JOLIET, Ill. -- Saturday night's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup opener produced a few career firsts for Jimmie Johnson, but the event at Chicagoland Speedway ultimately resulted in something very familiar -- the five-time NASCAR champion staging the kind of comeback that's helped keep him at or near the top of the sport's premier division for so long.
He fell behind once because of an incorrect official's call on a lug nut during a pit stop. He fell behind again when the jack broke as his team was changing the left-side tires on his No. 48 car. And yet there was Johnson at the end, charging up through the field as he so often has, turning a trying day -- and night, given the five-hour rain delay -- into a fifth-place finish and promising start to the Chase.
"Really big," he called it. "The next-to-last run, we got ourselves right back in the thick of things. Unfortunately we didn't have the speed in that last segment to go race for the win. But from the jack failing, from the call on pit road with a lug nut not supposed to be on, it was a variety of issues. It was a great comeback. Want to finish better, of course, but proud of all the hard work."
Johnson entered the Chase as the No. 2 seed, but on the heels of four straight difficult races in which his best finish was 28th. Sunday was a challenge from the beginning -- Johnson pitted from the lead under green early in the event, and the official in the No. 48 team's pit box pointed out what appeared to be a loose lug nut on the vehicle's right-rear wheel during the ensuing stop.
Except that when a crewman doubled back to check the wheel, he found the nut tightened into place. The slow stop dropped Johnson to fifth, although he had improved to fourth when the event was interrupted by rain on Lap 109 of a scheduled 267.
"One had fallen off during the hand-in, so it was kind of hanging there, but the tire changer had taken the time. He did his job," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "He did a great job getting the other lug nut on there and making sure it was tight. The official thought there were only four on there. We all make mistakes. That happens from time to time."
"Chad didn't want me to leave the box without all the lugs on, because that's a penalty, and on and on it went," Johnson added. "So, long story short, I sat there on pit road while the clock was ticking and we proved our case that all five were on there."
A bigger hurdle was yet to come. Pitting under caution after a spin by Justin Allgaier, Johnson pulled into his box for what appeared a routine stop -- until the jack suddenly wouldn't function after it was carried around to the left side. Crewmen quickly switched it out, but the slight delay was enough to drop Johnson back to 22nd once the race resumed.
"Two brand new things that I've never experienced in my career for sure," Johnson said after the race of the twin pit incidents. "We've had some other trying times, but this was a first."
The car, though, never suffered. If anything it improved as the race went along, particularly after the long weather delay. "Really starting to come in now," Johnson said over the radio as the final 100 laps approached. He stormed back toward the front, stalling out only slightly over the event's final run as he dueled Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for fifth.
"We went through a series of issues and were stuck in the 20s for a long time, and I knew the laps were clicking down," Johnson said. "That second-to-last run, the car was awesome, and I went flying though there. Prior to that restart, my mind was set on maybe a top-10. I didn't even think a top-five was in the question. But the car was so good, and I could roll the top and pass a lot of guys and got to third. I did have a little doubt. Certainly wasn't going to give up, but got concerned, and things started going in the right direction."
The effort was good enough for Johnson to hold third in the Chase standings, behind the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who finished 1-2 in the playoff opener. Johnson had been second, three points behind top-seeded Kenseth, to start the playoff. He's now 11 off the lead heading to New Hampshire next weekend.
"Not happy, no, not by any means," Knaus said. "But we had a lot of weird things happen, and we were able to get back up there and get a solid finish. But solid finishes aren't going to be what wins championships. We've got to perform better all the way across the board. We had a good race car, Jimmie did an amazing job. We failed a little bit on pit road, some of it is our own doing, some of it not. But we'll do better. We're excited about Loudon."
Even though Johnson ultimately lost points to the leader, he knew it could have been worse.
"You just don't want to get off to a bad start," he said. "I hate not taking any points away from the 20 (car of Kenseth), because I know how hard he's going to beat all year, and he did an awesome job tonight. We're going to have our hands full. This is going to be awesome championship battle down to the end."
And Johnson may very well be in it to the end, especially if he and his race team keep pulling off comebacks like the one they mounted Sunday night.
"There's always doubt, but we never stop believing, man," Knaus said, as a certain Journey song played over the track's public address system. "We always fight. We're not smart enough to quit."
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