For Jimmie Johnson, the return of a tired issue
July 16, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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For the No. 48 team, it's become a scene almost as common as Jimmie Johnson hoisting championship trophies above his head -- the usually feared blue and white car limping to the garage area, part of its bodywork mashed and mangled, and a tire ripped to shreds.
We saw it this past Sunday at New Hampshire, where issues with two different left-rear tires in the first 11 laps knocked the six-time champion out of the race. We saw it earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California, where a left-front problem ousted Johnson from an event, which he had dominated to that point. We saw it last year at Pocono, where Johnson suffered a right-front issue while leading. And we saw it at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the 2012 campaign, where a tire-related crash eased Brad Keselowski's path to that year's championship.
There have been others along the way, including one at Bristol earlier this season. Johnson has endured at least seven races marred by tire issues since that fateful afternoon at Phoenix in the waning days of 2012 -- a high rate of incidence for any elite team, much less the program that's set the standard for excellence in the Sprint Cup Series garage area over the past decade. For perspective, consider that over the same 57-race span, the No. 48 car has been knocked out of races by mechanical failures just twice: at Michigan in 2013 due to an engine failure, and at Homestead because of a rear gear issue in the final race of 2012.
So to put it mildly, this is a program that has things buttoned down, to the point where crew chief Chad Knaus will make sure any cracks in the pit wall are taped over to ensure that an air gun hose doesn't get snagged. The No. 48 team has been so good for so long not just because Johnson and Knaus are two of the best ever to perform their respective jobs, but because so little is left to chance. They prepare, they adapt, and they execute; and they whittle variables down to the bare minimum in the process.
All of which makes days like Sunday so difficult to understand. Johnson suffered a cut left-rear just eight laps into the race, pitted to change it, and a few laps later had an issue with the replacement send him into the wall. According to Goodyear, both tires failed in a manner consistent with low inflation pressure. "I'm expecting people to quickly point back at the team and say it's our fault," Johnson told TNT after exiting the infield care center. "I guess if it is, we'll accept it."
Although Joey Logano and Aric Almirola also suffered tire issues in practice at New Hampshire, the weekend was hardly rife with such problems. And while Johnson is steadfast in defending his team, the specter of tire issues clearly concerns Knaus, as he admitted after the No. 48 car's failure at Pocono while leading in August of 2013. "We’ve had a lot of tire issues," Knaus said then. "I don’t know what’s going on, but we need to figure it out."
And if something confounds Knaus, it's truly baffling for sure, particularly since the tire issues Johnson has suffered over the past 57 races have occurred for a number of different reasons -- potential low inflation at New Hampshire, a bead issue at Pocono last year, a likely high-wear situation earlier this season at Bristol, probable air-pressure strategies at Fontana. Dropping the air pressure a tick can often help improve a car's grip -- but there's a compromise to be made, as Kyle Busch explained after winning the March race at Auto Club in which Johnson was knocked out.
"Our team believes it’s too low of air pressure, and that’s what those (other teams) were doing to get them to wear funny and essentially blow out during the run," Busch said then. "It's sort of like playing with fire. If you pour too much gas on it or let too much air out of it, the thing is going to go boom."
The thing certainly went boom on Johnson at New Hampshire. To be fair, "Six-Time" has been no stranger to issues like fuel mileage and tire problems, which both seem downright trifling for a driver of his caliber and a team of that capability -- making incidents like Sunday's all the more perplexing. On the surface, seven issues in 57 races certainly doesn't sound like a lot. But for the best NASCAR program since Jeff Gordon's Rainbow Warriors to be dealing with this with any type of regularity is enough to leave anyone scratching their head.
Of course, there's also likely a risk-versus-reward issue at play here, given that it's the job of someone in Knaus' position to push as far as he can to the edges without going over. During that same aforementioned 57-race span, Johnson has also won nine races and a championship, so clearly, whatever tactics the No. 48 team employs work in their favor the majority of the time. With three wins and a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth all but mathematically secured this season, they can afford to play it aggressive with their setups, although no one outside the No. 48 camp knows for certain what role that may have played Sunday. And to be fair, almost all of these tire issues have occurred during the regular season, when teams are more prone to experimentation.
Except one. Johnson was coming off two consecutive victories, had a seven-point edge in the standings and appeared nothing short of bulletproof when he arrived in Phoenix for the next-to-last race of the 2012 season. But he qualified poorly, squeezed everything out of his car trying make up the difference, and ended up in the wall when he lost the right front because of what Goodyear termed a melted bead from excessive brake heat. Keselowski finished sixth, left with a 20-point lead, and clinched his first premier-series title the following week.
From a championship perspective, that's the worst-case scenario, something the members of the No. 48 team know as well as anyone. Johnson has achieved so much in his career that any kind of setback can seem outsized by comparison, and that may certainly be the case here. But in a revamped Chase which now features an elimination format -- and will definitely include a run at a record-tying seventh title -- any kind of failure can loom large. With so much at stake, no one wants to witness a scene akin to Sunday's, and the great Jimmie Johnson derailed by where the rubber meets the road.