Jimmie Johnson arrived at Dover International Speedway last fall as a 10-time winner at the “Monster Mile.”
He had performed well in the postseason Chase to that point, sitting fifth in the standings and only needing a solid finish at what he’s called his favorite track to advance into the postseason’s 12-driver second round.
What could go wrong, right? Well, plenty, as it turned out.
On the 104th lap of Dover’s fall race, a right-rear axle seal broke in Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy. It took 38 laps for the problem to be fixed and Johnson ultimately placed 41st, the worst finish at Dover of his career. More critically, it dropped Johnson to 14th in the standings. Suddenly, the possibility of a seventh Cup championship was gone.
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“That was human error,” Johnson said Friday after he practiced for Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover. “It was something we did wrong as a race team and cost ourselves a shot at the Chase.”
The miscue put Johnson in the unfamiliar position of essentially being a Chase spectator for the season’s final 7 races, not a comfortable spot for a driver accustomed to being in the middle of the championship conversation every season. He remained competitive, of course, and won at Phoenix in November.
“You’re going to have bad experiences at all tracks,” Johnson said. “People are going to make mistakes. Drivers are going to make mistakes, even if it’s at their favorite track. It doesn’t matter.”
Johnson has already booked a spot in this season’s Chase, with victories at Atlanta and Fontana. That gives his team the luxury of using the rest of the regular season as somewhat of a testing ground for the Chase.
Johnson said Friday he isn’t thinking about what happened with the rear axle in October. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus’s preparation for Sunday’s race has been based on last spring’s Dover race – which was his 10th and most recent victory on the 1.0-mile concrete oval.
“The fall race, we had a fast race car … but in the back of my mind I knew what happened in the fall,” Johnson said. “But it hasn’t entered my mind until (Friday).”
Johnson’s love affair with Dover dates to his days as a driver in the American Speed Association. He started on the pole in his first-ever race at Dover in 1999. He won at Dover as a Cup rookie in 2002 and has won regularly – for the most part – ever since.
“The experience around this track is so intense and so fun,” said Johnson. “It’s the only track that we compete on that really reminds me of my motocross or off-road roots with the transitions into and off the corners.”
Qualifying was rained out Friday, so Johnson will start 21st Sunday based on his so-so practice time of 161.609 mph.
“We definitely get more fired up, knowing (Dover) is coming up,” Johnson said. “As we prep for it, we get here and the moments like we had in practice where we didn’t have the speed we wanted, it adds actually more frustration than it would at a normal track.
“Because we’re like, ‘Man, this is our place, this is is where we run well. Why are we off?’ It has many pros, but there are some cons that exist with a track that you’ve been so good at.”