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IT'S A REAL PENNANT RACE
LARS ANDERSON
October 17, 2011
NASCAR has its tightest Chase ever, but with a dominant victory at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team made it clear that they're again bringing the heat—and with six races remaining in this high-octane fall classic, Mr. Five-Time is gunning for Cup No. 6
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October 17, 2011

It's A Real Pennant Race

NASCAR has its tightest Chase ever, but with a dominant victory at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and the 48 team made it clear that they're again bringing the heat—and with six races remaining in this high-octane fall classic, Mr. Five-Time is gunning for Cup No. 6

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Sitting in the quiet of his motor coach, Johnson studied his past notes from Kansas. He analyzed how his car handled in previous races, what his fastest lines around the track were at different stages of the races, and what late-lap adjustments gave him the feel—those most magical words to a driver—which allowed him to push the car to its redline limit. He paid especially close attention to the words he had written upon winning the fall 2008 race at Kansas. After digging through this data for nearly an hour, he called Knaus and relayed his thoughts on all these subjects.

SUNDAY: 8:15 A.M. RACE DAY DAWNS

Shortly after awakening in his coach, Johnson picked up his cellphone and dialed the number 48 hauler, where Knaus and a team of engineers—after analyzing Johnson's feedback from Saturday night—had agreed on what changes to implement in the car's final prerace setup. "I feel good about everything," Johnson told his crew chief.

SUNDAY: 9:20 A.M. LAST-MINUTE TWEAKS

Hammer in hand, Knaus pounded away on the inside of the left front tire well. He was trying to preserve the integrity of the aerodynamics of the 48 car. As hundreds of fans recorded it on their mobile devices, Knaus was unsmiling and hurried. These small last-minute adjustments often spell the difference between a top five finish and a title-destroying 20th or worse.

SUNDAY: 1:07 P.M. GO TIME

Knaus poked his head into the cockpit to speak with Johnson on pit road three minutes before the engines were scheduled to fire for Chase race number 4. Johnson nodded as Knaus went over last-minute instructions, such as the team's pit strategy, which Knaus would later concede was daring. Knaus then tapped Johnson's helmet twice with his right hand and stepped away as Johnson flipped the ignition. Amid the chest-thumping rumble, Knaus said over the radio to Johnson and the crew, "We've got a great car... . Everything is lining up for us."

SUNDAY: 1:29 P.M. ON A CHARGE

"Looking good out there, Boss Man," yelled Earl Barban, Johnson's spotter, who was perched with his counterparts from other teams high above the track on top of the grandstands. And Johnson did look good: In only 19 laps he'd passed nine cars and was in ninth place behind the leader, Greg Biffle. Johnson was one of the few drivers who could hug either the bottom or the top of the track through the corners—the place where races are won and lost. When a spinning car triggered the caution lights, Johnson pitted with the leaders. Knaus called for only a two-tire change, while most of the other crew chiefs requested four tires. Johnson emerged from pit road ahead of every other car that pitted, and on Lap 24 he catapulted to first place.

SUNDAY: 1:45 P.M. LOSING GRIP

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