The Jimmie Johnson who raced at Phoenix International Raceway Sunday wasn’t the Jimmie Johnson who’s dominated the track in the fall in recent years.
Entering Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 500, Johnson had won the past three Chase races at PIR, and, with Johnson trailing Denny Hamlin in the race for the Sprint Cup championship, there seemed little reason to expect that his No. 48 Chevrolet would be anything but running on rails.
That didn’t happen, however. Far from it. Accustomed to being the big gun at Phoenix, Johnson failed to lead a lap Sunday while winner Carl Edwards and Hamlin dominated the show.
Amazingly, however, Johnson was smiling as he left the track late Sunday afternoon. He was able to stretch his last fuel load to the last drop and finish the race without pitting late, earning fifth place. Johnson thus gained 18 points on Hamlin and trails him by only 15 entering the final race of the season next week at Homestead, FL.
In fact, Johnson’s run was good enough to put a little swagger in his step post-race.
“Those guys [Hamlin and his crew] better be on their toes,” he said. “They have the 29 [Kevin Harvick] and the 48 to worry about.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus put Johnson in fuel-saving mode with about 40 laps to go, then told him to trim even more speed with about 25 to go. The 48 team’s primary concerns at that point were to stay in front of Harvick, who eventually finished sixth, one spot behind Johnson, and to make the fuel last to the checkered.
“The guys did a really good job,” said Knaus, who made the somewhat controversial decision to replace the 48’s regular pit crew with the crew that normally pits Jeff Gordon. “With fuel mileage, we were going to be pretty close. I told Jimmie to go ahead and start saving fuel.
“You can’t predict what’s going to happen. With 25 to go, I told him to back off some more.”
Johnson was visibly slower on the track, but his fuel lasted to the finish. Hamlin pitted with 14 laps to go, gave up second place and finished 12th.
“I did anything I could to stay out of the throttle,” Johnson said. “I gave up a couple of positions at the end, but we ran well all day long. Our pit stops were phenomenal. Then we had to work whatever magic we could at the end.”
So Johnson’s “abnormal” day at Phoenix turned into a net gainer. And he’s off to south Florida with a good chance to win a fifth straight championship.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.