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Late pit-road miscue proves costly for Johnson

May 28, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Late pit-road miscue proves costly for Johnson

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson won the All-Star Race eight days earlier in rather dominating fashion at the same track. His No. 48 Chevrolet team captured the Pit Crew Challenge just prior to that. So the last thing Johnson expected late in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 was a pit-road miscue to possibly cost him a chance at victory.

But that's exactly what transpired as Johnson attempted to make his final pit stop of the long night on Lap 354 of the 400-lap event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. When he came to pit road, Johnson was running third behind only eventual race winner Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin.

"With all the traffic and the laps and everything, the grip on the track changes [and] loses some grip. That makes it different and more difficult. But I still think we were going to be a top-three car."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

Just after crew chief Chad Knaus called for a two-tire stop that Knaus hoped would save Johnson enough time to get off pit road in front of the leaders, disaster struck. As the jack dropped, Johnson started to pull out of his pit stall with gas man Brandon Harder and the fuel can still attached to the car.

That's illegal. Cars can't leave their pit stalls with equipment -- or gas men -- still attached to them.

"Go, go, go! Stop, stop, stop!" Knaus shouted into the team radio as he watched the debacle unfold in front of him. "Oh my God. We just destroyed our [bleeping] day!"

Video: Johnson penalized for leaving pit box with gas man, fuel can

Indeed, they did. The 48 car was ordered by NASCAR to serve a stop-and-go penalty that dropped it to 13th place, one lap behind the leaders. The best Johnson could manage after that was an 11th-place finish that left him frustrated.

"I couldn't tell you what happened. We just had a couple of mistakes -- and that last one really cost us," said Johnson, who remained fifth in the points standings. "In the last week and the week before [when he won at Darlington], it couldn't go any better. Some weeks it goes your way and other weeks it doesn't."

With fewer than 50 laps remaining in NASCAR's longest race, Johnson simply ran out of time.

"Late in the race, you just can't recover from something like that," Johnson said. "Even besides that, [mistakes on pit road] always are going to hurt your chances at a good finish. We had some other little things happen earlier and I was able to work my way back up through there. But on the last pit stop, it's got to be mistake-free."

No one knew that more than winning crew chief Kenny Francis, or Knaus, or any of the other crew chiefs involved in Sunday's race. Francis said he was involved in his own deal and wasn't certain exactly what happened with the botched 48 pit stop, but he had an idea and was surprised by it given the usually solid nature of that team's pit-road work.

He added that it also illustrated how teams must extend their level of focus and concentration during NASCAR's longest race, which this year went relatively fast by Coca-Cola 600 standards, finishing in under four hours at three hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds.

"It's definitely something you talk about as a crew chief -- how it's a long race and everyone [on the pit crew] has to stay in their routine, stay in their rhythm," Francis said. "I didn't see what happened on that stop. I just heard that they had a miscue with the fuel can or something like that.

"The fuel cans that we use now are kind of touchy, kind of tricky. They fit real precisely. I'm sure it was something where they were trying to make sure the car was full, the jack dropped and the fuel guy was still trying to get that last half-gallon of fuel in -- and it just didn't work out. I hate to see that happen. If that hadn't happened, we would have had a shot to have all four [Hendrick Motorsports] cars in the top 10, and then it didn't work out. The 48 ran pretty good all night. It was just unfortunate that that happened to them toward the end."

Johnson said he was at least pleased to see another Hendrick Motorsports car get to Victory Lane, since he could not.

"I'm just so happy for Kasey and that team," Johnson said just after climbing from his car. "They brought a lot to Hendrick Motorsports over the winter. Kasey and I have been good friends for a long, long time. I'm going to head over there now [to Victory Lane] and throw some Gatorade on him."

The five-time Cup Series champion also was left to wonder if it might have been him there getting splashed with Gatorade instead, if not for the pit-road blowup.

"I don't know if I could have won the race," Johnson said. "I didn't see the leaders or know their pace, or know where things were at exactly. I felt like the run before that last one, we were much more competitive and in pacing the leader. Once we had the pit-stop penalty, I just kind of cruised and brought it on home after that.

"Things were different tonight than they were last week [when Johnson won the All-Star Race]. With all the traffic and the laps and everything, the grip on the track changes [and] loses some grip. That makes it different and more difficult. But I still think we were going to be a top-three car."

Then, with a shake of his sweaty head, he put it in final perspective.

"It's pro sports, man. No one said they were easy," Johnson concluded.