News & Media

Johnson's promising start blows up in his face

November 18, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Pit road penalty, broken gear cooling line end night early for No. 48 team

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson's 2012 season ended prematurely in the Homestead-Miami Speedway garage, his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet jacked up and a dozen crew members working feverishly underneath it to repair a broken gear cooling line.

The five-time champ sat in his car; helmet on, window net up.

His mind was still racing, even as his car couldn't. It was a tortuous end to a valiant championship run.

Only minutes earlier Johnson had been leading Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup EcoBoost 400 season finale, at one point tenuously holding onto a 7-point lead in the championship standings. He looked every bit capable of over-coming a 20-point pre-race deficit to his only title challenger, Brad Keselowski, who went down a lap after running out of gas.

* Video: Johnson receives pit road penalty for a missing lug nut

"I'm proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do and we put the pressure on. It doesn't take the sting away from losing the championship."


But in a span of 11 laps, Johnson gave up the lead because of a pit road penalty (missing lug nut), then laps later -- with smoke visible in the cockpit -- he reported to the crew, "something really, really big just happened.'' He drove the car to the garage and was never to return to the race.

Something big happened all right: a sixth championship for Johnson slipped away with a 36th-place finish, while the 28-year old Keselowski recovered to finish 15th and earn his first title.

* Video: Johnson's championship hopes vanish with drive line issue

"It all unraveled pretty quick,'' said Johnson, whose extended stay in the garage actually dropped him to third in the final standings behind Keselowski and Clint Bowyer.

"The pit road thing, I was just kind of dealing with that ... and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] had some optimism left in his voice.

"I ran a handful of laps and then I could smell some oil. There was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was going to be big and going to be fatal.

"It's definitely disappointing, but again, I feel that we had the speed and we had 80 percent of the Chase that we needed to have. So it's hard to be real down on myself or real down on where we finished.

"I'm proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do and we put the pressure on. It doesn't take the sting away from losing the championship.''

* Video: Sound Off | Post-Race-Reaction

After gamely meeting with the media in the aftermath, Johnson went directly over to congratulate Keselowski. Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, meanwhile was getting condolences in the garage from fellow Chevrolet drivers Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart.

Obviously disappointed, Knaus was still upbeat about the season overall and preferred to focus on that.

"What happened tonight is just part of it,'' Knaus said. "You get a little numb to it after a while. Obviously, it's sad, but the 48-team has done a spectacular job all year long. We won a bunch of races [five], led a few laps [1,744], won a few poles [four], it was a really good year for us so I can't complain about the performance of the team.

"It's just unfortunate it ended that way. Obviously we didn't want that. But we'd be foolish to define our season off what happened tonight. We have to look back at the positives."

Knowing Keselowski needed to finish 15th or better to clinch the title, Johnson reminded the third-year Cup driver this week that "anything can happen" and that 15th place wasn't a "lay-up'' by any measure. In fact Keselowski remarked after the race that he was glad he finished 15th so there wouldn't be a "what-if" discussion had Johnson not had his troubles.

"You know, I felt so calm and relaxed all day long because I didn't have anything to protect,'' Johnson said.

"I didn't see Brad [when Keselowski had his troubles], but I also didn't have the tingles of a championship feeling when I was leading.

"I didn't even know where Brad finished and had to ask [ESPN reporter Jamie Little]. At first she said 21st and I about lost my lunch when I heard that. She said he got to 15th and I told her, 'well it would have been interesting.' ''

"Unfortunately we couldn't execute at the end. We did all we could and came up a little short.''