Johnson, Knaus get a second wind

2/9/2012 - NASCAR

Professor Wanda Wakefield understood what Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus needed -- and indeed all of NASCAR and its Nation needed -- years before they realized it themselves.

Everybody needed a break. An unburdening. A great sigh of relief.

And now it is morning again in NASCAR, even for Johnson and Knaus -- especially for Johnson and Knaus.

A new season dawns unclouded by The Streak.

"For the good of the sport, The Streak had to end," Wakefield, who studies NASCAR and its culture as an associate professor of history at the State University of New York's Brockport campus, said on the phone the other day.

"You have to have everybody coming into a season thinking, 'I'm going to do well.' And it is important to know there is some competitive balance."

More than two years ago, while Johnson's fourth straight championship was still a work in progress, Wakefield predicted that the pressure, rather than easing with each Cup won on the unprecedented onslaught, would only mushroom.

"You've got the burden of, 'Will he win next year?' and then 'Will he win the next year?' which puts more pressure on," she said in 2009.

And now Johnson and Knaus acknowledge openly what they wouldn't all those years: that the burden kept building in its enormity until The Streak ended last year, at five straight.

"I didn't realize the pressure I was putting on myself to keep the streak alive until the door closed," Johnson said recently. "There was a lot more pressure that I just wasn't aware of

"It's like a weight off my shoulders."

What's more, "I think people missed the fact that it wasn't just a five-year stretch," Knaus said. "It was a 10-year stretch, building up."

Lest we forget, Johnson and Knaus hit the Cup series with all-out intensity when they arrived in 2002.

"In 2002, we were battling for the championship," Knaus reminded. "And 2003. In 2004, I think we lost by eight points [they did].

"So it was a long, long road."

Finally, "to win last year was more difficult," Knaus continued. "We got tired.

"I think the whole sport was getting a little bit tired. Everybody was on edge, people were crashing, running into people, and stress levels were high.

"For us, when we walked out of Homestead -- actually when we walked out of Phoenix and we knew we weren't going to have a shot to win the championship -- it was like, 'Wow. Man, I think I'm getting a little tired.'"

By the time they got to the season finale, "I think you probably saw a little bit different 48 team," Knaus conceded. "We were like, 'Man, let's just go race. It's over. It's done.'"

Wakefield recalled "my favorite quote from Jeff Gordon, at Talladega -- that his 'eyeballs hurt.'" As the 48 team left Phoenix this past fall, "I think maybe their eyeballs hurt at that point."

But the professor detected another kind of 'Wow' in Knaus' realization: "When they're leaving Phoenix, it's like, 'Oh, wow: It was a remarkable achievement.' But it wasn't until then that they could have a perspective or even just take the time to think about what they'd accomplished."

For the previous five years, or even 10 from Knaus' perspective, there'd been no relief.

When we left Homestead after the fifth championship, Chad was already laying out plans for testing the next week. We hadn't even gotten the rooms arranged to go to the banquet yet, and he's already on to the next deal.

-- Rick Hendrick

"What athletes are taught is, deal with the immediate problem in front of you," said Wakefield, who also studies other sports and is an international official for luge competition. "Go out and worry about today's race or today's game. So all the pressure has to be internalized. And you can't acknowledge it because the whole ethos of performance for an athlete is, 'I'm only dealing with today.' They can't go out to perform thinking, 'Well, if I win today and then I win next week, and then ' They can't think of themselves beyond the immediate. And they're taught that.

"So, of course, Johnson and Knaus, I'm sure, had a ton of internal pressure "

"There was more pressure to keep the streak alive than I ever gave credit," Johnson acknowledged. And now, "I'm much more relaxed than I've been before."

Knaus is, as my ESPN.com colleague David Newton put it, the only guy in NASCAR who could make headlines by taking a vacation. He took a trip to South Africa, then stayed home from the team's Daytona testing in January.

"It's been different, I'm going to be honest," Knaus said. "I took a little vacation. I spent Christmas at home. I relaxed. I slept."

Those were unique experiences in the adult lifetime of a crew chief who never stopped and who never would have, if the streak hadn't ended.

Had they six-peated in 2011, "I'm sure those guys would be coming into this season with their eyeballs hurting even more," Wakefield said.

That is spot-on, in the experience of team owner Rick Hendrick.

"When we left Homestead after the fifth championship, Chad was already laying out plans for testing the next week," Hendrick said. "We hadn't even gotten the rooms arranged to go to the banquet yet, and he's already on to the next deal."

Hendrick couldn't bring himself to say flat-out that ending The Streak might just be the best thing that could happen to the 48 team.

"I won't say it's good for them, but I think it let them see that there are other things in life. It's not life-threatening if you don't win six in a row."

Hendrick did acknowledge seeing the enormous burden lifted from his No. 1 driver and crew chief.

This year, "You want to go back and win the championship, but you're not defending," Hendrick said. "You don't have the pressure of defending."

Had that continued, "I do believe that Chad staying on the chip as hard as he was would have burned him out," Hendrick said. "Same with Jimmie."

Not to mention every person who wears a No. 48 shirt in the Hendrick Motorsports complex. Knaus has realized, said Hendrick, that "maybe he can run at that pace, but the rest of the team can't."

Rather than relentless streaking, "I'd much rather see Chad and Jimmie compete every year," Hendrick said. "You've done the five in a row now. Let's make sure we can run another 10 years."

And now, as the 48 team gets its second wind, so does a NASCAR Nation weary of five years of domination.

"They achieved remarkable success, and, from the casual fan's standpoint, it's fun to see what Johnson and Knaus will do next," Wakefield said. "But from the fanatic's perspective, 'What about my driver? What about my team? Johnson cannot be that superior -- right?'"

Wakefield has thought and written analytically about NASCAR since the Dale Earnhardt phenomenon of the 1990s. But, asked how she feels personally about the end of The Streak, the good professor suddenly shed all her academic objectivity, thought the way she thinks in her leisure time and laughed out loud.

"I am," she said, "a Tony Stewart fan!"

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.