By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Jimmie Johnson has been there before – more than any other driver in the past two decades.
But this trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (2:30 p.m. ET; NASCAR.com/tickets) is different. In the first place, Johnson has his first opportunity to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship under the 16-driver elimination format introduced by the sanctioning body in 2014.
Beyond that, in what is the transcendent story of this year’s Chase, Johnson has a chance to win a seventh series title, one that would tie him for the all-time lead with NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
And crew chief Chad Knaus has been with the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for every mile of the journey – well, almost every mile, the occasional suspension notwithstanding.
“Yeah, it’s a little different for sure,” Knaus said of the elimination format. “Obviously we’ve been able to go down to Homestead and bid for the championship in a lot of different scenarios, with a points deficit, with a points lead, and this is definitely unique, starting at zero and just going out there for the best man to win. I’m comfortable with it. I’m looking forward to it.
“Quite honestly, I think the Lowe’s Chevrolet has been fast over the course of the last handful of weeks. Our pit crew has been performing very well. Jimmie is very comfortable and in a good state of mind. I’m really excited about it. I’m looking forward to getting down there for sure.”
Knaus could tie Richard Petty’s long-time crew chief, Dale Inman (another NASCAR Hall of Famer) with seven titles with the same driver. In fact, continuity has been the hallmark of the No. 48 team’s effort since day one.
“What’s really cool about it is, if we were able to pull this off, it would be seven titles with the same driver, same crew chief, same sponsor (Lowe’s) and same team, which would be even more phenomenal,” Knaus said. “It’s been an honor to be able to work with Jimmie, Lowe’s and Hendrick Motorsports throughout this portion of my career. Looking forward to it extending a long time.
“But being able to represent this company and our associates the way that we have has been a lot of fun. To Jimmie personally, obviously he is by far one of my best friends, and to be able to have seen him grow and mature into the driver and the family man that he is has been awesome. It’s been a great ride.”
A seventh title for Johnson, however, is far from a given. Joe Gibbs Racing has two entries with defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards, and they have two sets of data to use in preparation for the Championship 4 race.
Additionally, Edwards participated in a tire test at Homestead in October, and crew chief Dave Rogers feels that gives his driver a slight edge over his teammate.
“Yeah, I think testing there is an advantage,” Rogers said. “We talked early in the season about which teams want to test where, and then we all agreed on which teams would test at each track. It was important for Carl and I to test at Homestead because we do think it’s an advantage. It’s absolutely open notebook. All of our teammates have every bit of data.
“I took my personal notes, what I thought, things I saw, when the clouds came in, when the rain showers came in, how I thought it affected the race car beyond what you see in the data, and I gave that to all of our crew chiefs, including Adam (Stevens, Busch’s crew chief). So they have that information.
“But it’s the personal experience. It’s living it. It’s seeing the cars with your own eyes. It’s seeing the expression in the driver’s face. That live experience, there’s something to it. I think our teammates are going to get 85 to 90 percent by looking at our notes and looking at our data, but that extra 10 percent is just being there and living through it.”
Stevens, on the other hand, feels he can rely on the data gather by Edwards and Rogers.
“With regard to the test, in my eyes there’s really not much difference from my perspective of being at the test or having a teammate go,” said Stevens, who won the title last year in his first year as Busch’s Sprint Cup crew chief. “The biggest benefit from acquiring the test data is literally getting the track data from the car and the driver to use to develop our simulation tools.
“We could have sent anybody down there to do that. Certainly Carl and Dave gathered that information for us and shared everything they could to help make our program as good as it can be. Would it have been nice to go? Yes. But that also takes away from preparing for that week’s event. As tight as the schedules are, you kind of have to balance that out and spread that workload out amongst the teams.”
Joey Logano didn’t participate in the Homestead tire test, but he has performed admirably on tracks that have featured the same tire codes as the ones in use at Homestead this weekend. Logano was runner-up in the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway and finished second to Edwards at Texas.
“We led a lot at Texas,” said Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon. “I felt like we were very strong there. Finished second to Carl on a rain-shortened race. I’d have loved to have seen where that race went. But I feel very strong about our chances going forward here. I feel really good about the improvements we’ve made.
“I felt like at Charlotte we had speed, and we had a tire failure, but showed some of that. We finished well and were second at Chicago on the same tire. We were second at Texas on this tire that we’ve got at Homestead. I feel like we’ve been able to battle for it, and we’re continuing to make our stuff better. I love our chances going to Homestead.”