DOVER, Del. — When Kyle Busch opted for a two-tire change and took off in clean air after a Lap 43 restart in Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway, there was no more interested observer than Chad Knaus.
Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief was keenly interested in how long Busch could hold the lead before drivers on four new tires ran him down.
As it turned out, Busch stayed in front for 28 laps under green, until Ryan Newman caught and passed him for the top spot on Lap 71. Knaus filed that nugget of information away.
Much later, when NASCAR called a debris caution on Lap 371 after a spring rubber dislodged from a car and landed in Turn 3, Knaus used what he had learned. Johnson, who had dominated the race since grabbing the lead on Lap 198, changed right-side tires only on his Lap 371 pit stop.
Why? Because data gathered during Saturday’s practice and observation of Busch’s early run told him that two-tires should be good for about 30 laps. When the race restarted on Lap 375 of 400, there were 26 laps left.
Never mind that Dale Earnhardt Jr. changed four tires during that same stop and lined up right behind Johnson in fourth place, with Johnson choosing the faster outside lane for the restart. Knaus trusted his data.
“If you look back over the history of this race — we even saw at the beginning of the event today, the 18 car (Busch) was able to go out there on two tires, establish a lead on two tires versus the guys on four, took (28) laps for somebody to catch the 18 car and pass them,” Knaus explained.
“We felt like with 20-something laps to go in this race, we would probably be okay if we could make it happen.”
Earnhardt made it interesting. He cleared the second- and third-place cars of Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth moments after the restart and chased Johnson all the way to the checkered flag, finishing .446 seconds behind the driver with whom he shares a shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
“Now, fortunately enough for the 88, they were able to get broken free of the guys who were on two tires pretty quickly,” Knaus said. “But we did a lot of due diligence yesterday trying to understand where our car was, what we needed to do with the KOBALT Chevrolet to make it fast for Jimmie if we did get ourselves in a position where we needed to do two tires.
“We understood what we needed to do. We made those changes. Jimmie told me after the race, he felt like that was the best the car was on the short run. We ran our fastest laps right there at the end of the race, on two tires. We ran some 23.50s (seconds) which was really fast. We worked hard and tried to understand what we needed to do for strategy, and fortunately it paid off for us.”
So did the work of the pit crew. In order for Knaus’ strategy to work optimally, Johnson had to control the final restart. The crew made sure that would happen by getting Johnson off pit road in the lead, ahead of Gordon and Kenseth, who also opted for two-tire changes.
Nowhere to be found were the stumblebums who had confounded Johnson’s efforts in the two months before the Chase with glitch after pit road glitch. The well-drilled precision of the No. 48 crew returned in full force, led by the master strategist.
And, Johnson, as he has done so often, closed the deal. The win left him second in the standings, eight points behind Kenseth and 10 points closer than he had been at the start of the race.
“I’ve seen a lot of great drivers, worked with a lot of great drivers,” Knaus said. “Knowing what we’ve got sitting behind the seat is always a little bit of confidence, knowing if you get close, if you make the right call at the right time, he’s going to be able to carry the ball.”
On Sunday, Knaus made the right call, the winning call, and Johnson delivered, setting a blistering pace on two new tires over the final 26 laps.
Earnhardt summed it up.
“Jimmie’s one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen,” he said. “…I had to run perfect laps to maintain the pace that he had, just to not let the lead get any bigger — just hope that he’d start coming back to me there at the end.
“It was just a little bit too late.”
What’s not too late is the return of the 48 team to championship form. For Johnson and Knaus, the Chase started in earnest at Dover.
And with their performance on Sunday, they invited the obvious question: Can Earnhardt, or anyone else, keep pace?