Jimmie Johnson began the 2012 season in the worst way possible and needed to bounce back in a big way at Phoenix International Raceway in Sunday’s Fresh Fit 500.
And that’s exactly what the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion did, as he led 55 laps early, rebounded from a wheel problem and came home with a solid fourth-place finish behind Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle.
“We’re racers, we’re here to race,” Johnson said after his run at PIR. “ ... All we can do is try to go out and win races.”
Johnson began Sunday with -23 points, thanks to a 42nd-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and a 25-point NASCAR-imposed penalty for illegally modified C-pillars on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. That penalty is being appealed.
But at Phoenix, where Johnson is the all-time victory leader with four race wins, his Chevrolet was once again a bullet. It took Johnson just 11 laps to take the lead of the race, and it looked in the early going as if he was the man to beat, leading a total of 55 of the first 112 laps in the 312-lap race.
Then, it all went bad, at least temporarily, for Johnson.
Around the Lap 130 mark, Johnson reported that he had a right-rear wheel vibration. Fortunately, just one lap before he was going to come in and pit under green, a three-car crash on the frontstretch involving Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray brought out a caution flag.
That allowed Johnson to make three pit stops under yellow, while his Hendrick Motorsports crew dealt with problems at the right-rear wheel, where one or more loose studs was suspected.
Johnson rejoined the race in 25th place, the last car on the lead lap when the track went green on Lap 141. Methodically, Johnson had to pick through traffic over the second half of the race to end the day in the top five.
By Lap 170, Johnson was up to 15th place, and by Lap 200, he had picked up two more spots. On Lap 220, Johnson was all the way back to sixth, thanks to some differing pit strategies that allowed him to play catch up while others pitted.
Over the closing laps of the race, Johnson had a terrific three-way battle for fourth place with Brad Keselowski first and then Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Finally, on Lap 296, Johnson was able to muscle past Keselowski and secure fourth place, which is where he finished the day. The closing laps for Johnson were all about saving fuel, which they were for many of the other competitors as well.
Afterwards, Johnson was pleased, even though he was not able to win his fifth race here.
“We were concerned, because I rarely get good fuel mileage,” said Johnson. “We were definitely concerned, and once we cleared the 2 (Keselowski), we just kind of fell into a rhythm at that point and try to make sure that we got home and got some points. Leaving Daytona 42nd on the board wasn’t a good way to start the season.”
Johnson lauded his crew for avoiding what could have been another catastrophe on the heels of Daytona.
“I’m really proud of the effort,” he said. “We had a very, very fast Kobalt Tools Chevrolet. Unfortunately, we had a little hiccup on pit road that kept us from racing for the win, but we still fought back and got into it, so I’m very proud of the effort, very proud of our race team.”
Unofficially, Johnson ended Phoenix 38th in points, up from 49th at Daytona, where his NASCAR penalty moved him into negative territory, putting him behind the 42 other drivers who made the Daytona 500 and the six who were DNQs and credited with zero points each.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.