NASCAR

Johnson and his supporting cast

Image: NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson (© Jerome Miron/US Presswire)
Jimmie Johnson is enjoying success in recent Chase races.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Well the Chase for the Sprint Cup rolls on and it’s almost like déjà vu all over again.

Watching Jimmie Johnson dominate the last couple of weeks, it’s so reminiscent of the way he and crew chief Chad Knaus have gone about their business in the Chase. They are so methodical. Quite honestly, when I say his supporting cast, I’m not talking about the people working on his car. I’m not talking about Chad and the pit crew and all those guys. I’m talking about the guys he’s racing against.

You’ve got to give Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, those guys a lot of credit because we know they are talented race car drivers. We know they are as good as there is in this sport today. What does Jimmie Johnson do? He beats them. I think that makes a statement. I think that makes a statement about how good Jimmie is. If you don’t think Jimmie Johnson is a wheel man; if you don’t think he’s got desire or heart and is committed, just watch the last few laps of the race at Texas, just watch the last few laps of the race at Martinsville.

The guy is a pro.

I’ve lived through these periods of dominance. When I came into NASCAR, Richard Petty was the most dominant driver in this sport. Richard was a little different. That was at a time when the sport was pretty much blue-collar and it was all in the Carolinas and Richard was a hometown hero.

As time when on, I lived through the personal era when I had my success. I lived through the Earnhardt era, when Dale was certainly not the most popular driver. He had a lot of fans and a lot of people liked Dale, but a lot of people didn’t and he get boos all the time. Then I lived through the Jeff Gordon era and I never understood why Jeff Gordon got booed the way he did at that time, but it was because he was better than everybody else. He won a lot, he won championships and he was just better than everybody else.

Now I’m living through the Jimmie Johnson era and it’s the same thing. All these guys have one thing in common – most people didn’t like it when they were dominating this sport. It’s not like a football game. You go to a football game and you’ve got two teams. You’ve got one side of the grandstands and they’re pulling for one team and you’ve got the other side of the grandstands and they’re pulling for the home team and so you’ve got a rivalry between the two teams, so you’re team either wins or loses.

I've thought about this. Maybe we should divide the field in half. Maybe we should have Jimmie Johnson’s half of the field against Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s half of the field and maybe more people would leave the track happy than are leaving happy today. Because if your guy doesn’t win, if Dale doesn’t win or if Brad doesn’t win or Kyle doesn’t win or Jeff or Denny Hamlin – any of the guys that are winning races – then if that’s your man and he doesn’t win, then you’ve had a bad day. You didn’t like that race. The race was boring, the officiating was bad, they threw cautions when they weren’t necessary for debris, don’t like the restart rule, don’t like the wavearound rule. But if your guy wins, and he happened to get to take advantage of the wavearound or that double-file restart or the Lucky Dog rule, then you love the sport.

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And that’s kind of where we are these days. I don’t know what happened to the time - I used to love to go to the race and I liked perfection. I used to love to go and watch the car and driver and crew and they would be trying to beat everybody, they get paid to beat everybody, that’s their job, and the only way to do that was to be better than everybody, so your cars go to be better, your crews got to be better, your driver’s got to be better.

Now we go to the racetrack, we’re looking for something spectacular to happen. We’re looking for a spectacle instead of perfection. Quite honestly, all of us – in the media, in NASCAR, everybody – is trying to deliver that spectacular event every week and it’s just not going to happen that way. You can’t orchestrate a race. It has to have its natural flow. If there are no wrecks, no blown engines, no tires blowing out, no reason for a caution, then you can’t throw a caution and I don’t think NASCAR does.

I think they’ve got spotters around the racetrack and those spotters are telling them exactly what they see on the track. If a guy is sitting in the corner and sees something blow across the track or roll down the track he’s got to report that. They can’t take a chance, so they always err on the side of safety. So those caution flags that we always question, all the time they are calling those caution periods for safety reasons and to be cautious and to err on the side of safety. I understand that.

But as to the perfection thing, perfection is boring. When you see somebody that does everything right, does everything perfect, well that’s kind of boring. And when you see somebody winning all the time and beating everybody because they’re better than everybody else, their car is better, their crew is better, their crew chief is smarter, car is faster, that’s kind of boring. But it’s what we strive for.

As a team, as a driver, that’s what we strive for. We go to the track every week trying to make sure we get the absolute magic setup and have the perfect car for 500 miles. That’s every driver and every crew chief’s goal and that’s what you dream about is having a car that is a perfect car every week.

Do we get it? No. But what we do get is we’re better than everybody else. Then we have to leave it up to the intangibles, to the things we can’t control, whether it’s luck or weather or tires or cautions – those are intangibles. Those are things you can’t control.

That’s what makes racing unpredictable.

When you go to a race, let your expectations be that you’re going to watch for a crew and a team and a driver that on that particular day were better than everybody else. That’s what you want. Maybe you’re not a fan, but maybe you should be because it takes a lot of things to fall in place for one driver to be better than the other 42. Trust me, it’s not easy. Like I said, I’ve lived through it; I know what it’s like. I know how much work goes into building cars, preparing cars, racing cars and having the racing gods smile on you with some good luck.

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TEXAS HEAT

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Jeff Gordon is the perfect example of a great driver that’s had nothing but bad luck this year. It bites him almost every week. I tell him all the time, and I’ve told other drivers this, we’ve got so much luck in the luck bank, and when we finally run out of luck and we’re overdrawn in the luck bank, then things are not going to go our way. The thing I have not figured out is how we make a deposit, put that luck back in there. The only way I know how to do that is to keep trying. You know you’re good, you know you’ve got a good car, you know you’ve got a good team, you’ve just got to keep trying.

Denny Hamlin is the same way. Bad luck – he’s had bad racing luck, particularly in the Chase. You can’t give up, you’ve got to keep trying, fighting back. You’ve got to rely on what you know. Stick to what you know. You know you can beat the other guys and everything goes right. On the days it doesn’t, well you’ve got to suck it up and get ready for the next race.

So, let’s break it down just a little bit. We’ve got a good race car, we’ve got a great driver, we’ve got a great crew. Even the competition, rising above the competition, that’s something that you have to be able to do to be perfect. I’ve seen a lot of teams, I’ve seen a lot of driver-crew chief combinations, but I’ve never seen one quite as successful and quite as good and on the same page week in and week out as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

That’s a winning team.

Oh by the way

People are always saying Jimmie wouldn’t be as good if he didn’t have Chad. I don’t argue that one bit, but they know that and that’s why they’ve stuck together for 10 years. They know they’re good together, they know they can win a lot of races and championships if they stick together and that’s smart.

I’ll just say this. When those last few laps at Texas, when they dropped the green flag on that green-white-checkered, I didn’t see Chad Knaus in that car with Jimmie Johnson. I just saw Jimmie Johnson in there, doing what he does best, wheeling a race car better than everybody else. Was he perfect? Well he was the closest thing to perfect that I’ve seen in a long time. Why don’t we just call him Mr. Perfect.

And oh by the way

The restart thing? That’s a crapshoot, that’s a coin toss. NASCAR has convoluted up the restart zone so much with so many lines and boxes and can’t go before here, can’t go before there that it’s gotten almost out of control. There’s so many things you have to watch for and so many things that you can get penalized for that it truly has become kind of a crapshoot. Did he go too early? Did he go too late? Was he in the box? Was he out of the box? Was it before the line? Was it after the line? Did he spin his tires? Too many things are trying to be controlled over something as simple as coming down, cars side by side, the green flag comes out and you go.

It’s pretty obvious to me that if one guy goes before the other, then that guy should get black flagged and sent to the rear. Pretty much solves that problem. Wouldn’t have to do it but about once or twice.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin

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