KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- After leading 44 laps in the early stages of Sunday's Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, Jimmie Johnson found himself back in 20th place after getting caught by a caution flag immediately after making a pit stop under green from the lead. But that didn't look like too much of a mountain to climb. He had more than half of the race to make up the track position. And then he crashed.
On lap 136, Johnson's car snapped sideways on him exiting turn four. He backed into the wall, crumpling the left rear quarterpanel and rear fender of his Lowe's Chevrolet. For a moment, it looked like deja vu from last year's Charlotte race, where Johnson's crash effectively took him out of title contention.
"And everything else today -- this weekend -- was really good except for one corner and truthfully I was just trying to get inside of (Martin Truex, Jr.), he was loose in front of me, I could see his car moving around and I was trying to put some pressure on him and his car bobbled, when his car bobbled I jumped in the gas, hopeful to get an opportunity and mine took off," Johnson said.
But this was far from Charlotte, where the damage was crippling. The damage on Sunday was significant. However, it wasn't fatal, but rather a flesh wound. Johnson drove the car to his pit stall, and his pit crew immediately went to work on the car with all of the hammering and Bare Bond adhesive strips that they could muster.
"When you sit back and look at it, the vital parts were still intact where we needed them, the spoiler was still where it needed to be, the roof was dented a little bit and the rear window was buckled up a little bit, but all in all, everything was there," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "So when Ron and the guys got out there and everything secured pretty well, I felt very confident that he was going to be able to drive it."
The team made four consecutive pit stops to fix the damage, and then were given another immediate opportunity to do some more work on the car under caution when Bobby Labonte crashed just after the green flag waved. The car wasn't pretty by any means -- the left quarter panel was bowed out, and a bumper bar was sticking out of the car's sheetmetal on the rear bumper, but the quick fixes -- ones that car owner Rick Hendrick called "unbelievable" -- were effective enough to give Johnson a competitive car for the rest of the race to end up with a 9th place finish.
"1. I'm impressed that they fixed it as they did and got the spoiler and decklid back in place," Johnson said, "And then 2. and then surprised that the car was as fast as it is. It drove fine through the turn, I could tell on the straightaway that I didn't have the efficiency and I can see why with this left rear quarterpanel. It's blown out and a big parachute sticking in the wind."
At one point, thanks to the differing pit strategies in the 14 caution flag filled race, Johnson restarted fifth. While he had enough speed to stay near the front, he lost the track position when he was forced to top off for fuel a second time under caution. But because the damage wasn't incredibly detrimental, Johnson was able to drive back into the top 10, one spot behind Brad Keselowski, the man the No. 48 team is chasing.
"I thought (the 48 crew) did a hell of a job fixing that car is what I was thinking. They were coming."
And they drew even on the day, thanks to those laps Johnson led. With four races to go, the interval between the first and second place drivers is the same as it was with five races to go: seven points.
"It's huge. I really hate missing an opportunity to get points on Brad on a mile and a half. It's their strong suit and they're just good on it. Today we had a fast enough car where I thought we could get some points on them. So I'm disappointed in that, but at the same time, with all we went through, to finish, and have it be even still, is pretty rad. So we'll take it, and we'll go to Martinsville, and, hopefully for the 48, things go as we hope they will."
Who's up? Both Clint Bowyer (6th) and Kasey Kahne (4th) gained points on Keselowski. Now Bowyer is 25 points back, and Kahne is 30 points back.
Who's down? Denny Hamlin had a fast car, but like Johnson, he too pitted under green right before a caution flag while running in the top five. However, the caution flag that hurt Hamlin flew on lap 215, and he didn't have nearly enough time to get back to the front. Hamlin drove back from outside the top 20 to finish 13th, an impressive salvage, but he still lost five points to Keselowski and Johnson.
Who's out? No one put themselves in the out column this week (probably because there's already so many here), and while Truex and Tony Stewart were able to gain points, they are still more than 40 points behind with four races to go.