<
>

Fact or fiction: Jimmie Johnson's edge

Each week of the Chase, our ESPN NASCAR analysts will explore your burning questions about the 12 drivers in pursuit of Sprint Cup glory. This week, we tackle the mental and physical standing of one of NASCAR's greatest driver-crew chief tandems: Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Fact or Fiction: Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have lost their edge

Ricky Craven: Fiction

lastname Think back to Chicagoland. Jimmie Johnson ran top three all day and was destined to finish third until he ran out of fuel on the last lap. Not exactly the sign of a team that's really struggling.

But what people seem to be concerned with is the emotion that Jimmie Johnson showed during last weekend's race at New Hampshire, particularly the uncharacteristic tension between him and Chad Knaus during a radio exchange. But my experience tells me their heated chat was not a reflection of the two of them growing apart. It was a reflection of the moment.

New Hampshire is the toughest track on the schedule. Knaus tried to push Johnson like he successfully has in the past, but Johnson had no emotional reserve. I can completely relate to the frustration Johnson showed. If somebody distracts you at that track, it compounds your mistakes and takes you out of your rhythm.

Regardless of who it is, if you spend that much time with one person, there's going to be tension. But it happens very seldom with these two. I've always admired Johnson's capacity to manage all of the emotions and frustrations that come with being a driver. He and Knaus have been able to preserve the magic between them for 10 years. That's incredible. We're not given the opportunity to reflect on it because it's real-time, but you could make a strong argument that they're the best combination ever -- even if they never win another championship.

By the time they get to Dover, this team will be full-steam ahead. They don't have the raw speed they've had in the past, but they are no less dangerous. They've got some unfinished business, and I expect them to take care of it this weekend.

Dale Jarrett: Fact

lastname They've lost a bit of their advantage. And here's what I mean by that: Even before Chad Knaus was a crew chief, the one thing he has always been able to do better than anyone else is push the edge of a car and skirt the rules. I'm not talking about cheating; he takes advantage of the rules a little bit better because he has a great engineering mind. New rules have taken away the advantage Knaus brought to the table. NASCAR has put the crew chiefs and drivers in such a small box in terms of the things they can do with these race cars, and it has allowed others to catch up to Knaus and his team.

Now, Johnson and Knaus are searching to find other ways to get speed out of the car. It's the beginning of a new era. They need to go back and really listen to what Johnson is telling them about the racecar. He needs to be able to drive the car hard. Lines of communication and thought processes need to change.

We all heard last weekend's radio conversation between Johnson and Knaus, but I don't put a ton of emphasis on that. They had similar back-and-forth radio exchanges even when they were winning races. It just didn't get as much play in the media.

These next three races -- Dover, Charlotte and Kansas -- are excellent tracks for Johnson. And it all starts with running well at the Monster Mile this weekend. I look for them to step up like they always have, but if they can't figure things out soon, it's going to be a long haul to Homestead. I can't imagine falling short of a championship this year will lead to a breakup of the No. 48 team, but their lack of wins is definitely making them look at things differently.

Ken Schrader: Fact

lastname I think they've lost a little bit of edge. But they had the reserve built up. They haven't had the type of year that we're used to seeing from them. That doesn't mean they can't have it, but we sure haven't seen it.

I thought the exchange between Johnson and Knaus was a pretty big deal. That was a lot of bickering. We've heard things like that for years and years in this sport, but usually not from those two. I'm not sure we are seeing the end of their relationship, but it definitely doesn't appear to be as healthy as it once was. No combination lasts forever.

Ultimately, things are way too competitive this year for me to even venture to guess how they are going to play out. If Johnson and Knaus were to win five of the last eight races, I wouldn't sit here and say I was surprised.