There will be no record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for Jimmie Johnson, at least not this season.
In a turn of events that, in their own way, were as stunning at Kevin Harvick winning the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, Johnson finished 41st – 36 laps down. That dropped him to 14th place in the Chase standings – two spots and 12 points out of the 12th and final spot to advance into the second round.
Johnson’s problems began about 100 laps into the race, when a rear-axle seal in his No. 48 Chevy broke.
That forced Johnson into the garage, where it took 36 green-flag laps for the entire rear-end housing to be replaced.
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“I’m definitely disappointed,” said Johnson. “It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away.
“It’s racing, I’ve had mechanicals take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself and I’m sure helped me with a championship or two. It’s just part of racing. It just shows how critical everything is on a race team. And how important every component is and you can’t take anything for granted.
“(It’s) heartbreaking for sure, but I don’t know what else we can do about it. We just have to go on and try to win races and close out the season strong.”
Johnson was in fifth place in the Chase standings entering the Dover race and seemed to be in solid position to advance to the second round – as long as nothing calamitous happened.
But an axle seal is one of those seemingly small parts that, if broken, can ruin a race or, in Johnson’s case, a season.
Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers, was relieved it didn’t happen to their No. 4 Chevy.
“Honestly, it’s one of the things that is the scariest of everything that race teams deal with,” said Childers. “You think that the race teams worry about engine trouble or things like that. But these axle seal problems, they happen all the time, and a lot of times you don’t hear about them. It’s something that all the teams have fought for a long time. We fought it earlier this year. We still change stuff on it. It seems like every week we’re looking at those things trying to figure out how to make them better.”
So Johnson’s pursuit of a seventh title – a record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt – is on hold. Other drivers have taken notice.
“I’m kind of shocked,” said Brad Keselowski. “I don’t know what to think yet.”