NASCAR drivers know that a cheap part can often lead to expensive consequences

Jimmie Johnson climbs out of his car after finishing last year’s fall race at Dover. A broken rear axle seal doomed Johnson’s hopes of advancing in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson climbs out of his car after finishing last year’s fall race at Dover. A broken rear axle seal doomed Johnson’s hopes of advancing in the Chase. Getty Images

Auto racing can be the most fickle of sports. No matter how talented a driver might be or how wonderfully things might be going during a race, there’s always the possibility that a broken part – sometimes the most innocuous pieces of equipment – can derail the brightest of days.

It happens all the time.

But those pesky parts can also malfunction at the most inopportune times, costing drivers and teams victories and titles, spots in the postseason points standings and meaningful records.

It happened to Jimmie Johnson in 2015 at Dover International Speedway, where the Citizen Soldier 400 will run Sunday. A rear axle seal – a part costing about $5 – broke in Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy, costing him his spot in the Chase and a chance at winning his seventh championship.

“That’s why details are so important with race teams,” said driver Jamie McMurray, another Chase driver in Sunday’s race. “You pay attention to everything when assembling the team. It’s certainly more unfortunate when it happens in a race that is so critical like (Dover) is. But I think everybody’s had something simple like (what happened to Johnson) knock them out.”

Here are four stories of broken parts leading to broken hopes:

Jimmie Johnson: rear axle seal

The 2015 season had been good, not great, for Johnson. But he was in a solid position to continue his quest for a seventh Cup championship heading to Dover, the third and final race of the Chase’s first round.

Johnson was fifth in the Chase standings and only needed to remain in the top 12 to move into the second round. A victory at Dover, where he had won 10 times, wasn’t out of the question, either.

That’s why details are so important with race teams.

Jamie McMurray

Johnson’s problems began about 100 laps into the race, when a rear-axle seal costing about $5 in his No. 48 Chevy broke. In a stunning turn of events, he finished 41st – 36 laps down, dropping him to 14 place in the Chase standings – two spots and 12 points out of the 12th and final spot to advance into the second round.

Johnson is eighth in the standings heading into Sunday’s race and in what seems to be in as good position to advance as he was last season.

“I think (it) shows that you really can’t count on a race track always being kind to a driver or always working in their favor,” Johnson said. “It’s part of racing. I’ve learned it through many different lessons over my racing career. Last year, I think, kind of showed everybody once again that you just can’t take a race or a track for granted for anybody.”

Brad Keselowski: valve tool

In 2013, Keselowski was one year removed from winning the 2012 Cup championship. With two races remaining in the regular season, Keselowski was 11th in the standings and in jeopardy of becoming the second driver in Chase history not to make the postseason the year after winning the title.

So he had much riding on the Atlanta race.

Keselowski was leading with 18 laps remaining and feeling good about the idea of making the Chase. Then a valve broke in the engine of his No. 2 Ford. Heading to pit road to get it fixed, the tool needed to work on the problem malfunctioned. Keselowski didn’t make it back to the track. He finished 31st and dropped to 15th and out of the Chase following the regular-season finale the next week at Richmond.

“We were going to win the race, we were going to solidify our spot in the Chase,” said Keselowski. “That really hurt. But that’s racin.’ “

Juan Pablo Montoya: suspension

Sometimes a major parts failure at a key time can help cost a driver a title.

Juan Pablo Montoya had been on top of the IndyCar points standings for the entire 2015 season – capped by a victory in the Indianapolis 500 -- when he arrived at Iowa Speedway with only four races left to protect his lead.

Nine laps into the race, however, Montoya hit the wall, ending his day early and leading to a season-worst 24th-place finish. Montoya later said “something broke” in his car.

“It sucks when it’s completely out of our hands, when something fails,” Montoya said. “We have to know what happened.”

The problem was a broken suspension, and it would end up potentially costing Montoya the championship when his lead over fourth-place Graham Rahal shrunk from 54 to 42 points with three races left.

After the season-ending race at Sonoma (Calif.) Speedway, Montoya and Scott Dixon were tied atop the standings. Dixon (three victories) was awarded the championship because he won more races than Montoya (two).

Harry Gant: O-ring

Sometimes a faulty part can cost a driver a chance at maintaining what would could have been a history-making winning streak.

In 1991, Harry Gant had won four races in a row, prevailing on consecutive weeks at Darlington, Richmond, Dover and Martinsville. One more and he would tie Bobby Allison with five, the third longest streak in NASCAR history. Only Richard Petty (10 in 1967 and six in 1971) had won more.

So Gant was confident heading into the race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, just a few miles from his Taylorsville home.

Gant quickly asserted his dominance, winning the pole and leading the first 252 laps. His lead later in the race would grow to about seven seconds.

But with eight laps remaining, Gant’s No. 33 Skoal Bandit Olds lost its brakes. The O-ring, a 10-cent part in his car’s braking system, had broken.

Dale Earnhardt passed Gant and went on to win the race.

“The brake pedal went swoosh,” said Gant, who managed a second-place finish. “I had zero brakes after the O-ring failed. I had to let Earnhardt go, because we would have wrecked if I had tried to race him. I don’t do people like that.”