Johnson, Newman exchange heated words
August 17, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
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BROOKLYN, Mich. -- After four wrecks in the preceding five races, Jimmie Johnson needed a jolt, a silver lining ... anything to register a positive as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs draw near. What he got Sunday was the solid top-10 finish he needed, but the roundabout way he arrived there made for a rough ride.
Johnson rallied past a heavy helping of obstacles for a ninth-place finish in the Pure Michigan 400, overcoming a broken shifter just before the halfway point and a frenzied battle with Ryan Newman in the race's final stages. The former required clamping a tool in place mid-race for a makeshift level; the latter issue prompted a testy post-race meeting between the two drivers.
Johnson snatched a spot among the top 10 finishers after a handful of instances of contact between his No. 48 and Newman's No. 31. Newman faded to an 11th-place effort and declined comment after hastily walking from the Sprint Cup garage to a waiting SUV.
"Everyone that's ever been in a race car out there understands the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff," Johnson said. "And I don't want to take away anything from what this awesome race team did. Granted, we put ourselves in a bad position with the shift level breaking off and were able to rally back and get ourselves a good finish. Unfortunate we didn't get any further up in the field, but still salvaged a lot today."
Johnson's whole weekend was a self-contained comeback in its own right. Despite claiming his first Michigan win in June, the six-time Sprint Cup champ mustered just the 39th-fastest speed in Friday's opening practice and followed that with a 30th-best effort in Coors Light Pole Qualifying. Saturday's ranks of 13th and eighth in practice offered hope for improvement, but any gains would have to come from deep in the field.
Johnson steadily worked his way up to take the lead as alternate pit strategies unfolded, but radio-ed to his crew on Lap 45 of 200 that his shifter had fallen off shortly after a restart for the race's fourth caution period. He didn't stop again until the 76th lap, but by then crew chief Chad Knaus had already hatched a game plan for the team to hand Johnson wire-cutters and vice grips to rig a stopgap shift lever.
Johnson lost the lead and plenty of ground after the four-tire change and a push off pit road to get the car going led to a sluggish return to speed. Though chances of a Michigan season sweep suddenly grew dim, the effort to salvage a solid result was already under way. After getting the upper hand in the late-race fight over racing room with Newman, the comeback was as complete as the 400-mile distance would allow.
"I think what they show is they can battle back, figure out a way not to lose with the shifter broken in the car, not to lose laps, then Chad focuses on trying to get him back on the lead lap, get him in position with tires at the end of the race to maybe even get a top five," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "I think that's just calling a great race and Jimmie not giving up. Hopefully we have all the bad luck behind us now. They'll be able to go to the next race feeling great."
Johnson faced a similar rough patch in the schedule last year, when he closed out the regular season with four finishes of 28th or worse. He rallied then to notch his sixth championship in the Chase, in another show of perseverance.
All things considered, a reprise of 2013 wouldn't be all that bad.
"Yeah, we have fast cars, it's just unfortunate that we've got to dig out of holes each weekend," Johnson said. "At least we were able to leave under the checkered flag today and get a decent finish out of it, with a ton of adversity thrown at us."