For crew chief Chad Knaus, the hunt for the Six-Pack, otherwise known as Jimmie Johnson’s sixth straight Sprint Cup championship, will begin Monday morning.
As for Johnson, he’s willing to wait a little longer.
Knaus and the No. 48 team are scheduled to test cars at an undisclosed track Monday and Tuesday, only three days after Johnson and his teammates were showered with praise – and much more bankable stuff, like $5.7 million – during the Sprint Cup awards banquet Friday night in Las Vegas.
Johnson said Friday night he basically decided not to hear Knaus when he mentioned testing next week. Test driver Josh Wise will drive the car in Johnson’s absence.
Although Knaus is widely known as a perfectionist and a leader who believes in having every contingency covered, he can’t be too disappointed in this turn of events. Johnson deserves some time off after rolling up five consecutive championships and frustrating the competition at virtually every turn.
“It’s always something,” Knaus said Friday night after the banquet. “It’s my makeup. I enjoy doing things and doing them right. You have to go and relax and kind of refuel and refocus. But I’ll do that.”
Johnson, Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick sat at the head table – a place where they apparently have permanent reservations – Friday night and let the praises of their competitors wash over them. Among those offering salutes was ninth-place driver Jeff Gordon, Johnson’s teammate and the guy who brought him to Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon said, among other things, that no one will ever match Johnson’s run of five straight titles.
“It’s pretty surreal when Jeff says it,” Knaus said. “I’ve know Jeff for a long time. For what he’s accomplished, for him to recognize what we’ve done this year is pretty spectacular. It feels good. Who knows if it’s ever going to happen again? But I hope we’re talking about six here next year.”
The shortest speech of the night might have been that of second-place finisher Denny Hamlin, who battled through a tough week in Las Vegas as Johnson ran through the responsibilities of the champion. Although gracious in defeat, Hamlin clearly was uncomfortable with his role, and no one should be surprised if he charges out of the gate with fire and intensity at Daytona in February.
Johnson said he feels Hamlin’s pain. He lost what would have been his first championship to Kurt Busch in the last race of the 2004 season.
“In ’04 it hurt so bad to sit down on the floor [at the banquet] and watch the 97 team go through everything they did,” he said. “They earned it, but I felt like that was our championship. That really stung. It brought me back and made me stronger.
“These lessons only make people stronger. We might have pissed him off. He’s going to come back stronger next year.”
As for Hamlin, in the minutes after he finished his speech, he was ready for 2010 to be officially over and for the burden he’s carried since Homestead to ease.
“I’m glad to kind of get it over with,” he said. “Today is the last day in which I have to think about 2010. I can just move on to ’11 Monday. I’m looking forward to that. It still stings, but I’ve had to put up with it for two weeks. Now I’m ready to go work.”
As for the length and tone of his speech, Hamlin said, “What can you say? We came so close and executed so perfectly until the last little bit. What I can take as solace is if our fuel mileage was better [at Phoenix in the next-to-last race] we would have won the championship. I don’t feel like we got out-drove. I don’t feel like Jimmie was just a better driver and that’s how he won the championship. It was just the strategy and what-not that kept us from winning.
“I felt like I did the best I could and that’s all I could do. We did a great job of stepping up the plate. Unfortunately, our ball just hooked foul instead of going fair and a home run.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.