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Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

Points format allows No. 48 team to be aggressive

June 3, 2004

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Driver Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team made winning the Coca-Cola 600 look easy Sunday.

It's difficult to appreciate really how hard that is.

Johnson led 334 of 400 laps in his Chevrolet. He and Elliott Sadler led all but 10 of the first 368 laps, and only Johnson's need for the occasional trip to pit road allowed anyone else to lead at all.

Johnson started from the pole and his car, a Monte Carlo identified only as "4859" in the Hendrick Motorsports numbering system since Knaus doesn't have the habit of giving names to his cars, was great from the get-go.

With 160 laps run before there was a caution, teams that had missed the initial setup didn't get to make the adjustments that might have helped them keep up. But Knaus kept right on working, trying to make what looked like a perfect car even better.

"We adjusted the race car on every single stop we made," Knaus said, without seeming to know that anyone watching No. 4859 blow away the field would question the sanity of putting a wrench anywhere near it.

The car was the first one built at Hendrick Motorsports specifically for Johnson to drive. Since its completion, Knaus has brought it to every points race Johnson has competed in at North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway, and the results have been spectacular.

It could have now won three straight Coca-Cola 600s had Johnson not overshot his pit late in the 2002 race, where he led 263 laps before finishing seventh after the miscue. It did win last year's rain-shortened 600, and Sunday night it obliterated everyone with apparent ease.

There is nothing easy, however, about dominating a race so badly that there was little else left to talk about afterward about the dominance itself.

"It really was a lot of fun," Johnson said. "But in some cases it's almost better to be in second or third trying to move forward. When you're up front and you have the bull's-eye on you and all the other teams are trying to outdo your times."

"The thing that is key right now is that we don't feel a whole lot of pressure," said Knaus, whose driver now is second in the standings, just five points behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"We don't have to be leading the points right now, all we have to do is be in the top 10 after the first 26 races. That takes a lot of the pressure off of us, it allows us to get aggressive when we want to get aggressive."

That strategy is shaped by the "Chase for the Nextel Cup Championship" format. After 26 races, the top 10 in points will have their totals reset to five points behind the driver ahead of them in the standings and five ahead of the driver behind them. Knaus said that allows him to take shots at winning races with the confidence that even if he makes wrong calls now and then, Johnson can still get a top-10 points spot.

It's hard to argue, since Johnson has been out of the points top 10 for just two race weekends since the first month of his rookie season in 2002.

"We work our butts off to do one thing, and that's to race," Knaus said. "When we go into a race track wanting to win, and if we don't win we go back and we just work until we get to the point where we can win."

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