So the No. 48 Has the Point Lead; Now What?
By David Smith (on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA)
October 30, 2012
These are the facts we know: Jimmie Johnson is a husband, a father and five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. He is also, as of Sunday, the point leader with exactly three races to go in this year’s Chase.
Never mind how the likes of Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne allowed this situation to occur. How on earth can they rectify it?
- Qualifying — The ability to have a successful time trial is more trivial than you might expect (Keselowski proved as much this past weekend) and a poor starting spot can, in fact, force a team to adhere to a strict, smart race strategy. Then again, life for a race team can be made easier if they begin the race within spitting distance of the leaders. Johnson and the No. 48 team have been adept at qualifying in the Chase. Their pole this past weekend helped boost their Chase average starting spot to 8.9. Bowyer and Kahne’s teams have actually been better — 5.9 and 6.9, respectively — while Keselowski and his No. 2 team have floundered with a Chase worst 19.6 average starting position. Beating Johnson for the championship will not happen on Fridays though. Against a team as crafty as this Chad Knaus-led bunch and a driver and car with this good of a passing ability (more on this below), getting a head start on them is nice, but relatively futile.
- Passing — Between the four remaining title contenders (of which Johnson and Keselowski are the two most realistic potential champions), all are equal in terms of well-roundedness. Keselowski has the highest green flag passing total (888) and best passing differential (+53) in the Chase, but the lowest quality pass percentage (59.91 percent), which measures passes within the top 15, among the four combatants. Kahne and Bowyer have poor pass differentials (-2 and +7, respectively), but have comparatively good QPPs (67.62 and 64.88 percent). Johnson is steady, but appears to be susceptible to getting pounced on in this category: he has the worst green flag pass amount (545) and the second worst QPP (60.73 percent) among the aforementioned title contenders. I say “appears to be susceptible” because you have to look elsewhere to understand why, exactly, his passing numbers are so low. As it turns out, he’s too busy leading; of all the laps completed in the Chase, the No. 48 has been in the P1 spot for 23 percent of them. Johnson is good, but he is not good enough to pass for position when he is already in the lead.
- Strategy — Johnson and Knaus have been impenetrable in the race acumen department prior to this season. But then Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe arrived on the scene just before Bowyer and Brian Pattie learned how to properly pack a gas tank. The No. 48 team is a forward thinking unit, no doubt, but a radical strategy employed by one of its challengers could knock them off kilter. The No. 2 team has managed to flummox Johnson and Knaus in a major way twice this season, at Michigan and Chicagoland, both during green flag pit cycles.
How did they do it? At Michigan, Keselowski erased a 2.5-second deficit (he was second to Johnson) during a pit cycle by running three extra laps after Johnson pitted for two tires in a stop that lasted over 11 seconds. Keselowski’s crew then utilized a two-gas man strategy for their two-tire stop that lasted 9.8 seconds to put themselves directly in front of Johnson at the conclusion of the cycle. In addition to the actual pit stops, Keselowski’s pit-in to pit-out time bested Johnson’s. At Chicagoland, Wolfe pitted Keselowski for four tires when a large portion of the lead pack pitted for two, then took two instead of four on a later stop. The efforts netted them finishes of second and first. The mental anguish it gave Knaus was priceless.
There is not a singular statistic that points to an attackable weakness in Johnson’s driving repertoire, but evidently, there may be a visible one — or a better way of approaching a green flag pit stop at an intermediate racetrack — that exists. It just so happens that two of the three tracks remaining on the schedule, Texas and Homestead, are intermediates. It might be a weakness or it might not. But if Michigan and Chicagoland provided any semblance of a blueprint, it is that Johnson is most beatable when he isn’t turning laps ... Read More
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David Smith is the Editor-in-Chief of Motorsports Analytics and the host of The David Smith Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.