Two teammates. Two friends. One trophy. After over 14,000 miles of racing, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Championship comes down to the wire this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon ...
Two teammates. Two friends. One trophy. After over 14,000 miles of racing, the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Championship comes down to the wire this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon battling in the final 400 miles of competition in 2007.
"I need every point," said Johnson reflecting on the coming weekend. "There's no telling how things are going to go in Homestead. And I know how good Jeff Gordon is, and I know how good his team is. If we put our guard down and don't try to score maximum points every week, we're going to get beat."
With Johnson scoring only two finishes outside the top-10 in the previous nine Chase races, crew chief Chad Knaus feels that it's best to treat Homestead like a normal race, not letting the pressure get to them.
"I think obviously there's a little bit of pressure," Knaus said during Tuesday's NASCAR teleconference. "I don't think there's any more real pressure on ourselves than what we put on ourselves every week. Jimmie as a driver, myself as a crew chief, and our guys as a team, we do everything to the best of our ability every single weekend. We can't do any more than what we do.
"It's up to the team to make sure they do their job to the best of their ability. If something goes wrong, adjust, adapt to the situation, and then still try to get the finish out of the car that we need."
At the conclusion of last Sunday's race at Phoenix, Gordon came into victory lane waving a white flag. In a spirit of concession, he said "It's done", proclaiming the championship to Johnson. The four-time series champion hasn't been able to match the performance of his teammate in the Chase races. Gordon knows what he's up against this weekend and hopes to end the year on a high note.
Over the course of the season, Gordon recorded six wins and 29 top-10 finishes. Before the Chase, he enjoyed a 300 point cushion over second place. But that was eliminated at the first Chase race at New Hampshire, when Gordon and the eleven other contenders points were equalized. Each driver received a ten point bonus for each win in the "regular season". Therefore, Johnson moved ahead of Gordon by 20 points, thanks to his six wins versus Gordon's four in the first 26 races of the year.
"I really thought the average finish that we had would do it and it hasn't because they've just been that spectacular," Gordon said. "So, to me, right now it's not about the championship. It's about the off-season and next year and getting ourselves where we need to be."
One of Johnson's keys to success has been a shift in focus in strategy. Instead of running flat out for the entire race, the No. 48 crew has let the race fall into their laps. Knowing he has a strong car underneath him, Johnson waits until the closing stages of the race to attack.
"We used to be the team that went out there and tried to be the fastest for the whole race and really didn't get the fruits that we wanted to from that kind of effort," explained Knaus. "So this year, we've adopted a new mentality to just kind of ride and find a position to be in so at the end of the race that the car, one, is in good shape, that Jimmie is not worn out for two, and to be where we need to be so if something happens at the end. If we're not able to get up there, maybe we can pull something and try to get up there and get a victory."
A unique aspect of Hendrick Motorsports is that both the No. 24 and No. 48 teams act as one. On weekdays at the shop, employees wear one style shirt and prepare both cars together. The sharing doesn't stop there. Setups are exchanged on race weekends and all four Hendrick teams help each other out. It's that kind of approach that has made both Johnson and Gordon so successful over the years.
"We share everything," explained Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte. "It's a complete open book-- All four cars are an open book to one another from week one at Daytona testing all the way to the final laps at Homestead. We share air pressures during the race, pit strategies, setup information all weekend along.
"Times have changed the last 10 years. The drivers all drive different. A lot of teams have money and support. If you don't unite together and fight all these other teams in this sport, then we're going to fail separately. If we fail separately, Chad [Knaus] and I have failed miserably at trying to run a race team."
When the green flag flies at Homestead-Miami, both Johnson and Gordon will be in a race of their own, in quest for the Nextel Cup. But remember, in order to finish first, you must first finish.
"I don't want to act like it's our championship yet," Johnson stated. "We have a nice margin in the points right now. But 400 miles, that's my goal. I have to run 400 more miles, and we'll get nuts after that."