Today, we take a trip with Mr. Peabody and Sherman via the Way Back Machine to November 20, 2005.
It's the final race of the 2005 NASCAR Sprint(then Nextel) season. The championship is still up for grabs with Tony Stewart holding a 52 point lead over Jimmie Johnson. Carl Edwards is still considered to be a contender at 87 points out, and Greg Biffle is an outside shot at 102 points back. Nevertheless, as the race telecast begins, everyone feels certain that it's a two man race between Stewart and Johnson and that by the end of the night, Smoke will have earned his second championship in three years. A finish of 18th or better will secure the trophy for the #20 irregardless of what the #48 team does, and Homestead is generally agreed to be one of Tony's better tracks.
As the race begins, the #20 team is already in the hole. Tony will start the race in the 20th position while Carl Edwards will start on the pole. Tony's lead over Edwards has been cut to a mere 10 points. Biffle will start 7th and Johnson 32nd. Despite Johnson's poor qualifying effort, everyone feels sure that it won't be long before Knaus and company are running up front.
All attention seems focused on Stewart and Johnson. Johnson is slowly moving up, and Stewart is struggling. The fact that Edwards is leading the race seems to be of no importance. As Stewart's difficulties continue, the commentators begin expressing doubts as to whether or not Tony will be able to seal the deal.
Meanwhile, following pit stops, Jimmie Johnson has been radioing back to his team that the car isn't right. It appears from those observing the race that Jimmie would like to return to the pits and have everything checked out. Crew chief Chad Knaus chalks this up to the pressure of the championship hunt and tries to reassure his driver that everything is fine. When the green flag waves again, Jimmie starts going backwards and in a hurry. Chad still believes that Jimmie is merely reacting to the pressure of the race. Jimmie had missed out on winning his first championship the year before by a scant 8 points, and neither he nor Knaus want a repeat. Knaus tells his driver to calm down and work it out. By lap 124, it is clear that, real or imagined, Johnson is in trouble. As race leader Jeff Gordon moves in to place his teammate one lap down, Jimmie' right rear tire finally lets go, and Johnson is sent spinning into the wall. Knaus is visibly upset; the pit road cameras catch him slamming his clipboard and telling the crew to pack everything up and head for home. There will be no attempt to get Johnson back out on the track.
Johnson's misfortune seems to ease the pressure on Stewart. While the #20 team is still struggling to get a handle on the car, Stewart is managing to hold his positiion, eventually crossing the finish line in 15th,winning his 2nd championship by 35 points over Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards. Biffle, the race winner, would finish 2nd in the standings by virtue of more wins than Edwards. Johnson would end up 5th in the standings.
One has to wonder what would have happened if Chad had told Jimmie to pit at the first sign of trouble. There were plenty of laps left to recover, and given Stewart's struggles, the #48 team just might have pulled it off. We'll never know. What was apparent, however, was the tension between Johnson and Knaus. Many both inside and outside the NASCAR garages thought that Knaus' tenure as crew chief of the #48 would come to an end. Team owner Rick Hendrick, sensing tension between the driver and crew chief, called the men into his office for a little heart to heart talk. Knaus and Johnson mended the rift, and would come back with a vengeance for the 2006 season, winning what would be the 1st of three straight championships.
In this humble beagle's opinion, Tony should have a piece of that tire next to the 2005 championship trophy. If Jimmie hadn't blown the tire, I don't think Tony would have won the championship. That's not to say that Jimmie would have won, but there was just something going on with the #2o team that didn't go away until Jimmie was out of the picture.