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After spending 15 minutes filling out his qualifying report—describing in detail how the car felt to him—Johnson headed to a local YMCA for a seven-mile, stress-relieving run. He finished the night over a sushi dinner at a nearby restaurant with Dale Earnhardt Jr. At the end of his meal, Johnson cracked open a fortune cookie. It read YOU WILL BE REWARDED FOR YOUR EFFORTS WITHIN A MONTH. "Awesome," he told his dinner companion.
SATURDAY: 10:12 A.M. MAKING IT RIGHT
Riding in the back of an SUV outside the track, Johnson gazed up at the grandstands along the frontstretch, towering and bright in the morning sun. The second-to-last practice was a little more than an hour away, and he knew it could be one of the most important sessions of the season. If he and Knaus didn't show dramatic improvement from yesterday, the 48 team could be in for a long, losing Sunday. "It's so hard to pass [other cars] this year simply because of how the cars are built," Johnson said. "On a green-flag run sometimes I'll only be able to pick off two or three guys. Chad and I spent a lot of time last night trying to figure out what to do."
Five minutes before practice, Johnson was in the cockpit of his race car, his eyes wide and intense. Knaus was atop the hauler, his face buried in his notebook. Unlike in the first practice, Johnson was the first driver to pull out of the garage, underscoring his sense of urgency.
He thundered onto the track and, with every other crew chief watching the 48 closely, immediately powered through the turns with eye-popping speed. For the first time all weekend, he felt comfortable behind the wheel; the changes to the car ordered by Knaus had hit the jackpot. On his first lap Mr. Five-Time soared to No. 2 on the speed chart, trailing only Harvick. "Plenty of stability and comfort," Johnson said over the radio, the relief in his voice obvious.
This was critical, because Johnson felt as if the balance of his Chevy had been off all day Friday. But now Knaus and his driver, after their lengthy debriefing session Friday night, appeared to have found a near-perfect setup. During the 45-minute practice session, Johnson turned 44 laps—the most of any driver. Afterward he quickly lifted himself out of his seat and, ignoring a crush of autograph seekers in the garage, sprinted 50 yards to the hauler to meet with Knaus. The last practice before the race was only 29 minutes away.
SATURDAY: 12:50 P.M. A SHOW OF SPEED
As Johnson cruised onto the track during the final practice, Knaus gave clear instructions. "Let's pass some guys, bud," he said. "We need to know what it's going to do in traffic."
Johnson stood on the gas. On his first lap he roared to fourth on the speed chart—168.724 mph—and was faster than all the Chase drivers except Kenseth, who posted the third-fastest time overall (168.845 mph). Knaus told Johnson to try the high line, and Johnson began to sail past cars in traffic with relative ease.
SATURDAY: 7:25 P.M. THE NIGHT BEFORE