LONG POND, Pa. -- As Jimmie Johnson's race team packed up the No. 48 truck and prepared to leave Pocono Raceway, there were a few satisfied smiles over a salvage effort that netted a small points gain out of what first appeared a miserable afternoon. And yet, there was also some concern over what necessitated the rally to begin with.
Johnson had another dominant car, leading 43 of the first 75 laps Sunday before a tire blowout suffered while he was out front sent the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion into the wall. Johnson and his team rebounded to finish 13th and actually pick up two points on second-place Clint Bowyer in the standings, but afterward there were still questions about what caused the right-front tire to go down in the first place.
"We've had a lot of tire issues. I don't know what's going on, but we need to figure it out," crew chief Chad Knaus said, referring to his race team. "? Michigan, Phoenix, Bristol, here -- that's about five right-front tires we've had a problem with, and I don't know if I understand why."
At Bristol in March, a tire problem with fewer than 50 laps remaining sent Johnson into the wall and relegated him to a 22nd-place result. At Michigan in June, Johnson was running second and closing in eventual winner Greg Biffle until a flat right-front with three laps remaining caused him to hit the wall and finish 28th. And then there was the blown tire in last season's penultimate event at Phoenix, which all but ended Johnson's hopes of catching Brad Keselowski in the championship race.
Sunday at Pocono, the right-front went without warning. "When it went, it just exploded," Johnson said. "I'm not really sure what caused it."
According to a representative of Goodyear, the tire lost air through the bead, but not due to excessive brake heat of the kind that can cause a bead to melt. Goodyear planned to bring the tire back to the company's headquarters in Akron, Ohio, to study it further. Johnson's right-front was one of four notable failures Sunday, none of which were related, Goodyear said.
Two of those -- the left-rear of Aric Almirola and right-front of David Stremme -- were cut down. The right-front of David Gilliland went flat from repeated contact with a piece of wire wrapped around a hose inside the car, according to Goodyear.
Earlier in the weekend, Johnson won the Coors Light Pole at Pocono with a track-record lap. Sunday's events unfolded seven days after Johnson led 73 laps at Indianapolis, only to finish second after Ryan Newman seized the lead with a late two-tire pit stop. He spoke Friday about the frustration of leaving potential race wins on the table, especially since drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup will be seeded by victories. Pocono, though, didn't quite rise to that level.
"It wasn't late enough in the race to have that same feeling as other events we've not capitalized on," Johnson said. "Today was just racing. You have that happen from time to time, and it got us today."
It certainly got them on Lap 77, when after a round of green-flag pit stops Johnson veered unexpectedly into the wall. "Hit the wall. ? It's bad," the driver immediately reported over the radio. The impact significantly damaged the right-front corner of the car, and required a series of pit stops that sent Johnson back to 28th on the restart. Unbeknownst to the No. 48 team at the time, the impact had also knocked loose a spark plug wire, leaving them puzzled as to why the vehicle was so slow.
"It was running on seven cylinders," Johnson said. "I don't know how long it was until we figured it out and got the spark plug wire on, and the car ran good again. I don't know how with a damaged race car and all the trouble we went through today we salvaged a 13th."
Johnson's No. 48 team surely benefitted from the size of 2.5-mile Pocono, which is big enough to allow cars to make pit stops without losing a lap. But his over-the-wall crewmen were also their usual, efficient selves, and Knaus resonated calm even in the midst of crisis. "We're in good shape, Jimmie," he radioed his driver at one point. "We're only halfway through this thing. We'll get back up there."
They didn't get that far, but did rebound from a low of 30th position to finish one spot ahead of Bowyer, Johnson's closest pursuer in the standings. Amazingly, the Hendrick Motorsports driver still managed to increase the largest points lead ever under this simplified system -- Johnson came to Pocono 75 ahead of Bowyer, and left 77 ahead. Third-place Carl Edwards is 84 points back.
"I thought it was great. I thought it was fantastic execution," Knaus said. "To come back the way that we did, we had to do some serious problem-solving, and to develop the miss (in the engine) after we hit, we were able to diagnose that, fix that, fix the body, get the car to where it was running competitively. To go out there and finish where we did, I think that was pretty impressive."
The question of the blown tire, though, still remains. Once it's back in Akron, Goodyear officials may cut it open to examine the bead wire in an attempt to diagnose the problem. Knaus was left to ponder what role internal factors might have played. But at least Sunday, the five-time champions left Pocono knowing they had salvaged something of an afternoon that could have been much worse.
"I think that's one thing the 48 car has always done a good job of is, make the best of a bad situation without making it worse," Knaus said. "These guys work really hard, and we try to be as prepared as we possibly can, and I think some of that showed today. We finished ahead of some pretty good race cars."
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