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The Wing is Gone

31 March 2010


First, the facts.

Jimmie Johnson finished ninth Monday at Martinsville Speedway in a pedestrian run for the No. 48 team.

In eight previous races at the .526-mile short track, Johnson had led at least 42 laps in each race and a total of 1,380 laps. He won five of those eight races.

How many laps did Johnson lead in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 in Monday's rain-delayed race? Zero. Yes, he posted his 16th straight top-10 finish at Martinsville, but it was a day-long struggle.

What was the single most obvious variable that separated Monday's race from the previous eight? NASCAR's switch from a rear wing to a blade spoiler on the Sprint Cup car, of course. The change became permanent at Martinsville.

Now, the disclaimers.

It was the first race with the spoiler, on a track where aerodynamics play only a minor role. Johnson said after the race that his lack of speed resulted from experimental changes to his car, as crew chief Chad Knaus tried—as he invariably does—to stay ahead of the performance curve.

With three victories in the first five races of the 2010 season, Johnson and Knaus felt they could afford to deviate from setups that had produced dominating efforts in the past.

"We were trying some stuff through the company, especially on the 48 car today," Johnson explained after the race. "We thought we would get it sorted out in practice and just came up a little short—didn't get enough time with our new ideas.

"(We got) good race experience with it (Monday), and we know what we were trying here will help us at other tracks down the road. In some respects, you wish you could just come back with the same stuff all the time and have it work, but this garage area doesn't sit still.

"With the fast start we've had, we wanted to be smart and try some things out. Ninth today was about it for us."

The bottom line is that the spoiler might have had nothing at all to do with the very ordinary performance of the No. 48 team.

On the other hand, Martin Truex Jr. said before the race that his car felt comfortable with the spoiler during recent testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Truex finished fifth Monday, his best effort of the season so far.

Is it possible that the switch to the spoiler could be a game-changer for the Cup series? Is it possible that NASCAR's changeup could be a curveball for the No. 48 team?

Knaus, for one, doesn't think so.

"It's a big, big change to the racecar," Knaus said March 21, after Johnson won the last race of the wing era, at Bristol. "(But) with the strength we have at Hendrick Motorsports, with the people we've got, we typically adapt quicker than most people, so I'm looking forward to it."

Then came Martinsville, which suggested, albeit tenuously, that the spoiler might be Kryptonite to Johnson and Knaus—if not deadly green Kryptonite, then the red Kryptonite that could have wacky, unpredictable results for the driver known as Superman.

Phoenix, on April 10, will tell us more, but the real test of the spoiler will come eight days later at Texas, where the Cup cars will race en masse for the first time on a downforce track.

In the meantime, Cup drivers who haven't won four straight championships can savor a small kernel of hope.

They can dream, can't they?


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