Jimmie Johnson's car was just flat out not good in the early stages of Saturday night's race at Darlington. And yet he still finished third.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were briefly befuddled with the handling of the No. 48. Johnson didn't qualify well on Friday, but instead of deliberately carving his way through the field from the drop of the green flag, he was as stagnant as two-month-old pond water.
At one point while the sun was still up he was racing Josh Wise and Parker Kligerman for 28th spot. No offense to either Wise or Kligerman, but it doesn't happen to often that the six-time champion is racing them for position.
But after some adjustments, Johnson was quickly on his way to the front. He broke into the top 10, and then the top five, and was then second to eventual race-winner Kevin Harvick as the laps counted down.
When the caution flag came out with 10 laps to go, Knaus and Johnson decided to go for track position and beat Harvick, who was taking four tires, out of the pits. It almost worked. Johnson had the lead when the green flag waved, but wasn't able to hold on to it.
"I thought we had a shot at a win," Johnson said after the race. "I think if things stayed green after our last pit stop, we had a good chance at it, good shot at it. I'm happy with Chad's decision to go with two, and there were enough cars that took two that it gave us a little bit of a cushion, maybe enough of a cushion to make it four or five laps there."
"(It was a) solid performance, granted we struggled in qualifying. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old‑fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop, so proud of the hard work."
Had the race stayed green after the restart with five laps to go, Johnson would have likely been in victory lane. But two caution flags came after it, giving Harvick the opportunity to capitalize with his fresher tires.
As the series heads to its first off-week of the year and Johnson is winless, there's likely little panic from the No. 48 bunch. They may not know the minute details of what they're missing every week, but they know the area that they need to work on. We know we're not going out on much of a limb here, but we bet Johnson gets a win in the next month. Besides, the season still isn't 25 percent complete.
"For us it's just unloading closer," Johnson said. "We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and honestly have a shot to win some races. But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We're really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we've learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we've had to continue to work on it each week. That's really our goal is to show up closer."
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