Commentary

Jimmie Johnson's crew trips at Texas

Updated: November 16, 2010, 2:27 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Crewmen worked quietly around Jimmie Johnson's car in the darkness of the Sprint Cup garage following Sunday night's ninth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Little was being said.

Little needed to be said.

Actions, as you know, speak louder than words. And when crew chief Chad Knaus swapped out his entire pit crew more than halfway through the race, it spoke volumes about the team that has won the past four championships.

Superman has an Achilles' heel.

If you haven't noticed, Johnson's pit crew has struggled the past few months. Changes have been contemplated, but because Johnson was in control of the championship, Knaus didn't do anything to interrupt the chemistry that has kept his team on top longer than any in the history of the sport.

But after losing countless spots on pit road for three-quarters of Sunday's race, seeing their 14-point lead on the verge of being turned into a 33-point deficit by race winner Denny Hamlin, Knaus had had enough.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty ImagesThings went so poorly for the 48 team and Jimmie Johnson on some early pit stops that a change was made to use Jeff Gordon's over-the-wall crew in the middle of the race.

So during the wildness of a wreck under caution between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, and the further wildness of Gordon physically attacking Burton on the track, Knaus pulled his troops together and told them they were being benched in favor of teammate Gordon's crew.

It was akin to Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb being benched for the final two minutes two weeks ago for what coach Mike Shanahan called "cardiovascular endurance" issues.

Only Knaus didn't make excuses for why he made the switch.

He simply wasn't happy with the performance.

And there are no promises the crew will be back next week at Phoenix.

"Everything is on the table, bud," Knaus said as he looked ahead to the final two races. "S---, I'll be honest with you, if [Gordon crew chief] Steve Letarte can call a better race, I'm going to put him on my box. It's about trying to win this championship. That's all that matters.

"We've got a lot more to think about than just the people that come and take care of this car. We've got five hundred and twenty-something people that work at Hendrick Motorsports that have families, and we have to win this championship for them."

Those who have been looking for a chink in the No. 48 team's armor are rejoicing. But before you get too excited, don't forget how Johnson's team has responded to adversity in the past.

Don't forget that other teams have made wholesale changes -- Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing teammate Burton swapped pit crews before Martinsville two weeks ago -- and performed well, although such changes typically are done midweek.

But it's a chink nonetheless, one we haven't seen from Johnson's team in a long, long time. Will it tear them apart? Or will it make them stronger?

"We'll find out," said Johnson, who'd had the points lead leaving the eighth Chase race the previous four years. "I've got no clue. It's unchartered territory for us."

Knaus will tell you this goes on all the time in professional sports, and it does. If one player isn't performing, put in another. A basketball coach often will sub out his entire starting lineup in hopes of getting a spark.

But racing isn't like other professional sports, and the 48 team isn't like most race teams. It was built around perfection, and when perfection becomes ordinary, it draws extraordinary attention.

"At this point in the game you can't have feelings," Johnson said. "You have to go out and win the championship. If somebody's feelings got hurt, too bad. We're here to win that championship, and we've got to do everything we can."

Mike Ford would like to take some credit for pushing Johnson's crew over the brink. Hamlin's crew chief chose the pit stall directly in front of the No. 48's, in part because Knaus did it to him at Kansas and in larger part to force Johnson's team into a mistake.

Mission accomplished.

"Those guys faltered, and it made them panic and push to the point where they made changes," Ford said. "It worked out very well for us."

We're used to Knaus playing mind games. We're not used to Knaus having mind games played on him, at least successfully.

I really do care for these guys with the bottom of my heart. They're my guys. But, man, we have to perform. We can't come down pit road and lose 10 spots every stop. That's just killing us.

-- Jimmie Johnson

That's what makes this so shocking.

"We did see all that going on, saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard," Ford said. "And when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes.

"So I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention. That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so."

Not just mistakes. They, as Ford not so delicately put it, made a "desperation move."

"Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team," Ford said.

But in doing so this could destroy the team. There was speculation that tire changer Mike Lingerfelt left the track in anger. Who knows the mental state of others replaced.

"I'm not sure what the implications will be through the shop," Johnson admitted. "We've been lacking and we need to get it straightened out, and it was a good wake-up call for the guys, if anything.

"I really do care for these guys with the bottom of my heart. They're my guys. But, man, we have to perform. We can't come down pit road and lose 10 spots every stop. That's just killing us."

Ten spots is a bit overstated, but Johnson has been going backward on pit road instead of forward, as was the case much of the past four seasons. As difficult as it is to pass on the track with these cars, that's the unpardonable sin.

And Knaus showed no mercy when it repeatedly happened on Sunday.

"I'm not going to say that's what hurt us the most, but it hurt us," Knaus said.

The question is will it keep Johnson from winning a fifth straight title? His track record at Phoenix says he should dominate, but can he if his crew isn't 100 percent in his corner, if they are performing with doubt instead of with confidence?

"It's something new for sure," Johnson said. "These guys, I know they have it in them. A lot of these guys have won four championships with me. Some have won three. So I know they have it in them, but every once in a while an athlete gets something in the head that slows them down or makes them overthink things.

"I don't know what the issue was. I don't want to say too much because I don't know what the problem was in the pit stops, but we've got to perform."

If they don't, the fans who yearn for a new champion will get their wish. Many will go to sleep tonight thinking Hamlin has this in the bag, that it's over.

But as Hamlin said two weeks ago after winning at Martinsville, "Who said it was over? I told you it wasn't."

This one isn't, either.

"Oh, no, it's far from over," Johnson said before disappearing into the darkness. "It's far, far from over."

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

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