David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
1. Trickle’s Impact Goes Well Beyond Results
CONCORD, N.C. – Practice? Dick Trickle didn’t need practice. Whether it was his native Wisconsin or elsewhere, the short-track legend was famous for often arriving after practice had ended. While others would be weary from a day of chasing speed, Trickle would show up with it. He’d unload his car, set the fastest time in qualifying, and then dominate the race, becoming more beloved by both fans and competitors with every lap he turned.
“He’d travel throughout the country and do the same thing he did in Wisconsin,” said Johnny Sauter, a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver who also hails from the Badger State. “It wasn’t just there. He’d drive down to New Smyrna for Speedweeks, and go down there and dominate. He’d go to Georgia somewhere and race, and then go back to Wisconsin and dominate. He won a lot of races, and coupled with the fact that he was a great person with a great personality -- it just made him a hero.”
Which is why so many in the NASCAR community, particularly those who lived or raced in the upper Midwest, were so shaken by the news Thursday that the 71-year-old Trickle had died by his own hand.
“I’m still in shock,” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star and Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, echoing the feelings of countless others who knew Trickle as a friend, a mentor, a competitor and a legend.
On the surface it may seem strange, such an outpouring for a driver whose accomplishments at NASCAR’s national level appear so meager – a pair of victories in what’s now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, a win in the preliminary race prior to the All-Star event in 1990, an 0-for-303 Cup Series mark in equipment that was usually a notch or two below the best. But in actuality, Trickle’s contributions to NASCAR are immense, outdistancing those numbers just like he used to outdistance the field at places like Wausau or Wisconsin Dells.
“Dick made himself a mentor to many,” said Mark Martin, who started in the American Speed Association before breaking into NASCAR. “Rusty (Wallace), myself, Alan Kulwicki – you know, we wouldn't have been the racers that we were when we got here had we not come under his influence. … I was proud of who we were, and the racers we were, for the influence that he had on us and the etiquette and the way he raced. He raced us real hard on the race track, but off the race track, he was very free with parts or advice. He gave freely. Really, really good dude. I'm confused and broken-hearted about what happened.”
Through a combination of cult-hero status and gregarious nature, Trickle helped mold generations of drivers from a region where late model stock cars are every bit as popular as they are down South. He competed against the likes of Bob Keselowski and Jim Sauter, he enthralled and inspired their sons through his exploits on the race track, he shaped them all as racers through his openness, his attitude and his work with the International Race of Champions Series.
“By the time that I started racing short-track stuff, Dick was down here running Cup stuff,” Kenseth said. “He was gone for probably five or six years before I started, so being a little kid in the stands I used to watch him a lot. And, man, there was some great races up there. … Dick was a – is a legend, and for a lot things. For the way he raced, for the way he conducted himself after the races, for all his different formulas for how much sleep he needed and just all the different stuff. He just was a racer's racer. That's all he cared about, and all he worked on, and that was all he did.”
His influence was not limited to Wisconsin. Casual sports fans in the 1990s were likely most familiar with three NASCAR drivers – Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, and Trickle, the latter of whom former “SportsCenter” anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick made sure to mention every week. This was in the pre-Internet days, when the Sunday night version of ESPN’s flagship program was must-watch television, and views of the sports world were shaped in part by Dan and Keith on what became known as “The Big Show.”
Every Sunday night, Olbermann and Patrick told you who won the race – and where Dick Trickle finished. It was a joke, sure, but it came at a time when races were moving onto network television and into prime time, and NASCAR was getting its firmest grip on the American consciousness. It wasn’t by accident that producers of the film “Days of Thunder” chose Cole Trickle as the name of the main character to be played by Tom Cruise.
“The late Dick Trickle helped mainstream NASCAR coverage” on “SportsCenter,” Olbermann wrote Thursday on Twitter. “We gave prominent attention to him, then his races, then ALL races.”
Patrick, who now hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, paid tribute to Trickle on his program Friday. “No matter what happened in the race, I’d always say, ‘And Dick Trickle finished 38th.’ Well, Dick appreciated it, and I eventually had a good relationship with him. He had a great sense of humor, obviously with his name. And he was a legend in Wisconsin. So it was sad to hear,” he told listeners.
“There was one race when he was leading, and I remember the reaction. People thought it was my dad who was leading, I was so proud and so happy. He didn’t win, but it was one of those funny, great moments. He had a great sense of humor, and Keith and I struck up a friendship with him.”
Trickle got the joke. “For sure,” Johnny Sauter agreed. “His personality was just as good as gold. I think he was kind of prankster and a joker a little bit, and secretly, he really liked it. He really had fun with it, and I think we can all probably learn a lesson from that -- taking things a little bit lightly, and relaxing a little bit.”
To those that knew him from Wisconsin, it was no surprise. The last time Kenseth saw Trickle was at the Slinger Nationals in the summer of 2012, right after the news came out that the former Roush Fenway Racing driver was moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. They talked for two hours, Trickle telling Kenseth why the change of scenery would be good for him. Now, Kenseth has three victories already this season, and is enjoying the best start to any year of his career.
“He had a unique way of looking at things, he had a ton of common sense, and he was really smart and always had a really funny way of putting things,” Kenseth remembered. “Man, he went on for about an hour just about my move and what he thought was great about it and just a lot of other interesting things that made me feel good. Ninety percent of the stuff he told me, at least through all the years I raced with him … always proved to be right.”
He was always so lighthearted – people think he stayed up all night drinking, Sauter said, but Trickle would barely take a sip out of one beer can before someone handed him another. It was the camaraderie he loved the most. All of which made it so stunning to learn that Trickle had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the Lincoln County (N.C.) Sherriff’s Office. His brother Chuck told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that prior to his death, Trickle suffered from a constant pain in the left side of his chest.
“Sad,” Martin said. “I knew Dick really well, and I just can't fathom it coming to this.”
For a long time, there will be questions. But for a much longer time there will be a legacy, one of a driver who helped popularize NASCAR just through the very mention of his name, and whose statistics at the national level can’t convey the thousands of races he won on short tracks, running five nights a week in a region where weather mandated a shorter season. “He was the winningest driver in the country,” Martin called him. “Probably bar none.”
He never really had the opportunity to show that at the Cup level, running for teams like Donlavey Racing and a later-years Bud Moore Engineering, toiling in inferior equipment at a time when the youth movement in the sport was just beginning to gain traction. “The sport really got popular when he was an older guy,” Sauter said. But by then, those familiar with Dick Trickle didn’t need further validation. They knew. They always will.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, I’d put him up against anybody, any day, anywhere in equal cars,” Sauter said. “He’s that good.”
2. Dillon Has More Than Earned His Place In NASCAR
Blame the hat.
As distinctive and as eye-catching as it is, there’s something about the thing that can rub people the wrong way. Cowboy hats are meant to convey independence and individuality, characteristics that helped build the American west. Yet in some less frontier settings – say, a race track – they can so stand out, that some folks imagine 10 gallons of hubris stuffed inside.
And so it goes with Austin Dillon, who has made the cowboy hat his own, and just might be the most polarizing driver at NASCAR’s national level not named Busch. It’s amazing, really – here’s this exceedingly polite, extremely talented, law-abiding and sponsor-friendly 23-year-old who’s succeeded along every step of his career climb, and yet still rankles a certain segment of the fan base because he happens to be the grandson of Richard Childress, a six-time championship car owner in the Sprint Cup Series.
It all makes zero sense, especially given that the most popular driver on NASCAR’s premier circuit is himself the scion of a seven-time champion. In the case of Dale Earnhardt Jr., though, that little detail seems not to matter. In the case of Austin Dillon – and to a lesser extent, his younger brother Ty – it’s the cause of endless pining on social media, where the more nearsighted among the fan base unfairly paint the current Nationwide Series points leader as just some rich kid who made it solely because of granddad.
This in a sport that takes immense pride in the way NASCAR careers are passed from father to son or brother to brother like family heirlooms, paving the way for one Earnhardt, Petty, Wallace, Jarrett, Sauter, Sadler, Elliott, Hornaday, Keselowski, Ragan, Truex, Busch or Burton after another to break into the family business. Some of those had a more difficult time making it happen, while some were helped by the successes that came before them. Either way, as the grandson of a former driver turned car owner, and the son of a former driver turned team executive, Dillon hardly breaks the mold.
Yet judging from the some of the reaction after Dillon was named to replace the injured Tony Stewart this weekend at Michigan International Speedway – a completely sensible decision on so many levels – you’d think he’d stolen the No. 14 car rather than been asked to drive it. Clearly Stewart has a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Dillon, something evident not only after the younger driver won last month’s Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway, but also in SHR’s decision this week. Coming from a popular, salt-of-the-earth, three-time champion, you would hope that sentiment would go a long way.
Maybe not. To be fair, though, Dillon surely has many more fans than detractors. But the fact that he has detractors at all is somewhat stunning, given how he carries himself at such a young age, given the respect he’s shown in bringing the No. 3 back to NASCAR’s national level, given that when he makes reference to a curse word – and we’re talking really mild stuff here, something you can utter on prime-time network television – he can’t bring himself to say it. He spells it out.
Even so, haters gonna hate.
“I don’t ever really think about it,” Dillon said. “Twitter’s there, but if you say something, I’ll just block you, know what I mean? I don’t have to listen to it, so I’ve got the block button. That’s the best thing about it. I think that’s the only place that I could ever see it coming. Other than that, you might hear somebody yell something in the stands once or twice, but I’ve rode around with Kyle (Busch), and that’s a lot easier, because they really yell when he rides around. But I think Dale Earnhardt said it best – if they’re even booing for you, it’s good. No matter what they’re doing, as long as they’re talking about you, that’s good, I think.”
Goodness, he even paraphrases the Intimidator. It’s difficult to fathom why so many make a target out of Dillon when he’s far from the first driver to be helped along by family money – especially given that he’s produced the kind of results not to have to rely on it. No question, there are some drivers who blow the family fortune riding around in circles. But Dillon’s vehicles are backed by outside companies. He’s won a Truck Series title, he leads the Nationwide standings, he’s finished 11th in just his ninth Sprint Cup race, he outran a stacked field at Eldora. In a performance-based sport, he’s shown enough of it to make his own name.
Maybe it’s the hat. Maybe it’s the lingering resentment of a minority who think the No. 3 – which Dillon will likely return to NASCAR’s top level when he moves into the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 – should be mothballed forever. Maybe it’s the anachronistic viewpoint that he’s always the beneficiary of good cars, something even Richard Petty was saddled with back in the day. It all obscures the fact that Dillon is a grounded driver who learned from his elders and understands motorsports is but one part of a much wider world.
“My grandfather is what pushes me, because I know how hard he works, and I know how much time he puts into it. At his age today, he’s not sitting on a golf course. He’s still working and still pushing and still trying to give my family and a lot of other families at our company great opportunities. That’s what pushes me, and I know I have to work hard for that. I never would want to let him down, or any of the guys at our company,” he said.
“I’ve built a great group of guys around me that keep me humble, with my family and everybody else in the garage. And I tell them, ‘Man, if I step out of line, you just let me know.’ I’m kind of open that way. I’m right out forward with them, and they’re right out forward with me, and I hope it’s always that way. That’s the way it’s got to be. I’ve watched a lot of drivers come through our company. I’ve sat and watched my grandfather go through it with them. As far as when it comes to certain things, you try not to worry, and do your own things.”
With that, Dillon is starting to sound like another prominent NASCAR driver who is often misunderstood by the public at large.
“Jimmie Johnson has won (five) championships, and I don’t think his respect is there, personally,” he said. Give him credit for paying attention to the right people, another feather in his (cowboy) hat. Need more? There’s always that big golden shovel he earned for his Eldora victory, another symbol of all he’s already accomplished in NASCAR. Sure trumps a perceived silver spoon any day.
3. Evans’ Legacy Still Lives At Martinsville
Every trip to Martinsville Speedway brings the same routine for Jeff Zarrella. The tire specialist for Stewart-Haas Racing pulls out the orange T-shirt bearing the No. 61, and packs it away in the backpack he carries with him to the race track each day. And then, he hopes for another chance to return Richie Evans to Victory Lane at a place that once meant so much to modified racing.
He may work for Danica Patrick's race team these days, but deep down Zarrella will always be a modified racer – and there was no greater modified racer than Evans, the nine-time national champion who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year. And so much of Evans' legacy centers on Martinsville, a track that once hosted the Daytona 500 of modified racing, where Evans earned 10 feature victories – and on a dark day in 1985, met his demise.
Zarrella was there, working on the team of driver Reggie Ruggerio.
"Silence. Just silence," he said of the reaction when word began to spread that Evans had suffered a bad crash in practice. Zarrella would endure the same thing two years later when another modified great, Charlie Jarzombek, died at the same track. And then again when still another driver, Corky Cookman, was killed in Jarzombek's benefit race at Thompson Speedway in Connecticut.
Finally, he had suffered enough. Weighed down by grief, Zarrella walked away from racing, and turned what was supposed to be a two-week vacation in Hawaii into a new life in paradise. Ultimately, Martinsville drove him out.
And Martinsville brought him back.
And Martinsville still drives him, to this day.
"The special part of Martinsville remains in my heart," said Zarrella, a 55-year-old native of Southington, Conn., who now lives in North Carolina. "It just continues to be there."
The modified cars no longer compete at Martinsville, which Sunday hosts a crucial race in theChase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. But for years, it held a modified event that was as big as any other on the sport's oldest touring circuit. "Our Daytona. Our holy grail," Zarrella called Martinsville, and he knows because he was there, starting as a tire specialist in 1975, and later as a jack man. He worked with Ruggerio, with Rick Fuller, with Greg Sacks, with Ed Flemke Sr. This was a golden age of modified racing, a time when top drivers could make a good living in the series, an era which produced stars that glowed as brightly in own their universe as Cale Yarborough or Darrell Waltrip did in theirs.
And foremost among them was Evans, whose charm and magnetism went unrivaled, who before each race would walk down the line of cars helping everyone ensure their vehicles would pass technical inspection, and yet at the same time joke they were all racing for second place. The Rome, N.Y., native was well-known for the advice he gave to other drivers, not to mention the firesuits, tires, or even engines he would dispense to other competitors in financial need. Evans was the rare driver who could dominate opponents while being universally beloved by them at the same time.
While Zarrella and Evans weren't particularly close friends, within the modified ranks the nine-time champion was hardly a stranger. "Knew him to go in and have a beer," Zarrella said. "We used to get our race cars from him. It wasn’t like me and him were best buddies hanging out. But he was somebody I looked up to, and his ethics and stuff, I tried to mirror. When they invented the word 'racer,' that’s who I think of."
All of which made Oct. 24, 1985, such a blow to the gut. Evans was practicing for a feature at Martinsville when he crashed heavily in Turn 3. At 44 – and still near the peak of his career, given that he would clinch his ninth championship posthumously – he was gone, and a garage area that revered him was left to wander through the remainder of the event weekend in shock.
"It was the most eerie feeling to go through," Zarrella remembered. "… There are so many ironies in it. It being a practice session that Richie got killed in – now you've got to qualify, you've got to run the qualifying races, and then your whole race. It was surreal, is all I can say. It was like somebody just removes your soul. It was like ripping the heart right out of you."
Evans was bad enough. Then two years later, it was Jarzombek. Then it was Cookman. It was a dark time for modified racing, which was suffering a safety crisis similar to the one NASCAR's top series would endure after Dale Earnhardt's death. Zarrella had reached a breaking point. "Call it post-traumatic syndrome or whatever," he said, "I was like, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I don’t want to see Reggie Ruggerio get killed in a race car.'" He had gotten through it all by letting the racer in him take over. By 1988, it was all used up.
So he walked away, made a clean break, refused to even watch it on television. He went to Maui to visit his brother, on what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. He wound up moving to Hawaii, getting married, making a new home and a new life. And yet, he could suppress his true nature for only so long. By 1993, he was working some modified some races again. He found himself venturing to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., to help out his old buddies. "It's like smoking cigarettes," he said. "I had that one cigarette."
Then came the phone call from Fuller, who was moving south to drive in what is now theNationwide Series for the 1997 season, and needed a tire specialist. A choice loomed – stay in Maui, or go racing? "What do you think?" Zarrella asked his wife. "I'll go wherever you want to go," she answered. There was no choice, really. Fuller lasted only two races, but Zarrella kept moving up the ladder, from David Green to Greg Biffle to Paul Menard to Ryan Newman to this season and his current job managing tire sets and air pressures on Patrick's program.
"You know what? I can go back to Maui tomorrow," he said. "When you sit on your rocking chair at some point, you don’t want to say, 'Well, I wonder what I could have done in racing?' So I packed up my bags and came here."
Through it all, though, there was Martinsville, a place that holds for him and all former modified racers such a swirl of conflicting emotions. Zarrella carried the orange T-shirt with him each trip there, hoping to one day wear it in Victory Lane and give Evans one last triumph. On April 1 of last year, he got his chance. It was a race many remember for its controversial finish, David Reutimann stalling and bringing out a caution, Clint Bowyer forcing it three-wide on the ensuing restart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon crashing out. It was the event that would lay the groundwork for the feud between Gordon and Bowyer that would erupt much later in the season.
To Zarrella, none of that mattered. Newman was an unlikely winner, but a winner nonetheless, and Zarrella put on his orange T-shirt and pointed to the sky in Victory Lane. "If I don’t ever win another race, I'm good with it. I want to win every race, but if the stars don’t line up and I never do, that was the race I needed to win. It was a real special moment. A lot of people wouldn’t understand it, but it was really important," he said.
"It's like I tell people, when Richie died in 1985, the music stopped in modified racing. And that deal there, on that stage, was just kind of a way for me to put another quarter in the jukebox."
Like a lot of former modified racers, the little half-mile track just has a hold over him, which is why Zarrella got such a thrill out of Patrick's unexpected 12th-place run there in the spring. The victory he shared there last year with Newman, though, will be difficult to top. That triumph earned him the grandfather clock trophy that stands in his living room. Every 15 minutes, it chimes. And it reminds him of Martinsville, and of Richie Evans.
4. NASCAR Has Rarely Seen Montoya At His Best
When Juan Pablo Montoya left Formula One for NASCAR in late 2006, the move created shock waves on both sides of the Atlantic – in Europe, where it seemed unthinkable that an F1 driver would leave for stock cars, and in North America, where it raised global awareness of what was already the most competitive major form of auto racing in the world. It was an unprecedented event, a driver trading Monaco and Spa for Martinsville and Sonoma. Montoya arrived in the Sprint Cup Series with all the buzz of an international rock star.
Seven years later, it’s easy to forget what a watershed moment that was. Montoya’s long career with car owner Chip Ganassi – and potentially in NASCAR – is ending with a whimper, a simple non-renewed contract at the end of a lost season, and with us having witnessed only a fraction of what he might have been capable of in a stock car. Yes, he lived in Miami rather than North Carolina, and often spent his weekdays windsurfing rather than at the shop, but Montoya fully embraced the openness of the NASCAR garage area, and fully appreciated how hard Sprint Cup cars are to drive.
Ultimately, that might be Montoya’s legacy – underscoring just how difficult it is to succeed at NASCAR’s premier level, even for someone who has won an Indianapolis 500 and seven career events in F1. This was a guy who had all the tools, who entered NASCAR with an established record of success, who won a major oval race, who was known for having an aggressive and physical style that would appear to translate perfectly to cars with fenders. And for a while, it did. In his third season, Montoya was a factor in the title race until a poor finish at Charlotte midway through the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That was the high point. The seasons since have been slog, dismal campaigns that have eroded memories of just how electrifying Montoya can be behind the wheel. His decline has coincided with a makeover of his race team, which last year included a purge top executives at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Given that teammate Jamie McMurray has fared little better – save for his magical three-win season of 2010 – it seems clear some of the issues Montoya has fought are organizational in nature, making it difficult to lay all this solely at the foot of the driver.
“He should have won a bunch of races, so he's certainly capable,” Martin Truex Jr., teammate to Montoya at EGR in 2009, said last week at Michigan. “It's all about team chemistry and getting with the right people that all believe in each other, and all kind of work together well and push for that common goal. Maybe they just don't have that right now. I don't know. It's hard to comment. It's hard to speculate because I don't know the details.”
At least on the outside, the changes seemed ineffective, even though Montoya and McMurray have both raved about an improved working atmosphere within the organization. Still, in a performance-based sport, results ultimately tell the tale. Montoya has showed some flashes this season – most notably at Richmond, where he nearly won – with crew chief Chris Heroy, a former engineer at Hendrick Motorsports who came aboard last year. And in truth, the No. 42 team is enjoying a nice stretch now, finishing 11th or better in three of its last four starts.
But it’s all too little, too late.
“They were sort of on decline,” Kyle Busch said. “… I think that had a little bit to do with bringing in a lot of new people. They pretty much cleaned house and brought in a lot of new people. They got rid of [Tony] Glover, they got rid of Steve Hmiel, and they brought in some new blood. Chris Heroy – I'm a huge fan. I love him. I think he's a great crew chief and knows a lot and is very smart. I think he knows a lot about race cars. Last year I think was his learning year. Being a crew chief, he never was a crew chief in Nationwide, nothing. He jumped to a Cup crew chief, and I think there's the same to be said of the driver. The Cup Series is so different that there's a lot to learn there.”
Seven years is a long time, though. In the Sprint Cup ranks, only seven other drivers have been with their current teams as long as Montoya has been with EGR – Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle. No shortage of success there, Ganassi and Montoya are close. Going back to their first stint together in open-wheel, and it’s unlikely Montoya would have jumped to NASCAR had Ganassi not been the one to reach out. As with any relationship, things can grow stagnant over time. Would Montoya have been better served leaving for another team that turned out more competitive cars? Perhaps. But given his loyalty to Ganassi, it’s hard to imagine he ever really considered it.
So now what? Montoya becomes the latest player in a free-agent drama that developed a curious subplot in recent days, when it became evident that Stewart-Haas Racing was targeting Kurt Busch for a potential fourth car in 2014. That seems an out of character move for SHR, which has always been conservative on the idea of expansion, waiting for sponsor and driver to align rather than risk overextending its reach. Then again, Busch is a special talent who has a good relationship with Stewart dating back to the Prelude to the Dream, and surely the hottest commodity on the market given the wonders he’s worked carrying single-car Furniture Row Racing to the brink of the Chase.
Then there’s Ryan Newman, in his last days with SHR – because, we thought, the team didn’t want to accommodate a fourth car with Kevin Harvick coming aboard – and still looking for a ride for 2014. AJ Allmendinger has surely enhanced his status with two Nationwide Series victories this season for Penske Racing, which also has a decision to make on Nationwide points leader Sam Hornish Jr. And is Ganassi really prepared to put developmental driver Kyle Larson in the No. 42 car, despite his relative lack of experience at the national level?
The only certainty seems that those drivers will all be racing in NASCAR next year in some capacity – something that can’t necessarily be said about Montoya, whose breadth of open-wheel experience surely opens other doors. The Associated Press has reported that Michael Andretti’s IndyCar team is courting Montoya heavily for next season, and the Colombian may have offered a clue to his destination in his media session at Michigan last week.
“My heart,” he said, “always has been in open wheel.”
It would be a sad thing indeed if these final weeks of the 2013 season are Montoya’s last in a stock car. Forget what he did off the track, where his role in raising NASCAR’s profile in Spanish-speaking markets cannot be overstated. The true wistfulness lies in that we so rarely were able to witness Montoya at his best – the brazen driver who took on Michael Schumacher in F1 and took on Stewart in the 2009 Chase, who competed with such tenacity and abandon, who could be mesmerizing and infuriating all at the same time. Whether that’s because the driver stagnated or the team regressed, it doesn’t really matter. We all lost as a result.
Maybe something unforeseen will happen yet this season to cap Montoya’s NASCAR adventure, or maybe some ride will materialize to extend it. Barring all that, what are we left with after nearly seven years? Two victories on road courses, two likely Brickyard triumphs given away by mistakes, one Chase berth, a few memorable tussles on the race track – and plenty of questions about what might have been.
5. Johnson May Fly Above Mere Mortals After All
The gig is up, Jimmie Johnson.
We've always known there was something going that defied explanation, something that's produced all those race victories and all those championships in an era where the competitive field at NASCAR's highest level is as deep as it's ever been. We've always had a nagging curiosity over what's really been behind the most dominant stretch ever by one single driver, which Johnson extended in South Florida this past Sunday night. Not even Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt were able to manage a run of six titles in eight years.
But Johnson has, and shows no sign of stopping. And now we know why, thanks to crew chief Chad Knaus, who gave up the secret in the media center following the season's final race.
"He can do things with a race car that most mortals can't," Knaus said. "Let's just be straight with it."
And there is it. Before he became Five-Time, before that nickname last Sunday night was updated to Six-Time, Johnson was often referred to by another, less common but still wholly accurate moniker – Superman. It was certainly appropriate, given the Hollywood jawline and the fit of his fire suit and the general air of indestructability Johnson carried with him at all times. Particularly at the height of his run of five straight titles, when he matched and then exceeded Cale Yarborough's former record of three in a row and could dominate just by showing up, he was every bit the Man of Steel. He likely even spent his spare time rescuing kittens stuck in trees.
The final weeks of this past regular season harkened back to that, from Johnson plowing through everyone at Texas just like he did in the old days, to a near-effortless finale at Homestead that once again turned into a coronation. He now has six championships and 66 race victories over the course of a career that's bedeviled the competition ever since he was a rookie in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And finally, we know the reason behind it. The guy just might really be Superman, flying high above us mere mortals after all.
Certainly he's efficient behind the wheel, using clean lines around the race track and maximizing everything – with the exception of the occasional fuel-mileage stumble – from his car. He has a wonderfully uncluttered professional life, allowing him to focus fully on what he does best. His commitment to physical conditioning sets a new standard of athleticism in the garage area. The synthesis with his crew chief is like nothing we've seen since the days of Petty and Dale Inman. His Hendrick Motorsports organization is the best around, having now complied 11 championships at the sport's highest level.
Those are all real, tangible reasons behind Johnson's greatness. But there's something else there, too, something that's much more difficult to put a finger on. When Knaus attempts to explain it, he wanders into an area that sounds almost supernatural.
"Jimmie is good. He does a good job of understanding the car," the crew chief said. "When I say that, he doesn't know a damn thing about setup, but he understands what the car's doing. He can feel the car. He can be one with the car. I know that sounds foolish, it sounds weird. But, seriously, go to a surfer and ask him about his surfboard. Go to a snowboarder and ask him about his snowboard. Go to a skier, ask him about his skis. When they're able to get in that position and they feel the car, understand what the car is going to do, it's pretty amazing. Jimmie can really do that. He feels what's going on. He says the craziest things. He feels a bump here, a gust of wind there."
He's not making this up. After a victory at Dover a several years ago, Knaus remembers debriefing with Johnson and the driver telling him about a gap in the Turn 1 grandstands that let the wind get through. Johnson was able to use that wind to help plant the nose of his No. 48 car, and get the vehicle to turn more effectively through the corner. At the time, Johnson's program was stabled at Hendrick with the team of Jeff Gordon, and No. 24 crew chief Robbie Loomis was incredulous. "Is he bat–– crazy?" Loomis asked, according to Knaus.
Nope. "Let me tell you something, it's true," Knaus remembered. "We had a huge wind coming through the gaping hole in the grandstands the whole day, and Jimmie picked it up. He said, 'Man, I think the wind is blowing right there. If I come in there right, the wind is turning the car right for me.' You don't have a lot of guys that can do that. You don't. Jimmie can do it. Does he do it every time? No. But there are certain times at certain tracks that he can make things happen that other drivers just really can't."
The numbers would seem to bear that out. And Knaus would know, given that he works with Johnson every day, and can see up close all the little things that separate Johnson from the rest. Of course, it's also easy to claim that he's biased. But here's the thing – we're getting to a point where all this is pretty undeniable, where even Johnson's rivals on the race track are approaching a consensus. "The best that there ever was," Denny Hamlin called him, and this from a driver who was so devastated by losing the 2010 title race to Johnson that he fell into a funk for much of the next season.
Oh, but all of this is the product of Knaus and his mechanical wizardry, right? Then ask Darian Grubb, a former No. 48 team engineer turned championship crew chief in his own right, what the secret to Knaus' success is. "I think the biggest thing is Jimmie Johnson," said Grubb, who now sits atop Hamlin's pit box. "If you look at Chad before that, he didn't really have any stats to come by until he started working with Jimmie."
It all comes back to Johnson, who is content to let others debate his accomplishments while he makes his statements behind the wheel. "I don't think my opinion matters," he said. Six championships later, he's still just a genuine dude from El Cajon, even though he might be able to stop speeding bullets or leap Daytona International Speedway in a single bound. In that case, teams hoping to deny Johnson a record-tying seventh title next season had better pack a little something extra in the toolbox.