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LONG POND, Pa. -- After seeing his chances of winning three consecutive races slide away in the waning laps, Jimmie Johnson wasn't frustrated at Pocono Raceway -- he was grateful, and not just for his sixth-place finish.
Grateful he missed two of Justin Allgaier's crewmen during a fateful pit stop Sunday, one that forced the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion to play catch-up for the remainder of the event. But it could have been much worse -- Johnson was exiting his stall when he made contact with the car of Marcos Ambrose, spinning the No. 48 car toward Ambrose's stall, and dangerously close to a tire changer and tire carrier servicing the No. 51 car.
"How I didn't hit those guys is beyond me," Johnson said after climbing out of his No. 48 car in the garage area. "I'm so thankful I didn't hit those guys. It wouldn't have been good."
Looking to win three consecutive races for a third time in his career, Johnson was fifth when a caution flew for debris 72 laps into the event. As he was exiting his stall following the ensuing two-tire pit stop, his right-front slammed into Ambrose's No. 9 car, which was coming in for service. The contact spun Johnson and did enough damage that he had to back up to return to his stall, where his crew attended to extensive repairs. Johnson emerged in 31st, and as the last car on the lead lap.
?Crew chief Chad Knaus took the blame. "Earl, if you see that 9 car spotter, tell him that was my fault," he radioed to spotter Earl Barban. "I didn't realize he was coming in; I thought he was coming out."
It's common for crew chiefs to spot for drivers entering and exiting the pit, since being on the pit box gives them a better vantage point than the spotter.
"Chad was spotting me out of the pit, and he took full responsibility for it," Johnson said. "He didn't know the 9 was ahead of us pulling in. He thought the 9 had left his pit box. Just confusion on pit road. I feel terrible for the 9 guys, hurting their race car and taking them out of a good day. Hurt our race car, too."
Ambrose would go on to finish 24th. But Johnson and his crew rallied in typical fashion, as they had done earlier in rebounding from a 20th-place starting position. Pit strategy, caution cycles and a fast car left Johnson third behind Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a restart with 20 laps remaining, but just when it seemed the No. 48 car would make its big move -- it went backward. Johnson's car handled tighter than expected after a two-tire stop, and he lost momentum upshifting from second gear to third, and he stood seventh when Kasey Kahne crashed with 16 laps left.
Over the radio, there was serious discussion over whether to pit. "Do you think you can hold on?" Knaus asked. Johnson left the decision up to his crew chief, who ultimately chose to stay out. "Chad would much rather have me on the offensive with tires, but with 29 guys on the lead lap, we couldn't make that call," Johnson said afterward.
It proved the prudent move, given that Johnson indeed held on for sixth. The winner of the two most recent Sprint Cup Series events at Charlotte and Dover, Johnson was attempting to become the first driver to win three straight races since he did it in 2007, when he won four in a row en route to securing his second consecutive championship.
Instead, he watched his teammate Earnhardt celebrate in Victory Lane -- actually, the combined 48/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports has won three in a row -- and focused on a day that could have turned our much differently.
"Stats and streaks are very cool. Love to keep them going," Johnson said. "But I don't lose sleep about them through the night. If we had a dominant car and were up front all day and had something stupid caught us at the end, it probably would sting a little bit more. But I'm real proud of the effort we had today and all the things we overcame."
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