CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -The animosity on pit road began five weeks ago, when Jimmie Johnson's team broke an unwritten code by selecting the stall right in front of Denny Hamlin.
Championship contenders traditionally stay away from each other on pit road, and Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford was none too pleased by the lack of respect from Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus. Turnabout is fair play, though, and Ford repaid the slight last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway by selecting the pit stall in front of Johnson.
Then, when Johnson's pit crew struggled through some early stops that ultimately led to their benching, Ford couldn't help but wonder if the pressure of watching the flawless execution of Hamlin's crew a few feet away didn't play a part in their problems.
``You put the two pit crews toe-to-toe and those guys are going to make mistakes,'' Ford boasted after Hamlin's win Sunday at Texas pushed the No. 11 team past Johnson and into the points lead.
``We went beside them, and those guys faltered, and it made them panic and push to the point where they made changes.''
Knaus benched his crew midway through Sunday's race after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon crashed, and his crew became available for the rest of the day. The swap became official this week when HMS said Gordon's crew would pit Johnson for the final two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, in which Johnson trails Hamlin by 33 points.
So, did Hamlin and Ford and the FedEx team really get inside the heads of Johnson's crew to the point they couldn't perform at Texas? And, will mind games and mental warfare play a factor in deciding this championship?
Veteran driver Jeff Burton thinks the issue is black and white and a sports psychologist isn't needed to decipher the performance issues.
``I think a lot of people take a lot of credit for things that perhaps were just coincidence,'' Burton said. ``But the 48 has not had typical 48 pit stops for a large part of the year. This wasn't the first race they've had a problem. If this was the first race they've had a problem then maybe (Ford) could make that case.
``But this isn't the first race they haven't been as good as you would expect them to be.''
The fact is, of the three championship contenders, it's widely believed that Johnson's pit crew has been the weakest even though he's the four-time defending champion. Through attrition, promotion or being lured away by other teams, the core seven over-the-wall guys has changed from Johnson's first championship to the group that was benched Sunday.
Still, it took 34 races for Knaus to make a change, and when he did in the middle of the race, Ford viewed it as a ``desperation move.''
Knaus pleaded ignorance on the slight - ``my plate's been pretty full,'' he said - but denied Ford's claim that his team is better than the four-time defending champion's.
``I don't know that they're a better team by any means,'' Knaus said. ``It's funny that they're more worried about us than worried about themselves. I think I would be worried about focusing on that 11 car instead of the 48. ``
That line of thinking has helped Johnson to his four titles. Not since losing to Tony Stewart in 2005 has Johnson worried about the competition, focusing instead on what he and the No. 48 team have to achieve each week.
It's hard to tell if Hamlin's group is subscribing to that theory. While the words flying back and forth between each team would seem to indicate a level of gamesmanship not seen in NASCAR in over a decade, both teams denied being worried about the other.
Knaus dismissed Ford's notion that the crew swap was done because it's more important for Hendrick to win as a company than as an individual team.
``Obviously, that's not a very good team over there then. If we start to think about the individuals here, we don't operate as a team. Especially in this building, we're thick as thieves,'' Knaus said about the shop that both Johnson's and Gordon's teams work from.
Ford insisted his assessments aren't a bid to mess with the champions.
``Mind games only work if you let them,'' Ford said. ``And if you get all caught up trying to mess with people, you lose sight of what you are supposed to be doing.''
With two races to go - including Phoenix, where Johnson has won four of the last six races - it's clear both teams are looking for every edge they can find.

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