Jimmie Johnson had every reason to be confident heading into Sunday's race at Dover. The concrete one-mile oval has been his best Sprint Cup Series track and the six-time Sprint Cup champion had finished 11th and 6th in the first two races of the first round of the Chase.
Anything but disaster at Dover was going to get him into the second round. And the chances of disaser seemed slim. Through 28 career Dover races, Johnson had 10 wins and 20 top-10 finishes.
Johnson got a pit road speeding penalty on the race's first round of pit stops. That was no big deal. Even if Johnson had a mid-pack finish he'd be fine. But a seal broke in the car's driveline. There was visible grease on the right rear tire of the car.
Johnson felt the issue and took his car to pit road. Its next stop was the garage and he spent 37 laps in his garage stall as the team fixed the problem. The No. 48 made it back out on track but there wasn't enough attrition in the race to save his season. Johnson finished 41st and ended up missing the 12-driver second round of the Chase by 12 points.
"It’s tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away," Johnson said. It’s racing, I’ve had mechanicals take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself and I’m sure helped me with a championship or two. It’s just part of racing. It just shows how critical everything is on a race team. And how important every component is and you can’t take anything for granted. Heartbreaking for sure, but I don’t know what else we can do about it we just have to go on and try to win races and close out the season strong.”
The key to surviving the first two rounds of the Chase is simple. Avoid bad finishes. Sure, a win moves you on to the next round – just ask Dover winner Kevin Harvick, who won to advance despite two poor finishes in the first two races – but nine winless drivers were moving on Sunday. And with just three races in each round, there's not enough margin to overcome a porous finish. Especially when it happens in the final round of the Chase.
Johnson was eliminated in the second round of the 2014 Chase. He ended up 11th in the standings thanks to finishes of worse-than-30th at Martinsville and Phoenix. But he won at Texas. Given that the No. 48 is now free to go for wins and not worry about points, expect to see Johnson play spoiler over the next seven races as his shot at record-tying title No. 7 will have to wait until 2016.
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