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Just how good can Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus become?

  Chad Knaus, the best crew chief in the sport today? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Relief, relief.
   Well, a little bit at least…for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.
   Johnson rose to the occasion Sunday and simply flat kicked butt in winning the Phoenix 500, shaking off that Texas crash and making a statement, and making it so strongly it left rivals simply shaking their heads. 
   "We needed to make a statement," Johnson said. "We said 'We need to get this done here. We need to show what we're made of.
    "We knew this was going to be a great track for Mark and for Jeff," Johnson said of the two teammates, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, the only men within striking distance when the race started. (Gordon is now officially out of it, as long as Johnson can make it to the starting line next Sunday at Homestead.)
    "And we knew the only way to gain any points on them would be to lead the most laps and win the race.
   "We looked each other in the eyes, we knew what we had to do. And we did it. And it wasn't easy. There was a lot of pressure on us here.
   "Texas was such a good lesson.
    "I was pretty bummed out after Texas. But Chad kept the team's spirits up. And we qualified well. Then once we got the second set of tires on the car
   "I'm very proud of the way the team bounced back.
   "Yes, I'm excited now about Homestead. But we need to qualify up Friday and run well too and stay out of trouble."
   Knaus was beaming, not just because he is poised for his fourth straight title as crew chief but because his team bounced back after the Texas disaster…and the way his team bounced back: "It would have been easy for us to run with our tails between our legs, just go out with a conservative race and try to run behind mark.
   "But we didn't want to do that. We wanted to attack."

    But for car owner Rick Hendrick, though he's on the verge of becoming the first NASCAR team owner to sweep 1-2-3 in the championship race, while he feels good obviously for Johnson and Knaus he's got to feel the pain for Martin and Gordon.
   Particularly for Martin. This may be the last great chance Martin has to win the championship that has eluded him his entire career, and now he's a long shot.
   And Hendrick will have to deal with that.
   "But Mark is happy in his skin, he's comfortable with his life," Hendrick says. "He's comfortable with his family. 
    "I think what drives him is not just the desire to win the championship, but -- as much as anything he wants to do -- he wants to do it with perfection. Whether it's the way he eats, the way he works out, the way he dedicates time away with his family. 
    "He's got his stuff together.  
    "I'm 10 years older than Mark…and there comes a time when you've been through enough things in life… you want to do the best you can, but you're happy to be where you are. 
    "And Mark is really happy. 
     "He wants it, and I can guarantee you he wants it more for Alan (Gustafson, the crew chief) and that team than he does for Mark Martin. 
    "It's hard to explain….But I don't care what he does,  you've got 110 percent of everything he's got.  
    "But he's just real happy in his life right now, with both his family and his team, and being in the organization. 
    "He's won a lot of races.  He's shown everybody how talented he is. 
     "Boy, we're just very fortunate to have him in the organization.  
    "I was concerned (earlier this year) when we (Martin) had two DNFs and a tire and he was 35th in the points…and I had talked him into coming back (to sign a new contract). 
     "I was eating myself up on the inside: I said 'Mark, I promise you we'll do everything we can. You won't be sorry.'
    "And I've used his phrase a lot: 'I'm living the dream.'
    "It's about being comfortable in your skin. And he is. 
     "But he is a perfectionist. You see that in everything he does."
    But then so are Johnson and Knaus.
    So Johnson almost bristles at times when facing comments that he's making this all look so easy: "Man, it's not easy to win races. 
    "It's not easy to score points. 
    "Think of the first half of the chase, and how I was running and Mark was running. You couldn't give up an inch.  In your bad races you needed to be in the top-five. 
    "It's been all that tough; you can't give an inch. You've got to fight for every single inch around this track, every lap, to win a chase…to be competitive in the championship.
   "With that in mind, going to Homestead we need to show up, blinders on, focused, qualifying trim, and get all that we can.
    "We just can't coast.  We can't chill out.  We have to stay focused and keep our heads down on the job at hand."
    Well, of course Johnson and Knaus can indeed coast from here. Heck, they could have pretty much coasted from late September. If not for the potential of a Texas disaster.
   But Johnson and Knaus don't like to coast.
   Which is one reason they're so good at this.
   Hendrick says he still marvels at how well Johnson and Knaus click, even now eight years after pairing them.
    "I don't know how good these two guys can get. But they're the two best I've ever seen in the time I've been in this sport," Hendrick said.
   "They have the most awesome talent of anyone I've ever been around. And they're also the most dedicated.
   "I'm just glad I don't have to race against them.
   "Jimmie is such a student of how to race and when to race. And Chad is never satisfied, never satisfied.
   "That kind of commitment is hard to beat, especially when you have the talent to go with it."

   And then there's the fourth member the Hendrick juggernaut, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who incredibly had more bad luck, in a season filled with problems of every ilk. This time Earnhardt lost it off the corner and created a 10-car crash. He wound up 35th.
   "I hate it for everyone who got caught up in that," Earnhardt said. "That was a pretty big mess.
   "I was trying to spin the car down the track…just driving it wide-open into the inside wall (after he lost it). And I couldn't get out of everybody's way."
   "Dale got on the apron and got a little loose," Bobby Labonte said. "It's really easy to do there."


      The scent of that championship is heady in the air (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Jimmy Johnson is a great

Jimmy Johnson is a great driver and has a great team, he is the best of the Chevys period!!!!!!!!

I would love to see if he could be as succesful in a Dodge, Ford, or Toyota, betcha he would not,because after the second title there would be restrictions or fuel changes!!

You are only allowed to dominate with a 'BOWTIE on the Hood!!!!!!!

PS Mike did you ever get how much money GM is paying Nascar, I mean I know all the manufactuers have to pay to get in Nascar, but being GM is owned by the Taxpayers it should be public record, Its information that should be easy to get, ether from Chevy racing, or Nascar! But I bet you will have better luck finding a needle in a haystack!!!!!!!

Jeff Burton said it best. JJ

Jeff Burton said it best. JJ won't be appreciated for what he and his team have accomplished until the next generation. What the 48 team and the Hendrick organization has done, at any point in time, is a special deal, a very special deal. I've been inside and outside as a fan since the 60's, it's a very special deal. Knock them if you must, but, you are watching history being made! And ya know, it might not be over this season! And it's a team effort from bottom to top.

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