CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Chad Knaus was as specific as he could be as he barked out orders from the pit box at Kansas Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson had just led 44 laps around Kansas Speedway, pitted under a green flag and was trying to work his way through traffic when his championship chances were nearly derailed. He spun by himself, hit the wall, and ruined a potentially race-winning car.
Knaus refused to throw away the day. He called Johnson to pit road to take a look at the No. 48 Chevrolet and methodically called out the play-by-play required for the crew to get the car back on the track — and keep the team in the hunt for the Sprint Cup championship.
“I knew he would make it sound better than it really was,” said Johnson, “quarterbacking the situation.”
Knaus ordered every Hendrick Motorsports crew member over the wall, and all of them were to take Bondo filler with them. He addressed certain areas of the car first, “hit it with a hammer!” he barked, “right there, between the o and the w!” he pointed toward the Lowe’s logo.
On and on it went, through at least a half-dozen stops on pit road over two caution periods. The crew worked in quick bursts so Johnson could rejoin the field as it passed by under caution, preventing him from falling a lap down.
When it was time to go racing again, Knaus assured Johnson that the car — which had thick black tape covering much of the back and the window — was good to go.
“There’s nothing wrong with that thing. Nothing,” Knaus radioed. “You just might have a little trouble looking out the back window.”
And there wasn’t anything wrong with it the rest of the race. Johnson drove the battered car to a ninth-place finish, one spot behind series leader Brad Keselowski to keep the Chase for the Cup championship standings unchanged. He went into Sunday’s race trailing Keselowski by seven points and left with that margin intact.
“He wasn’t lying. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t efficient,” Johnson said. “Slow on corner exiting down the straightaway because of the fenders being pushed out like they were. Through the corner, the car had a spoiler on it in a decent location and it was creating downforce. It drove well. That’s what allowed me to work traffic like I did to allow me to get up inside the top 10.”
If Johnson goes on to win his sixth NASCAR championship, he’ll be able to look back to Kansas and his crew’s performance as one of the shining moments of the season.
Squeezing out that top-10 finish not only kept him within striking distance of Keselowski, it allowed Johnson to widen the gap on Denny Hamlin, who finished 13th. Hamlin now trails Keselowski by 20 points, and is 13 behind Johnson.
That’s important as they head into the final month of the Chase, which shifts Sunday to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson and Hamlin have combined to win nine of the last 12 races. The two were unbeatable for a nine-race stretch, but haven’t been to Victory Lane since Hamlin’s win in the 2010 Chase.
Hamlin, disappointed with the Kansas results, took to Twitter to hint at Martinsville’s importance.
“Time for MAX points,” Hamlin tweeted Sunday night.
He nailed his last bold proclamation, backing up a “we will win next week” tweet after Chicago with a victory at New Hampshire in Round 2 of the Chase.
Johnson, a master at being able to block out the competition, said Hamlin’s public declarations don’t bother him.
“It’s a great track for him. Everybody has ways that they express themselves, motivate themselves or their team, fan base,” Johnson said. “Some people feel it’s important to do, and how they want to handle it.
Johnson pointed out that he often uses the “(hashtag)sixpack” on his own tweets in reference to his quest for a sixth championship, “to make my fans feel and know that’s where my head is. So I don’t see anything wrong or bad with it.”
Martinsville is also a great track for Johnson, who has six wins and 18 top-10s in 21 career starts. Although he hasn’t won since spring of 2009, he led 111 laps in April and was en route to the victory until he was wrecked on the final restart. A year ago, he was passed by Tony Stewart on the final restart.
“It’s pressure time, it’s go time, it’s all that stuff with four to go,” he said. “The points as tight as they are, we expect to be one of the cars racing for the win. We’re showing up, racing hard, putting in everything we have got, which is to be expected by everybody at this point, and we’ll see how things turn out.”