SPARTA, Ky. -- Jimmie Johnson did everything but win Sunday's Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway.
The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion led the majority of the laps (182 of 267) and his crew was practically flawless on pit road.
Even running over debris, which slightly damaged the front of his blue and white Chevrolet, failed to slow him down.
But his day took a turn for the worse, literally, in the closing laps, and Johnson found himself trying to regain lost ground before the checkered flag appeared.
That he was able to rally from 25th to ninth in the final 20 laps was testament to his car's speed and Johnson's resolve.
Which likely didn't ease the sting of a missed opportunity.
Out front when he led the field onto pit road following a crash by Brian Vickers, Johnson found himself second on the ensuing restart, the result of a no-tire call by eventual race winner Matt Kenseth.
With Joey Logano in his rear-view and the field stacking up heading into Turn 1, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports entry suddenly broke loose.
Although there was no damage, a quick trip to the pits put him deep in the field for the final restart.
"We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there," Johnson said. "And then we were like three- and four-wide going in the corner, then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around."
It was "unfortunate," he said, "but at least we rallied back for a good finish."
Logano, who wound up fourth, said he didn't think there was contact between his Penske Racing Ford and the Chevrolet of Johnson.
"I don't think I ever touched him," Logano said. "I went down there three-wide and am 95 percent sure I never touched him. It was an unfortunate deal.
"Once he started spinning I started checking up to not finish him off and give him a shot to save it. It happens. That is racing."
Johnson said he felt Kenseth "broke the pace car speed" and caused the initial logjam heading into the turn.
"But they aren't calling guys on that," Johnson said, "so I need to start trying that in the future."
Kenseth, who led twice for 38 laps, said he didn't feel he did anything wrong or out of the ordinary on the restart.
"I have no idea what happened to him or what I possibly could have done to upset him," Kenseth said afterward. "When I got ready for the restart, we were up on top and we were the leader, so it's anywhere in that (restart) box we can start the race."
When the pace car pulled off, "I didn't check my (tachometer) to see if we were exactly the same pace, but I think you can look through data and see I didn't slow down," Kenseth said.
It wasn't the first time Johnson had voiced issues with restarts this season. In the closing laps at Dover, where he was also strong and in position for a win late in the race, Johnson was black-flagged for jumping the restart.
And he was nearly turned by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a restart at Michigan earlier this month.
Sunday, Earnhardt and Johnson were running 1-2 at Kentucky when the casing off a tire on Denny Hamlin's car rolled across the track in front of the leaders. Both Earnhardt and Johnson ran over the debris, with Earnhardt's car suffering the more severe damage.
The ninth-place finish enabled Johnson to extend his points lead over second-place Carl Edwards to 38 points.
But the opportunity to score a fourth win, and three more bonus points toward this year's Chase For the Sprint Cup, was lost.
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- Matt Kenseth
- Joey Logano