NASCAR: Johnson made crucial mistake
CHARLOTTE ó When Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas at Pocono Raceway in June, turning a second-place finish into a seventh-place finish, it was viewed as a rare mistake for the three-time defending NASCAR champion.
Then it happened the very next week at Michigan International Speedway, where Johnson led 146 laps but ran out of gas two laps from the finish. It turned a victory into a 22nd-place finish and opened the top team in NASCAR to overwhelming scrutiny.
In a stroke of bad timing for Chad Knaus, the crew chief just happened to have a meeting scheduled with the chairman of sponsor Lowe’s following the second consecutive miscalculation of fuel. Robert Niblock surprised Knaus at the end of the meeting with a gift.
“It was a big calculator,” Knaus said Monday. “And on the back was a chart on how to figure out miles per gallon.”
Knaus clearly didn’t have the calculator out Sunday in the return trip to Michigan, where Johnson was once again headed to a dominant victory but once again ran out of gas two laps from the finish.
He wound up 33rd in the third high-profile instance of Johnson running out of gas this season.
So what’s the problem with Knaus’ calculations?
Nothing at all.
The Chase for the championship format gives the best teams in NASCAR an opportunity to weigh risk versus reward. Chances are taken and strategies are stretched to their limits in the only time all year a crew chief can try something different.
In Johnson’s case, he’s already got his spot in the Chase locked down. He’s third in the standings with three races to go before the 12-driver field is set.
That field is reset at the start of the 10-race title hunt, and the drivers are seeded by their bonus points earned during the regular season. Johnson, with three wins, has 30 bonus points and would be tied with Tony Stewart for the second seed behind Mark Martin if the Chase started this week.
The only thing Johnson has to race for right now is bonus points, and that’s exactly what Knaus was doing in all three of those races that the No. 48 seemed to uncharacteristically err and run out of fuel.
It makes no difference right now if Johnson finishes third or 33rd, the points earned in each event won’t mean anything once the Chase begins. But if he can somehow stretch his fuel to the finish line and win at Pocono or either of the Michigan races, then Johnson would have improved his seed with critical bonus points.
Anything short of that was worthless.
Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Racing team recognized that Sunday as Johnson was pushing hard for the win. When he ran out of gas, the win went to Vickers, who was conserving fuel in an effort to stay in position to pounce should Johnson come up empty.
“Jimmie, in the situation he is right now, second place doesn’t do him any good. He needs to win the race,” winning crew chief Ryan Pemberton said. “I kind of felt like he was going to go harder than he needed to go. If he runs second, it doesn’t do anything. He needs the championship points to win the race.”
And that was Knaus’ thinking all along. He didn’t need a new calculator, or a refresher course in figuring out miles per gallon.
There’s nothing on the line right now, so he has the luxury to test the limits and try new things in an aggressive racing strategy he’ll certainly abandon when the Chase begins.
“If we were in the Chase, we would have erred to the conservative side,” Knaus said. “But right now, for us, it doesn’t make a ton of difference if we finish second or if we finish last. It makes going for it a lot easier of a decision.”
So it was strange when crew chief Alan Gustafson followed a similar strategy with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Martin. Although they have a series-high four wins this year, early season bad luck has them clinging to a Chase spot and not in a position to take risk over reward.
Yet Gustafson did just that on Sunday, keeping Martin on track in pursuit of a top-10 finish rather than calling him in for a splash of gas that would have gotten him to the checkered flag ó but likely in a lower finishing position.
Like Johnson, Martin ran out of gas. With his 31st-place finish, he dropped to 12th in the standings and now clings to just a 12-point cushion over Vickers with three races left. Gustafson took the miscalculation hard, telling NASCAR.com he made “a blatantly wrong decision and it cost us a lot.”
It’s hard to imagine just what Gustafson was thinking when he tried to stretch it, simply because the room for error was so small. Playing it safe was clearly the right decision when big-picture points racing is the most important goal.
But Knaus doesn’t think it’s fair to crucify his co-worker for doing a call everyone is now Monday morning quarterbacking.
“Hindsight is 20-20, and yeah, he should have pitted,” Knaus said. “But Alan did the same thing I did ó he looked at it and thought we were going to have another caution and thought it would give us what we needed to get to the end. It’s easy to sit back and watch it all unfold on TV and say, Oh, that was a mistake.
“But when you are in the middle of it, it’s tough. If they had conserved fuel and gotten a top-10, it would have been, Great job, Alan! Way to conserve, smart guy! Instead, it’s, “Oh, tough break. ”
Indeed it was, one that Gustafson likely won’t make again.