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“That’s going to be interesting to see. I think Matt’s the strongest player on that team,” Knaus said. “I think he’s the glue that holds that thing together, so we’ll just have to see what happens. I feel if we stay focused on what we’ve got to do, then we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
It’s never been Johnson’s style to play mind games. He doesn’t have to because he lets his performance on the track do the talking for him. But Knaus seemed to take a veiled shot at JGR, which has had its share of collapses over the years.
Its last championship was in 2005, when Tony Stewart went down to the wire with Johnson and a tire failure in the finale sealed Johnson’s fate. Kyle Busch has been a contender several times since for JGR but has never put together a complete season, and Denny Hamlin coughed away the title in 2010 when he had Johnson on the ropes.
Perhaps the hope is that the No. 20 team will go the way of so many JGR performances before them, and Johnson feels as if he’s in good shape because his Hendrick Motorsports group has been there and done this, through good and bad, and after losing in 2011 and 2012, he’s not going to lose again.
But Knaus already acknowledged the opponent this year is more formidable than last year, and Kenseth proved that two weeks ago in Martinsville, where he gave pep talk after pep talk to his crew. He talked to his team about strategy, he implored them to give him good pit stops and he left one of his worst tracks with a second-place finish.
“I think Matt, just from his personality standpoint, is a little more controlled. He’s a little more mature,” Knaus said. “He’s been in the sport for a long time. I think he’s just a little more even keel, so that makes him a little more challenging to get off kilter, off rocker, so we’ll have to see how it shakes out come Phoenix.”
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