A $50 part cost Jimmie Johnson a shot at his seventh NASCAR Cup championship last October. For a driver who is used to spending his weekends in the fall chasing a title, that was tough to take.
“It was difficult dealing with that frustration, coming to grips with the reality that you weren’t (moving on) in the Chase,” Johnson said recently. “Especially when that’s what your whole year is about.”
Johnson entered the 2015 Chase in solid form. He had won four races and was seeded first. He then began the postseason by finishing 11th at Chicagoland and sixth at New Hampshire.
He entered the Oct. 4 race at Dover – a track where he always had fared well and already won in May – in fifth place in the points standings, a virtual certainty to advance to the next round.
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Jimmie’s motivated; he’s fired up.
“The season was really coming together the way we wanted it to,” crew chief Chad Knaus told the Observer.
But Johnson’s season ground to a halt at Dover when an inexpensive seal broke in the right-rear axle of his No. 48 Chevy. It was a costly problem. After a lengthy repair, the broken part caused him to finish 41st that day and dropped him to 14th in the standings, missing the cutoff to advance to the Chase’s next round.
And Johnson, who so often was in the middle of the championship conversation during the Chase, suddenly was irrelevant.
“It was really tough on him,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “He is so good at Dover, and for him to go to that place and have a seal go out … Well, it just happens.
“But I told him, ‘You’ve won six (championships) and that seal could have broken in any of those seasons, too.’ It just happens.”
Knaus had to manage expectations with the team for what would be a difficult time.
“It was a challenge,” he said. “This is a group of guys who likes to win, who have won a bunch of races together. We show up at the track at Daytona (in February) expecting to battle for a championship. When that disappears, you have to figure that out. But our guys understood the deal. They knew how to handle it.”
Johnson’s quest for a seventh Cup championship was derailed when a rear-axle seal broke at Dover
The season wasn’t over, however. For one thing, two other Hendrick drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon – still were alive in the Chase. Johnson’s team provided whatever mechanical and engineering help it could.
“We wanted to keep pushing the 88 team,” Knaus said of Earnhardt’s team, with which the Johnson team shares a building. “And (Gordon’s) team is just 100 yards away from out building, so we wanted to do everything we could do to help them, too.”
10 Johnson’s final ranking in the 2015 point standings
For a while, that was enough for Johnson.
“We had a lot of fun with that,” Johnson said. “It was a good catalyst for building Hendrick Motorsports unity and helped us all learn a little more about working together.”
Then something else happened. Johnson’s car regained the speed he had earlier in the season. While other drivers were going for the title, Johnson managed to win at Texas and won the pole the following week at Phoenix.
“We’re all about winning races and we got that back,” Johnson said.
Now, with the season-opening Daytona 500 looming, Johnson is back on equal footing with the rest of his competitors.
“Jimmie’s motivated; he’s fired up,” Hendrick said. “Chad is fired up. The whole organization is fired up.”
At Daytona Beach, Fla.
8:15 p.m. – Sprint Unlimited
1:15 p.m. – Daytona 500 qualifying
7 p.m. – Daytona Duels
Friday, Feb. 19
7:30 p.m. – Truck Series NextEra 250
Saturday, Feb. 20
3:30 p.m. – Xfinity Series PowerShares 300
Sunday, Feb. 21
1 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500