INDIANAPOLIS -- If Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have any tricks up their sleeve today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they've been much harder to spot.
Inside the Brickyard's pristine pit-wall garages (which still have a fresh sheen after being built just over a decade ago for the since-departed Formula One series), the No. 48's workspace is shrouded in a conspicuously unique way.
Separating Johnson's car from the stalls of defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer are 2.4-metre partitions branded with sponsor logos.
"NASCAR has given us an advantage to hide our stuff and not let anyone see what's going on," the five-time champion deadpanned Saturday morning. "But they won't allow any other team to do it. So it's just for the 48."
Actually, it's just Knaus's latest project, which this time centres on schooling NASCAR's premier series in the finer points of interior design instead of in the speed harnessed by his latest whiz-bang setup.
"We wanted to spruce up that area, and knowing the way F1 does such a beautiful job of building out a garage area, Chad was inspired to do that a year or two ago," Johnson said. "Lowes and Kobalt provided all the (materials) they have in their store. Chad even went through all the steps to get it approved with NASCAR coming to the track."
While the elaborate decorating is permitted, Johnson won't be allowed to run the dazzling rear-end suspension package that turned the NASCAR world on its ear after his dominant victory in last year's Brickyard 400. He led 99 of 160 laps in a No. 48 Chevrolet that was built to conquer Indy's sharp turns with a "skewed" setup that essentially kept the car always moving straight as a bullet through the turbulent air.
"From the first lap on the track, it was like, 'Whoa, this is going to be good,' " he said.
Others took notice of the Hendrick Motorsports driver's record-tying fourth victory at Indy. Within weeks, virtually every team in NASCAR was trying to replicate Knaus's magic, and it became an overarching storyline through the end of the season as Keselowski took veiled shots at Hendrick for flirting with the boundaries of the rule book.
By the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR had made rule modifications to prevent the skewed suspensions (which have been outlawed completely this season). Meanwhile, Penske Racing perfected the rear-end package, and Keselowski beat Johnson at his own game to capture the title.
It all started with Johnson kissing the bricks at Indianapolis, where teams often roll out new cars containing all the advances and lessons learned from the first half of the season.
Another trend could begin anew today, and if it does, it's likely to come from the cloistered environs where Knaus and Johnson have been tinkering on the No. 48 SS the past two days. Though Johnson brushed the wall during final practice Saturday, he still turned in the fourth-fastest lap and said he was "definitely in the ballpark" for a victory.
Leading the points for much of the season and tied with Matt Kenseth for the series lead in victories (four), Johnson has been setting the tone in Sprint Cup through the first 19 races of 2013, and many rivals singled him out as the favourite in the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard, which has a history of producing winners who become champions.
In eight of 19 editions, the Brickyard winner also has won the Cup title -- including Johnson in 2006, '08 and '09.
"It's a track where everyone brings out their best, whether it be pit crew, driver, race car or the whole combination," said Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, the only other driver to win the Brickyard four times. "They bring their best because this is such a prestigious race. That's why I think you see championship contenders compete so well at this race. Those are the teams that are able to step up when it matters most. And who has done that better in the last 10 years than the 48 team?
"They will be very tough (today). They certainly are in championship form and I'd have to put them at the top of the list of teams to beat."
Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "Definitely we'll be watching Jimmie and what they're doing technically with their car to try to help ourselves be as competitive as we can."
But Johnson cautions his team doesn't have as much latitude for gaining an edge. Today's 160-lap race will mark the Brickyard debut for the Gen 6 car, and the sleeker, sportier model also has a restrictive side as NASCAR eradicated the tuning techniques with sway bars and bushings that teams used.
"Last year, there were so many tools to help the car perform like we wanted," he said. "We just don't have that luxury this year. Things are so much different. We're working in different areas. NASCAR has taken away so much, it's really small adjustments, and you start stacking those to make a difference. They've eliminated so many areas to work that it's hard to find a chunk of speed."
But naturally, it's been Johnson and Knaus who seem to have adapted more effectively and quickly than any other team in the garage. It's been a recurring theme during 12 seasons together for the longest crew-chief driver pairing in NASCAR.
-- USA Today