Handling problems derail Johnson's history-making quest at Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson tried to stick to his normal Indianapolis routine Sunday.
His No. 48 car ruined everything.
A handling problem befuddled Johnson's team all day, forcing the two-time defending Brickyard 400 champion to abdicate his title and abandon the history-making quest before the checkered flag ended Sunday's race.
"We didn't expect it to be this way," Johnson said. "We were really good in qualifying. But right now, there's really just confusion here."
It was a rare miss for NASCAR's version of Mr. Consistency, who qualified second and suggested afterward that he could have taken the pole as he attempted to become the sixth four-time winner in track history and the first American to ever win three straight races at the speedway.
The man with a record four straight Cup titles, 11 top-10 finishes in the first 19 races this season and three wins in the previous four Cup races at Indy lost his touch — and his place in Victory Lane, too.
Johnson blamed it on an understeer problem that nobody on Chad Knaus' crew could solve.
He managed to run in the top five for the first 40 laps, but when things went awry, Johnson fell back steadily. He lost six spots from lap 40 to lap 50, and fell all the way back to 22nd after a 15-second pit stop on lap 67 when Johnson instructed his crew to work on the shock absorbers.
That didn't work.
Before pitting on lap 118, Johnson was nearly 48 seconds behind the leaders, so he stayed long enough for the surprised crew to change the front shock absorbers, put tape on the front grill and pound down the front splitter. The extended stop left Johnson a lap behind the leaders and ended his reign as Indy's king.
"We made some attempts during caution flags to make some big changes on pit road, but nothing really hooked the car up," he said. "We'll just have to dig in and find out what happened."
Johnson should at least get some solace from his Hendrick Motorsports teammates this week.
Four-time Cup winner Jeff Gordon fought a vibration problem Sunday, lost part of a flat tire as he entered the pits on lap 129 and then broke part of his splitter. He wound up 23rd.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the only Hendrick driver moving up in the field after starting 17th. But when race leader Juan Pablo Montoya slid up the track, hit the wall and skidded back across the track, Earnhardt was sent into the wall at the entrance of pit lane with 14 laps to go. He finished 27th.
Veteran Mark Martin fared better, finishing 11th and moving up one spot to 13th in points. The problem: He passed his teammate, Earnhardt, in the standings and lost an additional 25 points to Clint Bowyer, who still holds the 12th and final spot in the Cup's championship round with six races left before The Chase begins.
"We never had a chance," Gordon said. "We were just salvaging what we could out of the day. To be honest with you, I didn't think 23rd was that bad for what we had."
Gordon said track position was the key to Sunday's results and warned not to read much into what happened Sunday as a barometer heading into next week's race at Pocono.
Still, the expectations were loftier for Johnson.
And like Gordon, Johnson never had a realistic chance to win Sunday.
"You want to win every race you're in, especially the big ones," Johnson said. "We're disappointed with today, but this track has been good for me with three wins in the last four years. We'll move on."