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Driven! Now, about that Drive For Five....Can Jimmie and Chad make it happen?

  Jimmie and Channy: now the pressure is off...for a while at least (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

   By Mike Mulhern

   Talk about Fat City…the only downside today for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is, well, that the only way to go from here is down. But then, wonder what the line is on Jimmie and Chad making it five straight by this time next year?
   No fluke run, this. Johnson, after a questionable pit call by Knaus put their car back in heavy, mad and maddening traffic the rest of the three-hour race, had to work his butt off to avoid tangles – like that Tony Stewart-Juan Pablo Montoya series of crashing run-ins.
   And four in a row is no fluke either. Ever since these two guys hit the stock car circuit they've been championship contenders. Every single year, right from rookie season.
   So – to put it bluntly – Johnson and Knaus could very, very easily be celebrating eight straight NASCAR championships this week.
   No kidding. Check the numbers.
   Now that is flat amazing.
   Both men, of course, are workaholics. Just ask teammate Mark Martin – renowned for his own work ethic – about Johnson's work ethic as a driver.

  Game-face on, crew chief Chad Knaus awaits the start of the season finale, with girlfriend Lisa Rockelmann (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And Knaus too….though he noted, while taking a break from the fireworks and champagne that he knew he couldn't keep up this pace another eight or 10 years.
    Knaus, finally, Sunday night got to take a break from it all. And the relief was easily seen in his face.
    Then, for a moment he winced: "I just got the gut wrenching feeling that 2010 is coming soon."
    And he laughed, a bit ruefully. "It just hit me."
    Now teammate Jeff Gordon's Drive for Five got stuck right after his fourth in 2001.
    Can Knaus lead Johnson to a fifth title?
    "We've got some good stuff coming," Knaus says. "Our team is stronger than it's ever been."
    Of course Carl Edwards, runner-up in this thing last fall but this season all-but a no-show in the chase, can offer some words of warning.
    Knaus has, after one too many NASCAR suspensions along the line, turned mellow – relatively – this season, and has been calmer and more machine-like, and less emotional about things.
    "So people ask what it feels like….and I'm be honest with you: I don't know," Knaus admitted.
    "I do hope that 10 years from now, when I'm sitting on my patio, retired, with my son or daughter or my wife, or whatever is going on there, I can sit back and reflect and look at photographs."
    With that Johnson quickly cracked: "I have three questions – Retired? Son. And daughter? 
    "You have a lot to do in 10 years, buddy."



   Homestead Ford 400 winner Denny Hamlin -- the man who would be king will have to wait till next year (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


For Johnson, there was of course the history of the night, the record-setting fourth straight title. And he has, over the past several weeks, been trying to understand just what that means:
   "I am just blown away by the things we've been able to accomplish over the last eight years….and obviously the last four have been just unbelievable," Johnson said.
    "To love the sport like I do, and respect it like I do….the history, the pioneers….to look at all that, and to have done something that's never been done before is so, so amazing.
    "I've always set my marks high, but I had no clue this stuff would happen.
    "So honored…so happy…so fortunate…
     "At the same time, I've worked my entire life to be in this position. 
    "So has Chad.
     "So has Rick. 
      "It's not that we backed into any of this.  It's not that it 'just happened.'
    "We've worked really, really hard, dedicated our lives to it -- and it's paid off.
    "And we're really going to enjoy this."
    Pressure? Now Johnson, right from his first days on the NASCAR tour, has been unbelievably cool under pressure. Rarely if ever rattled. (Though there was that off-season flame-out a few years back when Johnson and Knaus were at each other's throats, post-season, to the point where Hendrick had to sit both of them down and debate whether the two should really continue being teammates.)
   And it's really been hard to see the pressure in Johnson's face these last few weeks.
   In fact, the only moments he has seemed rattled came midway through Sunday's 400, when he was mired in traffic for well over an hour and had to deal with a pack of hungry wolves that didn't seem to care a hoot that he was trying to win the title.

   Rookie Joey Logano did a darned good job this season of filling Tony Stewart's fireshoes for Joe and J.D. Gibbs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


"The pressure of winning the fourth didn't really hit me until I hit the fence at Texas," Johnson said of that Sunday two weeks ago, when he crashed on just the third lap, and lost over 100 points.
   "Then it was like 'Man, you can't relax. You can't hope, or think, that things are going to be smooth.  You've got to go out and earn this thing.'
   "It was a great reality check -- to step up and go to Phoenix (last week) and really race for this thing.
    "Now that we don't need the points (he finished the season 141 ahead of runner-up Martin), I look back and can say I'm thankful for it -- because we went to Phoenix, stepped up and showed what this team was made of.
    "The pressure side of it -- I feel I managed the pressure a lot better this year. 
     "That's the most relaxed I've been in the race car. 
      "There was a lot of pressure, though, and I'm definitely relieved the pressure is off. I feel so light all of a sudden.
     "I think I have done a very good job this year understanding the chase -- understanding the pressure…understanding what I'm capable of, what the team is capable of…what to focus on.
    "Now that I've got a comfortable understanding, and so does the team, about how to operate in this environment, we can continue it the next couple years."

     There was a poignant aspect to all this when the team announced just before the race that team owner Rick Hendrick had to fly home unexpectedly to deal with a family medical emergency – his niece was to undergo a kidney transplant.
    "We're so fortunate to have an owner like Mr. Hendrick," Knaus said. "He is just an amazing, an amazing person.  It's unfortunate he wasn't here. But he truly understands what the meaning of life is, and that's family. 
   "He puts family first. And we all respect that, and understand it.
    "That's why he is the person that he is:  He doesn't micromanage; he lets the teams do whatever they need to do."

   Team owner Rick Hendrick (R) and Chad Knaus (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Good read but the championship is getting anticlimactic. There was a great story line with Mark Martin and JJ's 4th but, let's face it, this thing was over a while ago. The pressure issue is of concern for JJ/Knaus fans - pressure is cumulative and does damage. Weaknesses appear, seams begin to split, etc.. They went through this in '05 to bounce back and, well, the rest is history. You have to get back more than you expend, otherwise, you get burned out. I do think these guys, this team, has enough hunger and competitiveness to keep the fires burning. I think we got a hint on how they handle adversity after Texas - something the 18 and 11 cars should study hard as they are probably the next in line for the cup is the 48 team has bad luck.

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