FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't see the edge where the Texas Motor Speedway asphalt gave way to the infield. And when Junior's car drilled the grass, sending his No. 88 Chevrolet into the wall -- and into flames -- he wasn't the only Hendrick Motorsports car affected.
The misfire also caught Jimmie Johnson's No. 48, spraying grime over the nose of his vehicle, denting the windshield and damaging the left front.
It was the final point that sent Johnson into the pits multiple times early in Monday's Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in an effort to salvage his day. The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion would finish 25th and two laps down.
"It's kind of surreal what happened," Johnson said. "Junior hit the grass there and something off his car like a splitter or something just destroyed my windshield, and then something hit the nose of the car, too."
Crew chief Chad Knaus devised a strategy that got Johnson back into contention, albeit briefly. Needing to get the charred No. 88 off the track, the caution period lasted 11 laps (from 14-24). Knaus called for Johnson to come down pit road multiple times.
The team sent extra men over the wall to fix the damaged front with tape and Bondo, and Johnson sped down pit road every time -- there were no other cars or crew members in his way after the first pit stop, and he was already 42nd in the race so the ensuing penalty didn't affect him.
Over the scanner, Knaus asked Johnson if he could drive with the dented windshield -- the damage would not affect his car in anyway.
"Yes, I just don't want to eat it," Johnson replied.
He didn't. The green flag dropped on Lap 25, and by Lap 34 Johnson was up to 25th place.
On Lap 39, however, Johnson blew a right rear tire that ruined his day for good.
"We were in a good position and were running decent lap times when the right rear blew," Johnson said. "I'm glad Junior is alright, and hats off to my guys. We played around with some strategy at the end. They never gave up."
The late-race attempts to get back on the lead lap were well conceived, but didn't work out.
During a debris caution on Lap 255, Johnson took the wave around knowing he'd need to pit soon. If he had lucked out with a caution flag -- and if the leaders all pitted to take tires, a likelihood due to Texas' aging surface -- Six-Time would have gained a lap and put himself in position to be the beneficiary on the next caution.
It was Johnson's second finish outside the top 20 this season. Both came, in part, due to tire issues. He was leading the Auto Club 400 late before blowing a tire with seven laps to go.
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