"This one is over."
That was the phrase that undoubtedly crossed the lips of many on Sunday when Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Brad Keselowski with 10 laps to go at Michigan. After completing the pass, Johnson set sail, opening up a gap over Keselowski and Greg Biffle that looked almost insurmountable as the laps started to tick down.
Yes, Johnson's Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon had retired earlier in the race because of a valve spring issue, and a valve spring issue had also sidelined Tony Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas race team uses Hendrick horsepower. But Johnson was just more than six laps from the finish and he had a fresh engine that was installed on Saturday — a fresh engine that had helped him drive from a 41st starting position to the front of the field with relative ease. Gordon and Stewart's problems came a whole lot earlier in the race, Johnson's engine was going to make it to the end. Right?
Wrong. Johnson started radioing to his crew that the motor was laying down — the same verbiage that Stewart used when describing his engine woes. Was Johnson serious? Or was he playing around given the gap he had drawn on the field? Then the lead dwindled, more than half a second in one lap. Oh no, Johnson wasn't kidding.
He slowed on the backstretch. Biffle screamed by for the lead. Then Keselowski and others zoomed past. Johnson's frustration on the radio apexed. And soon, his engine was billowing smoke and causing a caution flag.
After inheriting the points lead thanks to a third-place finish last week at Watkins Glen, Johnson talked openly about how he looked forward to having the pressure of being the points leader on his team; pressure that the No. 48 crew had responded positively to. And claiming Michigan's checkered flag would not only have kept Johnson in the points lead, but also meant that he'd likely start the Chase at the top spot as well.
That frustration was still at a crescendo as Johnson pulled his car behind his team's hauler in the garage. He exited his car quickly and walked past his hauler with his helmet still on his head. He kept walking and turned towards the motorcoach lot, pausing for no one. It was evident how much this win meant for one of the most media-affable drivers in the garage.
While, as of now, Johnson would be tied for the lead when the Chase begins, he's now fourth in the points standings, 28 points behind Biffle with three races to go before the 10-race playoffs. Barring any major misfortune, Johnson and company won't get to feel the pressure of being the points leader any more before the Chase. But for the 193 laps that they did on Sunday, it was obvious what the response was.
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