FORT WORTH – With two wins through seven races in 2015 – and six Sprint Cup championships – you would think Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus know each other pretty well.
Turns out they still surprise each other.
About eight laps into an early run of Saturday’s Duck Commander 500, Johnson committed to driving low while Kevin Harvick took the high lane.
“I was just shocked,” Knaus said. “I asked him, ‘Why did you stay on the bottom?’ He just felt like it was too early to go up there and defend and start blocking (Harvick), so he was being a gentleman racer. I wasn’t really worried about him being a gentleman racer, but I was just like, ‘Well, I think you’d be faster if you moved up top.’ ”
Johnson’s 72nd career victory might have seemed problem-free, there were hiccups along the way.
“I opted to pit from the lead,” Knaus said of his call for Johnson to stop on Lap 267 of the 334-lap race while others did not. “That was probably a mistake at that point. Kind of got stuck in traffic, but then we were fortunate enough to get a couple quick cautions shortly after that, and we were able to adjust to the race car and make it better in traffic, and Jimmie was able to drive up there.”
Those kind of on-the-fly adjustments will be key for the No. 48 team. Johnson’s two wins are tied for the series lead with Harvick, who failed to track Johnson down in the closing laps. But Knaus said he’s not particularly concerned about the dominance of the Stewart-Haas Racing team, which has six top-2 finishes thought the first seven races.
“I’m worried about the field in general,” Knaus said. “(Harvick’s) just a part of the mass that we’re trying to stay ahead of or be ahead of I guess I should say. Qualifying, you see some very, very strong efforts from the Penske guys, you see (Harvick), and actually a lot of the Stewart‑Haas cars here this weekend were really fast in qualifying. We’ve got to do a better job of leapfrogging those guys.”
Knaus said he believes this is even more important at 1.5-mile tracks such as Texas and Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Johnson already won this year. Last year, two of Johnson’s four wins came at a 1.5-mile oval (the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas in November).
Knaus said the gap from his team to the competition is closer than the results indicate.
“They may feel like they’re pretty far off, but man, there’s only a whisper away from what’s good and what’s bad anymore,” Knaus said. “The days of having an advantage to where you’re two, three 10ths (of a second) faster than somebody consistently is really difficult to maintain (with) the restrictions that NASCAR puts on us right now. You watch qualifying, how close it is, how close the times are. It only takes a little bit of something to get everybody where they need to be.”