Johnson on verge of 3rd title
Published 12:10 am Sunday, November 16, 2008
Rick Hendrick set history in motion over milk and cookies served on a plate donned with Mickey Mouse ears.
In a snack setting designed for children, the car owner called Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus together to discuss the strain in their relationship following their failed 2005 championship run. If the two couldn’t stop bickering like little kids — and Hendrick wasn’t convinced they could — he was fully prepared to split them.
‘‘It was getting to the point where Chad and Jimmie were having more bad days than good days,’’ Hendrick said. ‘‘I called them into my office … and said ’If we’re going to act like kids, we’re going to have cookies and milk and we’ll have some down time where we can talk about what you don’t like about each.’’
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They cleared the air that afternoon, and Hendrick scrapped any plans to overhaul the race team.
Man, did he make the right call.
Johnson and Knaus haven’t looked back since, putting together three dominating seasons not seen in 30 years of NASCAR racing. Barring anything short of disaster on Sunday, Johnson will become the first driver to win three consecutive Cup titles since Cale Yarborough from 1976-78.
The two-time defending champion leads Carl Edwards by a cushy 141 points, and although he starts 30th after an unusually poor qualifying effort, the title is practically in the bag. He needs to finish 36th out of 43 cars to win the title, and odds are it won’t be an issue: Johnson has only finished lower than 36th once all season.
This charge into the record books has been mesmerizing, as Johnson and Knaus have steamrolled their way to the top. They methodically knocked off Matt Kenseth in 2006 for the first title, then won a take-no-prisoners showdown with teammate Jeff Gordon. This time, they’ve rallied from a poor start to the season to furiously reclaim their spot atop the sport.
And to think, it almost didn’t happen.
‘‘The meeting was supposed to be how we split the guys up,’’ Hendrick said. ‘‘But in this meeting, these guys really put their heart on the table and they talked specifically about what they didn’t like. Instead of holding it in, they were able to become closer friends and still respect each other’s professional position in the team.