On Friday, Jimmie Johnson stressed how it wasn't time for his team to be worrying about getting a win to lock themselves into the Chase. Rather, Johnson said, his team was simply going to keep doing what it was doing and focus on getting good finishes.
On Sunday, Johnson was leading the Auto Club 400 with seven laps to go. Yeah, it was looking like a moment of vindication for the six-time champion's confidence. Going out and winning a race while telling the world and the rest of your competitors you weren't desperate for it? That's a kick in the gut for everyone else, even if they knew to expect it.
However, it was Johnson and the No. 48 team that ended up kicked in the gut. With a lead of about a second over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, Johnson cut down a left-front tire on lap 194 and was forced to head to pit road. It was the second straight tire issue for Johnson, who had a right-front tire unravel at Bristol last week not too long after he was leading.
Johnson was 19th at Bristol. He finished 24th on Sunday.
Gordon, who had reported a vibration not too long before Johnson's tire failure, inherited the lead. As other drivers, like Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose had tire issues after Johnson did, Gordon was cautious with his lead. He had a sizeable gap on Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer, there was no need to push the limits.
But then Bowyer lost a tire and spun. The caution flag was out and Gordon's lead was gone.
After taking four tires on pit road, Gordon restarted seventh, the third driver with four tires. However, he didn't get a good restart into turn one and started falling back, away from the battle for the lead that unfolded at the front between Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart.
Gordon finished 13th. But that might not have been the most dramatic part of his day. Earlier in the race, he had to make his way through the field twice.
On the race's first set of pit stops, Gordon sped on pit road, knocking him from the front of the field to the back. Then after he climbed back to the front, Gordon was caught stuck on track during a caution flag when the pit light was flashing red while the flagman at pit road was waving the green flag to signal pit road was open.
Gordon, Keselowski and Bowyer, the top three cars at the time, saw the lights and stayed out. However, by NASCAR rule, the flag overrules the lights. Why did the flag differ from the lights? According to NASCAR VP of Competition Robin Pemberton, the offical at the opening of pit road said his uniform got caught in the fence and he was unable to get to the light switch in time.
Last week at Bristol, the race ended under caution after a NASCAR official in the flagstand bumped the button to turn on the caution lights.
Because of the miscue, Gordon had to pit a lap later and restarted outside the top 30. But once again, he got back to the front.
In addition to the NASCAR official, Gordon and Johnson's teammates had rough days too. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 12th, but he had two flat tires and even hit the wall because of one of them. Kasey Kahne's tough start to the season continued when he had to go to the garage just past the halfway point of the race because of a rear end gear issue. He finished 41st.
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