Everything was going so smoothly during Sunday’s Can-Am 500, even verging on boring at times, until one burst tire changed all that.
For the first 149 laps at Phoenix International Raceway, drivers passed and retreated without much fuss. The desert, relatively speaking, was calm. And then, with all the cameras fixed on Denny Hamlin cruising to a victory in Stage 2, Jimmie Johnson’s tire blew and sent the seven-time champion crashing straight into the wall.
The wreck effectively sanded the right side of Johnson’s trademark No. 48 car clean off, but it did more damage than anything that could be physically seen. The crash ended Johnson’s race, and season, and with those, the end of his search for a record eighth Cup Series championship.
“I’m disappointed for sure,” Johnson said right after the crash. “The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive and at this stage with the Round of 8 and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive. You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately.”
That’s a good place to bring in some context. It wasn’t as if Johnson was definitely going to surge from behind, pass eventual winner Matt Kenseth on the last lap, and squeak into Homestead with ease. He was running ninth at the time of the crash, which was good for stage points but not so much for his chances of winning, which he needed to advance.
But for that to happen, seemingly out of nowhere, to burst the calm bubble in the worst possible way at the worst possible time?
“To blow a right-front like that is pretty disappointing. I didn’t know it was coming,” Johnson said. “Clearly just got the brakes too hot and popped that tire with like a lap to go or two laps to go before the stage was up.”
After the wreck, Johnson pitted briefly before consigning himself to the garage. There he climbed out the car, deftly undid his gloves and tossed them on the roof of the car. It all happened so fast that there was hardly a crowd of fans or reporters or really anyone around when he got there.
Johnson spoke to his teammates as the buzz and blare from the rest of the car engines got restarted for the third and final stage of the race, sipping a blue Gatorade that matched his car as he spoke. Then it was a short ride to the infield care center, where he was quickly discharged. After all, the damage was to the car and to Johnson’s championship aspirations, not to the driver himself.
When he finally cleared the medical testing, he emerged from the sandy brown trailer and stood in front of the mob that had finally had time to assemble. He spoke of disappointment, for himself and for his team, but he owned everything that has happened this season, which he said earlier this weekend has been one of his most trying in the Cup Series. After all, he hasn’t had the same playoff magic as past seasons; he was eighth of eight remaining playoff drivers in the standings coming in.
“I anticipated this being a really scrappy race until the end, “Johnson said. “We had good speed – I know I wasn’t leading the race, but my lap times compared to the leaders was respectable. With some strategy or opportunities ... I think we had a shot at it.”
After a few questions, Johnson hopped back on a golf cart and drove away. The dream of a record eighth title, of passing Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, of possibly becoming NASCAR’s G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) – now it will all have to wait.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen.
“Unfortunately, we won’t have a chance to make eight (championship titles) this year,” Johnson said, “but we’ll come back next year and try real hard.”