"We've got to figure out how to get ahead of them."
Granted, Johnson's win streak is at a modest two. But it seems grander than that, especially juxtaposed to the first 11 winless weeks of the season. And equally as concerning for his competitors, man and machine might just now be reaching their potential after an unusual offseason and start to the campaign. Johnson revealed Sunday that he had undergone surgery to repair three bilateral hernias just after the championship banquet, which prevented his team from undertaking an offseason test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson said he resumed training within 10 days of the procedure, but two subsequent test sessions were lost because of inclement weather.
"Surprised nobody knew about this thing sooner. It wasn't a secret by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "It wasn't a sports hernia. It was something over time and getting older that something like 60 percent of men near the age of 40 have these and don't know, but I saw one midseason, a little protrusion in my skin and went and had it checked out, and they're like, you've got a couple years to get it fixed, so I figured I'd get it fixed sooner rather than later and went in right after the banquet. That kind of led to us missing out on some of the test sessions that went on during the winter months, but we felt like it was time to shut things down and let the team kind of recoup and then just got back after it after that."
Knaus, who seemed briefly stupefied after being asked about Johnson's nonsecret, said the team was "a pinch behind this year" entering this season, but not because of Johnson's procedure. His team's advantages, he said, had been "minimized" by a new aerodynamics package implemented by NASCAR this season.
"We're still behind," Knaus said. "I think we're behind on just a little bit of everything. When you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship, so as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. But that's just inherent. That's what happens because you have to focus on the goal that's directly in front of you."
The pinch may be down to a smidge. Johnson used a new car to lead 164 of 400 laps and win the Coca-Cola 600 from the pole last week and drove another fresh machine on Sunday. The third iteration of the car will be used at Indianapolis, Knaus said.
"The last couple weeks have shown great strides in that direction," Knaus said, "but we're not where we need to be."
The secret's out, though. They're getting close.