they saw the man nicknamed "Jaws" approaching in that green-and-white Buick in 1981 and '82. He was the driver to beat, the one feared the most upon arriving at the track.

Nobody was better at getting in the minds of others than Waltrip during that stretch in which he won 24 races, 18 poles and two of his three Winston Cup championships. Those who weren't intimidated by his aggressive style were by his over-the-top trash-talking.

"Even Jimmie Johnson would be envious of the Mountain Dew car," Waltrip said.

Ah, Johnson.

It seemed fitting at this place with this driver to ask whether NASCAR's current dominator, who has won an unprecedented four straight championships and three of the first five races this season heading into Martinsville, has gotten into the minds of competitors.

It seemed appropriate to wonder whether drivers cringe when they see the black-and-blue Lowe's No. 48 in their rearview mirror the way they did the Dew car.

"Chad is in everybody's head," said Waltrip, referring to the No. 48 team's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "Jimmie not so much because Jimmie is not that way. You don't hear Jimmie bragging much or talking about [how good he is]. Chad, he's got those crew chiefs wondering, 'What's Chad going to do?'

"We know what Jimmie's going to do. You give him a car and put him in position, he's the best closer I've ever seen. But the guy that keeps everybody guessing is the guy sitting in the pits."

This is a valid point. In the closing stages of many races -- and it was the case again Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Johnson was running second to Kurt Busch when the final caution came out -- most crew chiefs are trying to outsmart Knaus and not Johnson.

Pit or don't pit? Two tires or four? Fuel only? A major adjustment?

Everyone is guessing.

At Bristol, Johnson took four tires, as did Busch, and restarted sixth with 10 laps remaining. The cars ahead of those two took only left-side tires. Four laps after the restart, Johnson was pulling away for the victory.

"That's the guy that has them really turned upside down," Waltrip said of Knaus.

So I asked crew chiefs and drivers during Tuesday's spoiler test at Charlotte Motor Speedway whether this was the case. A few said no. Some, hesitantly, said yes. Others outright admitted it was fact.

Tony Gibson, the crew chief for Ryan Newman, summed it up best.

"You see him win Sunday and go, 'Damn! Not again!' " Gibson said. "Yes, it does get in your head. You can say it doesn't, but it does."

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Glenn SmithJimmie Johnson has won three of the first five races this season, and many competitors don't expect the No. 48 team to slow down.

To be fair to Johnson -- and even Waltrip finally admitted this -- the entire 48 team is in the heads of the competition. Knaus can make all the right calls, but without a driver talented enough to pull off moves like the ones Johnson made at Bristol, it would be for naught.

"Any team that wins a bunch gets inside people's heads," said Jeff Gordon, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Gordon knows. He won 40 races and three championships from 1995 through 1998, finishing second the other year. Fellow drivers knew the road to Victory Lane went through the No. 24 team.

"We never intentionally tried to get into people's heads and mess with them," Gordon said. "But when you go to a racetrack and you're fast every time you're on the track and you get the wins, it's pretty discouraging to the competition."

It's more than discouraging. It's demoralizing.

You could see it in Busch's face on Sunday as he flung his postrace drink into his car in frustration from losing a race he had dominated. It was the same frustration Kevin Harvick and others felt after Johnson won at California in large part because he got off pit road a split second before the leader crossed the start-finish line when caution came out.

"They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their a--," a disgusted Harvick said after the race.

Gordon was just as frustrated at Las Vegas when Johnson ripped by him late in a race that he led for 219 laps. The 48 took four tires on the final pit stop, and Gordon took two.

"That is very demoralizing," Waltrip said.

Even more demoralizing is the ease in which Johnson seemingly does this. He doesn't have to knock somebody out of the way the way Dale Earnhardt and Waltrip occasionally did to earn their reputations. He simply drives past people.

"When I came along, guys like Earnhardt and a few other guys, they liked to play the mind games," Gordon said. "They [the 48 team] like to put up fast times on the board, and they like to go out there and win races. That's pretty much what everybody is trying to do out there.

"So I don't see how that's somebody trying to get in somebody's head, that's just trying to beat the competition."

He's right. The 48 team doesn't try to get in people's heads. It just does. You could hear it in Kasey Kahne's voice when asked whether the spoiler might be the equalizer that allows the competition to catch Johnson.

"I think everybody is sick of getting beaten by Jimmie Johnson, so we just keep working hard and try to figure out how to beat him, but I doubt that will slow him down," he said. "We need to speed up."

That makes crew chiefs become more aggressive with setups that possibly lead to blown tires or even motors. That makes drivers take unadvisable chances.

"It makes you come out of your focus and make decisions you might not normally do, the opposite of what they do, just to see if it works for you," said Lance McGrew, the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Right now I come to the track just expecting they're going to win. When they came out [at Bristol] and had four tires I was, 'Oh, there he goes again.'

"It's just unbelievable."

[+] EnlargeDarrell Waltrip
Racing One/Getty ImagesSeeing the green-and-white No. 11 Mountain Dew car in your rearview mirror meant serious trouble in the early '80s.

So does that mean Johnson and Knaus, who reached 50 wins faster than anyone but Gordon, Waltrip and David Pearson, are in the garage's head?

"I think so," McGrew said. "I don't think there is anybody in the garage area that doesn't understand you have to beat them."

Johnson doesn't flaunt this, but he likes it. And he knows it works to his advantage. He's seen it work before in the Chase, particularly last season.

It's the same thing he felt in 2005 when he was chasing eventual champion Tony Stewart down the stretch.

"We were like, 'What's he doing? How are they going to do it?'" Johnson said. "I would say it's second nature to pay attention to who the fast guy is, which is cool when you are the fast guy."

That confidence may be more valuable than getting in people's minds. Gibson saw it in 1998 when he worked with Gordon under crew chief Ray Evernham.

"When you're running like those guys are, you go to the track knowing you're the guy to beat," he said. "You're proud. Your chest is pumped up. You think you're unbeatable.

"As long as that team has confidence, it'll be hard to beat them."

Everybody in the garage knows this whether he wants to admit it or not. If you go by Waltrip's theory, the garage is partly to blame for creating this monster, referring back to the golden horseshoe comment that many echoed.

"They [the 48 team] would never admit it," Waltrip said as he stood in the shadow of his No. 11 Dew car. "I'm not saying it's the gospel. … [But] ever since that statement was made, they are on a mission, 'If you think we're lucky, watch this, 'cause not only are we lucky, we're pretty darn good, too. You're going to pay for that comment. We're not lucky. We're good.'"

They may be the best ever.

And one day odds are Johnson will be standing under the No. 48 Lowe's car parked somewhere near Waltrip's 11 on Glory Road.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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