CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — When Chad Knaus was asked what Jimmie Johnson does better than NASCAR title challengers Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, the crew chief didn't hold back.
"I think Jimmie ultimately is a better race car driver than both of those two," Knaus said of the four-time defending champion.
This wasn't another put-down that has pervaded the Chase for the championship in the last two weeks. Knaus was simply saying what he believes to be true about Johnson, who is not the points leader heading into the season finale for the first time since 2005.
Johnson trails Hamlin by 15 points going into Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, making it the closest championship battle since the Chase format began in 2004. Harvick sits third, 46 points back and well within striking distance.
The crew chiefs for the three championship contenders were asked this week what their driver does better than the other two, and what they wish their driver did as well as the others. Their answers were, not surprisingly, all in support of their own guys:
—Mike Ford on Hamlin: In his first few seasons, Hamlin had a tendency to blame his team both over the radio and in the press. He blasted pit road mistakes and parts failures, constantly criticizing his team with no regard to consequences.
It came to a head in a testy meeting two seasons ago, and Hamlin has done a much better job since.
"Denny's strong suit in the car this year has been that he stays calm," Ford said. "I think that's Jimmie's strong suit, he stays calm and works through issues. I don't know that he learned that from Jimmie, but I think that he saw that as the right thing to do. Very difficult to do when you're an emotional person. He does that, (but) I won't say better than (Johnson).
So what does Hamlin do better than Johnson?
"They're almost, in my opinion, a mirror," Ford said.
That calmness in the car gives both drivers an edge over Harvick, who is usually good for at least one blowup a race on his team radio. But Ford envies Harvick's aggression.
"I think Denny stays calm in the car more than Kevin does, (but) I think they're very aggressive," Ford said. "I think they find a way to sneak something out at the end of the day. They'll take chances whereas we won't necessarily take those."
—Knaus on Johnson: Knaus came out swinging when asked the same question. In a head-to-head match, he firmly believes his driver is just flat better than everybody else.
The pairing of Johnson and Knaus, who is considered one of the best crew chiefs in NASCAR history, is widely considered to be a huge factor in the success of their race team. But Johnson's smarts and skills are often overlooked, and Knaus thinks there's nobody better behind the wheel.
"I think week in and week out Jimmie does a better job of racing than the other guys do as far as passing cars and whatnot," Knaus said.
Listening to their communication during a race, Johnson does a great job of staying loose and allowing Knaus to dictate the ebbs and flows. They pulled it off perfectly last week at Phoenix, when Knaus learned Hamlin would have to stop to fuel.
He then coaxed Johnson over the final 25 laps into conserving enough fuel to get to the finish.
"I think I rely a lot on his race savvy to be able to race," Knaus said.
Despite their glowing resume, the crew chief doesn't believe Johnson is perfect and has an obvious area to improve.
"Jimmie isn't the best qualifier, never really has been," Knaus said.
—Gil Martin on Harvick: There's nobody tougher than Martin's driver, the crew chief said, and Harvick has proved since his first season that he can handle any situation.
Thrown into Dale Earnhardt's seat following the NASCAR star's death in the 2001 Daytona 500, Harvick weathered the difficult situation better than anyone imagined possible for a rookie thrust into such an intense spotlight. In the years since, he's often found himself as the antagonist off the race track and a master at manipulating the emotions of his competition.
With nothing to lose and everything to gain on Sunday, Martin believes Harvick is the best driver to be thrown into the fire.
"I think he works his best under these kinds of conditions," Martin said. "Head games will not bother him because he's one of the best that there is at playing head games to start with. I'm very happy that we have a driver with that strong of a mental aspect about him going into this race."
The ups and downs at Richard Childress Racing have prevented Harvick from being a consistent contender, but the team has stormed back onto the scene this season and Harvick dominated the points standings during the regular season.
So Martin deferred on what he wishes his driver could do better because, as far as he's concerned, the team has been the bigger problem over the years.
"The thing I wish that we had would be the four titles that Jimmie Johnson has," Martin said. "That means we would have done the things we needed to have done the past four years. As far as the driver, I wouldn't swap him for anybody right now."