DOVER, Del. —Chad Knaus slung the champagne bottle over his shoulder the way a businessman would carry his jacket after a long day of work. The casual approach seemed fitting for Jimmie Johnson's crew chief. Winning a Chase race and celebrating in Victory Lane really has become just another day in the office for every member of Johnson's team.
Johnson's win at Dover International Speedway made Hendrick Motorsports 2 for 2 in Chase for the championship races. Mark Martin kicked off the 10-race run with a win and helped make Hendrick 1-2 in the championship points standings.
Lurking behind them in eighth place is teammate Jeff Gordon, a two-time winner of this week's race at Kansas Speedway.
That the Hendrick drivers — except for non-Chase driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. —would be in the hunt for the Sprint Cup title is about as surprising as another baseball postseason with the Red Sox, Yankees, Angels and Phillies. Johnson and Gordon have seven championships, and the 50-year-old Martin is in prime position to shed the "best driver to never win it all" label that has been attached to him for years. Holding the points lead, this might be his year.
Nine other drivers want to make the Hendrick teams work for a championship. But it could be too late to end team owner Rick Hendrick's three-year run of championships.
Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne, 10th-12th in the Chase standings, need top-five runs and an immediate string of bad luck for the drivers up front to have any realistic shot at contention.
"Everybody is going to have a 15th-or-worse-place finish somewhere along the way," Gordon said. "It could possibly be worse than that when you get to Talladega and Martinsville, those places where the unknown is there."
Johnson finished 15th in two Chase races last season en route to this record-tying third straight Cup championship. He won three times, including Kansas, and finished in the top 10 the other five times. Do that again, and it might be impossible for any driver to catch Johnson. He's off to a fast start in this year's Chase, finishing fourth and first.
"If you get off to a quick start, it makes your life a little easier," Johnson said. "It doesn't change the fact that you could have a problem later on in the Chase. It's 10 races and they all the play the same."
Johnson also has a record 15 Chase victories since the format's inception in 2004. There's a reason Johnson seemingly gets better as the season moves along. Yes, a Hendrick team will almost assuredly have the top engines, car and personnel in the sport, but it's a commitment to winning on and off the track, every week, that has them driven to win.
"I think as the season progresses, we get smarter," Knaus said. "Not that everybody else doesn't. But really as a group, we work together and try to get our drivers on the same page, try to get our crew chiefs and teams on the same page."
That all-for-one approach in which all four Hendrick teams share information has surprised a veteran like Martin. On the brink of walking away from NASCAR a handful of times this decade, Martin has enjoyed a career renaissance at Hendrick. He leads the series with six wins, winning the Chase race at New Hampshire, and enjoys a 10-point lead over Johnson in the standings.
"We race each other hard on the racetrack, but off the racetrack, we all work for the same goal," Martin said.
If any of the three Hendrick drivers are vulnerable over the final eight races, it might be Martin. He's had three finishes this season of 40 or worse and four others in the 30s. Neither Johnson nor Gordon have had a 40th-place finish this season. Most of the poor finishes haven't been Martin's fault — he got caught up in the Big One at Talladega for example — but the fact is he's had bad results. Get wrecked at unforgiving Talladega again in November and this sentimental title run could hit a massive stumbling block.
Gordon has the most work ahead to get in the thick of Chase contention. He's 122 points behind Martin and has to pass seven other drivers before he can park in first place. He does have four titles, but has yet to win one in the Chase format. Gordon talked at Dover about how the 10-race format doesn't necessarily fit his style and wouldn't complain if the old system came back. Of course it won't, and Gordon realizes that. He also knows he can find a way to make it work.
"You can have a great year, you can win as many races as you want, but you've got to have everything going your way in those final 10," Gordon said. "I still think it comes down to the best team, overall team, that's going to win the championship."
"There's going to be times where your teammates are going to out run you, they are going to do a better job of all of the details and you have to give them credit when they do it," he said. "But it makes you work that much harder to get those details put together for the next race so that you can go out and accomplish the same thing."