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Lack of title didn’t dampen Johnson’s best year

February 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Johnson and Knaus

Johnson, Knaus only looking at positives from titleless 2012

They would have won the race.

To a man, they’re convinced of it. The car was fast, and under the lights of Homestead-Miami Speedway, the No. 48 team had that old championship mojo working again. Pit strategies had played out to the point where Brad Keselowski was going to have to stop one more time, and they could go the rest of the way. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus had the path to a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title laid out before them.

“We had them,” car owner Rick Hendrick remembered. “There was no way. They were going to have to stop, and we didn’t. We were sitting there saying, ‘We’ve got them.’ All we’ve got to do is finish the race.”

"Last year was, I think, our best year as a whole. Which is I guess why I didn’t really think of the bad stuff."

-- Chad Knaus, crew chief

They were on the way to doing just that -- until a fractured oil cooler brought an abrupt end to Johnson’s run in the 2012 season finale, removing the final obstacle in Keselowski’s title quest. The Penske driver won the championship by 39 points, finishing high enough to clinch the crown without any help, but there was some lingering curiosity in the Hendrick camp over what might have happened had Johnson been able to push Keselowski to the finish.

“They never really had to make anything happen,” Knaus recalled. “And if they had to, you don’t know what the situation would have been. But I don’t reflect on that too much.”

Even now, he still doesn’t. No question, Johnson and Knaus have both endured offseasons where they’ve struggled to leave the previous campaign behind -- the driver in 2011, when he was frustrated by the lack of speed in his car; the crew chief in 2004, when he was beaten down by an unrelenting testing schedule -- but in that regard, this one does not qualify. When Johnson and Knaus look back on 2012, they don’t dredge up frustration over letting a potential championship get away. Instead, there’s satisfaction over what they believe is the best year they’ve had together.

That seems downright odd, given the expectations placed on the best team of NASCAR’s modern era. Even Hendrick refers to the 2012 finish, which saw Johnson go behind the wall in each of the last two events of the year -- a blown tire at Phoenix International Raceway preceding the problem at Homestead -- as fumbling the ball in the final minutes of a football game. But when Knaus looks backs on a campaign that saw Johnson tie for the series lead in victories, and record more top fives, top 10s, and laps led than anyone else, all he sees are positives.

“Last year was, I think, our best year as a whole,” Knaus said. “Which is I guess why I didn’t really think of the bad stuff. It was a great year, we had a lot of fun, we won a bunch of races, we led a ton of laps. … It was a great year. We had a great time last year;  we really did. It was a lot of fun. I wasn’t even really tired at the end of the season. I could have kept on going a few more. So that’s why I think I’m looking forward to this year.”

The driver agreed. “We had a kick-ass year, and it just didn’t turn out,” Johnson said.

There was no stewing over shortcomings as there had been a year earlier, when Johnson’s car simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the title contenders, and he was out of the championship picture before the season finale. Compare that to Homestead this past November, when he felt hardly any emotion at all once his damaged car was listed as out of the race.

“I was just flat-lined,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why. I actually went out that night and had a big time and celebrated and had fun. I guess looking back on it now, we had a year we were very proud of. I know the things I’m responsible for; I think I did the best job in my history as a driver in my career. So I think I just stopped. Things happen. This is a team sport, things go wrong. I just reflected back on the incredible year we had as a team, and certainly what I was able to accomplish as a driver.”

Granted, the circumstances surrounding the final knockout were rare -- in 30 years of racing, Hendrick said he can’t remember another one of his cars suffering a broken rear-end oil cooler, the failure that befell Johnson in the 2012 finale. Even though the No. 48 team dropped to third in final points behind Clint Bowyer, the emotions in the aftermath were far from negative.

“We wanted to go back and race again,” Hendrick said.

No wonder, given the performance Johnson showed for much of the season.

“We did a very good job last year,” Knaus said. “Did we win the championship? No. Could we have? Yes. Were we in position to do it? Yes. But we didn’t pull it off. I am very proud of Jimmie, I am very proud of this team, I am very proud of the way they reacted throughout the course of the season. Man, everybody said we were out of it at Kansas. … But I felt great about last season, I really did. I had no heartburn at the end of the season, there were no weird actions taken, nothing like that. We had a great year last year.”

No question, it helps to have a perspective shaped by success, and those five championship banners hanging from the rafters of the Hendrick Motorsports team center can make a single near-miss easier to digest. Still, it’s been two years now since Johnson last won a title, and given the increased competition that sixth -- not to mention record-tying seventh -- crown isn’t nearly as guaranteed as it once appeared.

But Johnson and Knaus show no signs of breaking up. The No. 48 team thrives on adaptation, which will be key with the Generation-6 cars ready to make their debut. Unlike some other owners, Hendrick isn’t wringing his hands over the distribution of certain car parts for the new vehicle. And for the five-time champions, the focus is on what’s possible rather than what might haven gotten away.

“We can’t sit back and reflect on the bad things or the negatives and look too far in advance saying, ‘Oh man, we’re never going to win again,’ or ‘We’re never going to do that again.’ You just can’t do that,” Knaus said. “If you do that, you’re just going to beat yourself to death. And that’s not how we roll. We don’t do it like that. We look forward. We feel like we’re a comfortable team, we’re confident, we’ve got great players, got great equipment -- we just keep moving, man.”