"The way to correct this for Sunday might be to take some right rear spring out," Johnson explained to a visitor as he scrolled through his notes. "But Chad [Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] has my report, so I'm sure he'll make all the right adjustments. He always does."
In his report Johnson also detailed his preferred line around the track, potential pitfalls on pit road, and how the track conditions changed as the sun went down. "This is so important for me to have," Johnson said, "because it's like I'm running laps in my head as I go back and reread what I've written. By the time I get to the track, I'll have run the race countless times in my mind."
And when Johnson fires the engine in his Lowe's Chevy and rumbles onto the track, his approach is equally cerebral. Take what happened at Phoenix on Nov. 15. Midway through the race Johnson held a commanding lead. But then Denny Hamlin started turning in faster lap times than Johnson. Noticing Hamlin moving up in his mirror, Johnson radioed Knaus in the pits, and his spotter, Earl Barban, on top of the grandstand. "Let's keep an eye on [Hamlin] and see where he's beating us on the track," Johnson said over the radio. "Then we can figure out how to get faster than him."
Which is precisely what happened. Realizing that Hamlin was faster through the turns, Knaus called for an air-pressure adjustment on Johnson's tires on the 242nd of the race's 312 laps. Suddenly the wheels started sticking far better through the turns. Johnson would not get passed the rest of the race; he took the checkered flag in a yawner.
"Jimmie is almost like a computer the way he sizes up his competition as well as his car," Hendrick says. "And when there are 20 laps to go, he knows how to find that extra oomph. He doesn't punish his car during the race, but he'll find where the edge of being out of control is. Then, when he needs it at the end, he'll drive that thing on the edge and get the most speed out of it that he can. That's why you rarely see him get passed late."
The statistics back Hendrick up. During the 40 Chase races over the last four seasons Johnson has been passed for the lead in the last 20 laps just three times. By contrast he has made a pass for the win in the final 20 laps eight times. That edge helps explain why Johnson has three times as many career wins in the Chase (18) as anyone else. (The closest to him is Edwards, with six.)
"What makes Jimmie and Chad so hard to beat," Edwards says, "is that they'll come to a track, win the pole, lead the most laps, win the race—and then, damn it, they'll be even better the next time they come to that same track because they do such a good job analyzing every bit of information they acquire during race weekend. It's a snowball effect. They start off with better notes to use at a track than anyone else, and then they go and improve on those notes. At this point, I don't know how anyone is going to catch them."
So how do you beat Johnson and Knaus in the Chase? With input from more than a dozen rival drivers, crew chiefs, engineers and team owners, SI has developed a five-step plan to topple this dynasty in 2010.
Step 1: Always have the Chase on your mind.
One of the reasons Johnson and Knaus have been so dominant in the Chase is that they are constantly looking ahead to the 10-race playoff, even as early as the season-opening Speedweeks at Daytona in February. "Daytona has some similar characteristics to Fontana [home of Auto Club Speedway], which is a Chase track, so we'll test some things out for the Chase at Daytona," says Knaus. "Everywhere we go, we've got the Chase on our minds."