Saturday, November 21, 2009

The 48 Team And The Art Of Going In Circles

The time Rev' Jim has to be on line is still very rare, but we can't let this NASCAR season end without a word or two.

At the time of this writing, it looks like Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team once again have the Cup Championship sewn up. Unless, of course, the driver or the team make a serious mistake during Sunday's season closer at Homestead. That, as most racing fans know, is not likely to happen.

"How," one might ask, "Can one driver be so dominant over the others that he wins the championship four consecutive seasons?"

Now, to be fair, the one who might ask that question would be one who is not familiar with NASCAR racing. In fact, the one who asked us that question is of the opinion that NASCAR racing is all about mashing the pedal and turning left. That would be the same as saying football is all about men standing in a field and knocking each other down, baseball is about standing around and adjusting hats and belts, or hockey is about skating in circles.

We might explain that, first of all, Jimmie Johnson and his team are not dominant in their sport in the same sense as teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Miami Dolphins, the Celtics, the Lakers, the Yankees, or the Bruins have been dominant in their respective sports. For example, our favorite driver, Tony Stewart, led the points for most of the regular season, a feat of which we, and the 14 team, have a right to be very proud, considering that this was Stewart's first season with a team that was entirely new to him. If they had been able to maintain the level of competition they showed in April through August for the rest of the season, Chase or not, they could have had the Championship sewn up at this point, rather than Johnson.

We must note here, that it would be easy to blame it on NASCAR's Chase points format, but that is how the championship is determined. Every team in the Sprint Cup Series bases its strategy and agenda for the season on that format. It is the same for each team. Even if there wasn't a Chase Championship format, the teams would still calculate their chances for the championship according to the points system. So, in the Zen of it all, the points format doesn't really make a difference.

They weren't able to maintain that level of competition, and that's the way the proverbial cookie crumbles like a mashed right rear fender. The 48 team, on the other hand, has been able to stay at the same level throughout the entire season, and then even step up their performance in the final stretch, when performance matters most. And this is where we try to explain that NASCAR, like the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA, is a team sport.

Of course, at the association of "team" and "NASCAR," a question mark visibly appears over the head of the person who is grilling us. "What," he asks, "does a team have to do with it?"

So, we explain that many races are won in the pits, and the pit crew has to be fit, physically and mentally, in order to provide a pit stop that is a "game breaker." The crew chief has to be able to make decisions that affect the performance of the team, the driver, and the car. Most of the time, the decisions are of the split second variety. Making decisions as to air pressure, wedge, and track bar adjustments take a knowledge of what the driver likes in the handling of his car, along with the knowledge of the time such adjustments would take in relationship to track position among the other teams in the field.

When it comes down to the nitty gritty, Chad Knaus, Johnson's Crew Chief, is NASCAR's equivalent of the internet's UberGeek. We never hear anything about his personal life, so we have to assume that everything Knaus does in his life has to do with making cars go faster. He lives, breathes, and eats racing. His first thoughts in the morning, and his final thoughts in the evening have to do with making a car go fast. Tighty whities or boxers? He probably wears speedos. (Note, if the reader chooses to dwell on that image, the author of this blog can not be held responsible for loss of sight in the mind's eye).

Knaus probably doesn't have a stove, oven, or a crock pot. Everything he eats is probably pre-prepared, as in fast food, or microwaved. Our point is that Knaus probably doesn't do anything that doesn't have to do with going fast. It is not unlikely that he has even trained his pit crew on how far out to pull a dented fender to make the aerodynamics of the car better than it was before the fender was dented.

"But," asks the person who is grilling us, "what does that have to do with one driver being so dominant?"

We sigh, not wishing to rehash what we just explained and press onward.

The crew chief is very important, but so is the chemistry between the crew chief and the driver. Jimmie Johnson has had only Knaus as his crew chief his entire Cup career. Granted, while Knaus was under suspension for the first part of last year, Darian Grubb--now Tony Stewart's crew chief--took the reins, but it was still the House of Knaus, and the team carried on as if it was still Chad on the pit box, sort of like automatic pilot. They did what they were trained to do, and continued the success of Johnson's team.

Chemistry between the driver and the crew chief means that there has to be communication that makes what the driver wants and what the driver gets identical. The 48 team definitely has that chemistry.

This is not to take away from Johnson's skills as a driver. The driver has to be precise, being able to put his car where he wants it in his line before another car takes that line. Beating another driver around the track means beating that driver in the turns--perhaps by out braking or out maneuvering the other car--and being quicker in reflexes, which also ties in to avoiding wrecks and contact, or other things that could increase the lap time unfavorably. Johnson is very good at that--the car is magic in his hands.

We can't say that Johnson is the best driver of all time. We can't even say he is absolutely the best out there, although he is one of the best. There are several drivers--the twelve who made the championship chase cut and a handful of others who didn't--who can always be considered to be championship contenders in any given year. The difference goes back to the team's performance, but it also means that a driver has to be good at every track. Each track on which the Cup series races is different in characteristics and dynamics, no matter how much alike they might look. Johnson understands this, and is equally good at finding his groove at all of them. This is how he takes advantage of having one of the best teams in NASCAR, and is what makes the 48 team a perennial champion.

The real question that should be asked is, "why watch the race if the championship is already in the bag?"

The answer is simple if you are a race fan. It is a race. We might be hoping that something similar to what befell the 48 team at Texas happens, and that Mark Martin leads the most laps and wins the race. But the main reason is we want to see if our favorite driver, no matter who it is, wins the race. That is why we watch any race. A victory by our favorite driver is as good as any old championship, as far as we are concerned. Or we could be watching it as witnesses to history in the making.

"But what does this have to do with mashing the gas pedal and driving in in circles?"

At this point, we answer, "I have no idea. How about them Broncos?"