NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Reasons The Race at Texas Impacts Johnson's Fifth Title
It's big, tough and fast and it will affect preparation, driver mindset and team strategy. The AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway lived up to its potential of being a possible game-changer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Jimmie Johnson rolled to the starting line from 17th place as his two nemeses, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin planned their method of attack that would get them past him from their positions in the back half of the field.
In typical Johnson manner, he maneuvered his Lowe's 48 Chevy toward the front, but Lap 112 did indeed show Harvick and Hamlin in front of Johnson after the 48 team had a slow pit stop. Mistakes or accidents could be the only things that would impede Johnson's march to the fifth title.
Johnson needed to race hard and to win, plain and simple. Going into the race only 38 points separated him from Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin followed him by a mere 14 points.
It was uncharted territory for Johnson, the NASCAR champion with four consecutive titles. He had never been at such risk this close to the end of the 10-week Chase.
With three races left in the season, he and his team led by crew chief Chad Knaus had to be flawless. Hamlin and Harvick needed perfection with every facet of the race as well. Forty other drivers had their agendas set. They would be racing for a win at any cost with most of them having nothing to lose.
In the crucial race at Texas Motor Speedway, let us take a look at 10 factors, which for better of worse had an impact on Jimmie Johnson and his chase for a fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
Mistakes Can Hurt
Prior to the mid-point of the race, the Lowe's No. 48 team had three mistakes involving tires during pit stops.
Two of the problems centered on getting the tires on the hub properly.
Long Runs Important
Long green flag runs are important to Jimmie Johnson, allowing him to strut his stuff and gain ground during a race.
Cautions at Texas Motor Speedway proved detrimental to the No. 48 team because he seemed to find trouble with his pit stops and not enough long runs to benefit him.
The Pressure Is On
Chad Knaus said over the radio, "It's a beautiful day," as the race began and added "three races to live and die by."
After several mistakes in the pits he climbed from the pit box for a chat with the team. It is never good when he has to come down during the race, but his purpose was to pull the team together from the faux pas that had been occurring.
He had further decisions to make when Jeff Gordon's team became available and replaced the Lowe's No. 48 team. At the very best, it had to add a demoralizing factor to the team as the replacements took over their duties.
Knaus has to make the tough calls, but this particular one could help short term, but hurt in the next two races. He will really have to be Mr. Motivation to bring the team together for Phoenix and Homestead.
Jeff and Jeff Tangle
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton had differing opinions about racing etiquette around Lap 192, resulting in Burton slamming the rear of the No. 24 Dupont Chevy and sending Gordon into the wall.
Burton took full blame for the incident and said the bumpers hooked and he couldn't get away from Gordon. Gordon was furious as he climbed from his car and headed for Burton who was also out of his car.
Gordon started pushing Burton immediately before officials separated them. One can only imagine the words that were flying as well.
Both Burton and Gordon's car had to go to the garage. With the team for the No. 24 Dupont Chevy suddenly available, they were exchanged for the Lowe's team to service Jimmie Johnson. They did a much better job of getting Johnson in and out of the pits.
Knaus commented after the race, "It was nice to have the 24 team as a backup." Who would have thought Jeff Gordon's team led by Steve Letarte to be considered that?
The wreck between the Caterpillar car of Burton and Jeff Gordon was unfortunate, but the crew swap probably helped Johnson in the long run. At least the mistakes during pit stops came to a stop.
The FR-9 Ford engine was working really well with Biffle leading the most laps during the race. At lap 330 he had led 223 laps and Biffle unofficially finished fifth to the winner.
It was a good run for Matt Kenseth who raced Hamlin for the lead in the final laps and unofficially finished second to Hamlin.
Note: Engine pictured appears to be a Ford power plant, but not sure it is an FR-9.
Though Greg Biffle dominated the race and led the most laps, he was having transmission problems with no second gear.
On the final restart, Jimmie Johnson was behind him and Biffle hampered Johnson's run with only a few laps remaining.
Biffle finished unofficially finished fifth and Johnson was ninth.
Had It Together
Kevin Harvick had strong pit stops and ran well as he stayed near the front with Hamlin most of the race. With 36 laps to go he was too loose and radioed "we are junk." He did brush the wall fairly hard late in the race and had to go to the pits.
With 10 laps to go Jimmie Johnson made a pass on Harvick, but it was short-lived. After the caution at the end of the race, Harvick unofficially finished sixth, three places ahead of Johnson.
Harvick ran hard just as Hamlin did and at Texas Motor Speedway, they outperformed Johnson.
And The Winner Is...
Denny Hamlin won the spring race at TMS shortly after having knee surgery. Now Hamlin is Jimmie Johnson's biggest nightmare heading to the final two races of the Chase.
Hamlin came from the back of the field at the start of the race to Victory Lane. His crew chief, Mike Ford, chose the pit stall in front of Johnson for starters which could have been problematic for Johnson. Ford was able to adjust the car throughout the race making it better each time.
Hamlin is determined and is showing maturity in his campaign to defeat Johnson in this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase. He has talked the talk and walked the walk, winning eight races this season, including two out of the last three races in the Chase.
A Numbers Game
The AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was step eight in the 10-race playoff for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
The title is all about the number of points that are awarded to each driver for each race. Jimmie Johnson has had a considerable lead this close to the end of the 10-race series and was able to cruise a bit, especially at the Homestead finale.
This year he is in a dog fight and Denny Hamlin is top dog right now though not by an amount that Johnson could not overcome should the final two races play to his favor.
Harvick is also still a threat, and cannot be ruled out as the wild card Champion when all the racing is over.
For now the unofficial point standings after Texas are as follows for the top five in the points.
Denny Hamlin top dog
Jimmie Johnson -33
Kevin Harvick -59
Carl Edwards -317
Matt Kenseth -325
At Texas Motor Speedway Jimmie Johnson had 42 other cars that could potentially cause him to have problems affecting his run for the title.
His team was even problematic for him after three bad pit stops in a row. Over the radio he pleaded, "I need your help so bad."
Turmoil with his team being replaced by that of Jeff Gordon's may have some psychological effect not only on the team, but on Johnson's confidence in them for the next two races.
Denny Hamlin will not let up on Johnson. In a post race interview, the cool confidence of Johnson seemed to be replaced by a demeanor indicative of the reality he may not get the fifth title this year. He stated, "We've had some issues."
Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief defied the typical courtesy of the Chase drivers not pitting next to one another. At Kansas, the No. 48 team pitted next to Hamlin, so Ford had the opportunity to play the same game at Texas.
In a post race interview on Speed TV, Ford said, "Keep your enemies closer" and "It was an in your face" move during his comments about the pit strategy.
Johnson has many reasons to worry as the racing runs out. Can Hamlin and head games finally rattle Johnson enough? Is the Knaus super team starting to come apart? Can Knaus get the No. 48 car, driver and team back on track and regain the points lead?
Jimmie Johnson is in a battle and it remains to be seen if he and his Hendrick team can win the title.