Johnson’s pit crew earns demotion
Hendrick Motorsports moved swiftly to help Johnson, who suffered through shoddy pit stops Sunday until crew chief Chad Knaus pulled the team. After an accident knocked Jeff Gordon out of the race, Gordon’s crew replaced Johnson’s on pit road for the remainder of the day.
On Monday, the swap was made official for the final two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
It’s a jarring shake-up for the four-time defending champion, who along with his team had previously been Teflon at this time of year. But uncharacteristic mistakes on pit road led to a ninth-place finish, and Johnson was passed by winner Denny Hamlin in the points standings.
He trails Hamlin by 33 points heading into Phoenix, the first time since 2005 he’s not been the points leader this late in the season.
The swap Sunday showed just how far Hendrick Motorsports will go to get Johnson that fifth straight championship, and how cutthroat the game has become. It’s not unusual though—Richard Childress Racing gave Kevin Harvick teammate Clint Bowyer’s crew last month—although the mid-race timing raised eyebrows.
“I think it was kind of a desperation move,” said Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford on Sunday, before the swap became permanent.
“But it’s something that … Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
Knaus was scheduled to discuss the swap today, but did not apologize after the race for benching his guys.
Their confidence likely shaken by getting pulled, it was going to be hard to recover in time to have the execution necessary to reclaim the points lead. With Gordon out of contention to win the title, the swap was really the only thing Hendrick Motorsports could do.
Although Johnson’s over-the-wall team hasn’t been the best on pit road this season—many in the industry consider the No. 48 crew to be the weakest of the three title contenders—the struggles were not scrutinized until Sunday, when Johnson routinely lost position under caution.
Knaus said Sunday he was optimistic he could get the issues ironed out once the team got back to its North Carolina shop. That obviously didn’t happen.
Johnson wasn’t surprised by the mid-race timing of the swap, and didn’t seem to have any issues with the potential hurt feelings from such a move.
“You watch pro sports and if people aren’t getting the job done, you’ve got to pull them out and put someone else in,” he said. “I really do care for these guys to the bottom of my heart, they’re my guys, but we have to perform. We can’t come down pit road and lose 10 spots every stop. It’s just killing us.
“I knew the possibility (of a change) existed. At this point in the game, you can’t have feelings, you have to go out and try to win the championship and if somebody’s feelings got hurt, it’s too bad, we’re here to win a championship and we’ve got to do everything we can.”
The master of staying calm and playing it cool the past four years, Johnson also indicated that his slumping team members may not have been able to rebound the next two weeks.
“I know they have it in them but every once in a while an athlete gets something in their head that slows them down or makes them overthink things,” he said.
It will be interesting to see how the competition responds.
Hamlin and Ford have shown time and time again they won’t back down to Johnson, and their confidence is soaring as they prepare to dethrone the champion. Sensing turmoil within the Hendrick organization could lead the Joe Gibbs Racing team to get too cocky, but Ford was taking credit for some of the 48 team’s issues Sunday.
Because Knaus chose to pit in front of Hamlin at Kansas—violating the unwritten code of Chase drivers not pitting next to each other—Ford returned the favor Sunday by selecting the stall in front of Johnson. By forcing the two crews to work side-by-side, Ford thinks Johnson’s team stumbled.
“Normally you would show some courtesy, but that courtesy was thrown out the window at Kansas,” Ford said. “You put the two pit crews toe-to-toe and those guys are going to make mistakes. We’ve seen it this year, and we went beside them, and those guys faltered, and it made them panic and push to the point where they made changes.”
And the No. 11 team couldn’t help but gloat about the turn of events.
“I think our race team is better than their race team, and I’m not going to tiptoe around them,” Ford said. “I’m going to do what it’s going to require for us to win a championship—beat them.”