Voices all in their cylinder heads

Drivers tend to hear gremlins, real or not, as wins or titles near.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
Published November 17, 2007

HOMESTEAD - Jimmie Johnson knew the voices, those insipid little sounds.

What if that nagging rattle was more than an oddity amid race car din? What if it was the sound of a season coming unbolted?

Tiny broken parts can cripple big race cars. Every driver knows that. And there are thousands of those parts. Thousands more counting the other 42 cars that become projectiles when tires cut or brakes fail. So as Johnson attempted to wind down the final 50 laps last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, knowing all he had to do was hold his position to win his first, long-denied title, he did all he could to shut out those haunting little possibilities, imagined and real. Then, with 13 laps left, a red flag halted the race for eight minutes.

"I took a nap," said Johnson, who knew he had run over a spring from Kurt Busch's No.2 Dodge earlier, but was unaware it came three inches from piercing his radiator. "I was so mentally spent. I turned my radio down and leaned my head up against the headrest and just tried to take a little siesta and tried to separate myself from things. When I heard the other cars fire back up, I started up and went on."

Fresh and lucid, Johnson settled into ninth place - needing only to finish 12th - and took the championship. He enters Sunday's finale here in an even better situation, 86 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, and, needing only an 18th-place result. Gordon said his teammate and friend is catchable only if calamity strikes.

"I was in the garage the other day and I went over to the (Johnson) car to make sure everything was nice and tight," Gordon said, planting the rancid seed.

The seed roots deep. Kurt Busch came to Homestead in 2004 with an 18-point lead over Johnson in the most dramatic of four seasons under the Chase for the Championship format. Johnson won four of the previous five races to apply crushing pressure and seemed ready to pounce when Busch's right front wheel came off on Lap93 as he reached the end of pit road. But the wheel took a fortuitous roll, causing a caution that let Busch remain on a lead lap as he pitted. Busch held on for the title by a record-low eight points by finishing fifth. Johnson never submitted, finishing second.

"If you are in contention and if you do come down to the final race within 100 points, your mind-set seems to wander," Busch said. "It seems different because you've raced all season long and put yourself in a position to win a championship and there seems to be those nasty little gremlins that pop up, whether it's sound or whether it's smell, whether you're just looking at something the wrong way and cross-eyed. Things pop into your head."

Busch's Chase had given him much to ponder on those lonely final 267 revolutions around the swimming pool-blue walls of Homestead-Miami Speedway. He'd narrowly missed wrecks early in the Chase, but a blown engine at Atlanta nearly halved his points lead. He'd radioed crew chief Jimmy Fennig about an increasingly worrisome vibration that day at Homestead and was coming in to pit when the wheel broke in half.

While Busch correctly sensed imminent trouble, Jeff Gordon said the nuances of handcrafted race cars are often the root of unfounded fear.

"A lot of these times cars get harmonic vibrations where you go through the middle of the corner and the car loads up," he said. "Depending on how long you're out of the gas, when you get back into it the driveline and everything doesn't line up just right and it gets a crazy vibration and that right there can scare the heck out of you. We've had races we were dominating and closing laps and think, 'Something doesn't feel right, I think the engine's getting ready to blow, tires are getting ready to fall off."

Tires and wheels are particularly menacing. Gordon detected a problem on his right rear tire as he attempted to hold off Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett in the 1997 finale at Atlanta. If Jarrett or Martin had won the race, Gordon would likely have been denied his second championship. If he pitted, he increased his chances they wouldn't need to do even that. Jarrett finished second in the race, Martin third, and Gordon 17th, holding Jarrett off for the championship by 14 points.

"Luckily, they fell back a little bit and we had enough buffer, but I knew something was happening, we were going to cut a tire," Gordon recalled. "We had to come down pit road and I remember it was a panic, a whole ordeal. (Crew chief ) Ray (Evernham) didn't want me to come down pit road and I told him I was going to wreck if I don't. I came down pit road. A vibration is one thing, a vibration that continues to get worse, that is one you've got to take care of. ... A tire is a real gremlin, it's not an imaginary one."

Such a gremlin nearly broke up the mighty tandem of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before it ever won a title. Knaus rebuked Johnson's pleas to pit under green midway through the 2005 Homestead race, though the driver adamantly said he felt a tire going down. Johnson wrecked on Lap124 when the tire failed and he finished 40th, falling from second to fifth in points. A rift was created that required team owner Rick Hendrick to repair.

An engine with a terminal problem requires a much more sophisticated diagnosis. Drivers, especially those that do not win often, are not qualified to make them. Such was the case for Zephyrhills' David Reutimann as he neared his first Busch Series win in Memphis, Tenn., this October.

"With 10 to go I swore the engine dropped a cylinder, which obviously wasn't true," said Reutimann, who held on to win. "You start thinking things, feeling vibrations that aren't really there and hearing motor noises that aren't really there and it's pretty amazing all the stuff your mind can do to make you think stuff is going wrong.

"I just kept it to myself because I knew how those things go sometimes and I wanted to make sure. The next time around it was okay. I told myself my head was screwing with me."

Johnson hopes the experience of warding off evil notions last November will help Sunday, especially if a nap is not an option. But he knows at some point, something will rattle, the shifter will feel wrong. What was that smell?

"Those evil thoughts creep in all the time. It's just part of it," he said.