Jimmie Johnson’s search for a sixth Sprint Cup championship took a near-fatal hit Sunday when he crashed with 76 laps remaining in the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson was running seventh when his right front tire blew, sending his Chevrolet into the fourth-turn wall. The car absorbed major right-side damage, and Johnson eventually drove the wounded vehicle to the garage for repairs. He returned to the race 38 laps off the lead pace with 36 to go and finished 32nd.
Ironically, Brad Keselowski, Johnson’s major challenger in the championship race, had taken the race lead a few minutes before Johnson’s crash.
Keselowski eventually finished sixth after the mayhem of the closing laps.
Johnson had a seven-point lead over Keselowski entering Sunday’s race. At Homestead, all Keselowski needs to win the title is a 15th-place finish, regardless of Johnson’s finish. All other Chasers have been eliminated from championship contention.
Goodyear officials at the track said melted bead from brake heat caused Johnson’s tire to blow.
It was a stunning turn of events for the 48 team, which typically thrives in the tempest of the Chase. Now it faces a tough uphill climb at Homestead.
“Anything can happen down there,” Johnson said of Homestead. “We’ll go down there and see how things pan out. It’s the way it goes. Anything can happen in racing. I’m very proud of the year and the effort of the entire team. I hate to see it potentially end this way. Losing isn’t any fun.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.