Death of a race car: The saga of Jimmie Johnson's No. 48

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ten men in matching black-and-blue jumpsuits surrounded the $250,000 car and readied for surgery. One held a motorized saw. Another yanked his gloves tight. Their job was to bring life back to a car in critical condition. The Daytona 500 was about to restart, with or without the No. 48.

A minute earlier, a tow truck deposited what was left of Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet into garage stall No. 13 at the Daytona International Speedway. As the truck hauled the car down the road abutting the rest of the garages, a chunk of the right side of Johnson's car fell off. Nobody bothered picking it up. It sat there, a lonely reminder of the fragility of the 3,400-pound machines that hurtle around racetracks at almost 200 mph.

This was a historic night at Daytona. Rain postponed the 500 to Monday for the first time in its 54-year history, and a morning spit pushed the start time to 7 p.m. The lights brighter than ever, the atmosphere electric despite empty seats, the spirits around the track cranked to 11 for The Great American Race finally in prime time, drivers slinked into their cars sure they'd be the one. Daytona does that, an amphetamine for confidence.

And there isn't a current NASCAR as accomplished as Johnson, who won five consecutive titles before finally ceding last season's to Tony Stewart. For Johnson, this was a new beginning. He won the 500 in 2006. In the following five tries, he was no better than 27th. Johnson qualified eighth this week. He made it around the first lap without incident.

But before he could reach the first turn a second time, Elliott Sadler, who has run 430 Sprint Cup races, bumped him. Johnson lost control. He spun into the wall. The crash took out Trevor Bayne, the defending 500 champ, Kurt Busch, David Ragan and Danica Patrick, the glamour draw whose debut at Daytona lasted barely a minute. The yellow flag unfurled.

As doctors examined Johnson to ensure the wreck did no more than shake him up, the car was hustled to the garage. Crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec awaited it. They had already barked instructions to their staff. They would need to move fast.

[Related: Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson crash on Lap 2; 'Five Time' last]

"It's like the ER," Malec said. "After someone gets into an accident, you clear out the wound, cut it open and find out if she's curable."

Once the tow truck dropped the 48, the crew assessed the damage. It was ugly. Off came the car's nose, which gave Johnson's team a visual to the front of the car. No surprise: It matched the outside – bent, dented and twisted, aerodynamic lines gone catawampus.

Mechanics cut out the firewall, an integral piece of the car that not only keeps drivers safe but holds the steering column and is connected to the brake pedals. Off came the hood, too, like a chest being cracked, so the parties could see the car's guts. The engine, all 358 cubic inches and 800 horses of it, was salvageable. The rest of the car's front not so much.

"There's no fixing that," Malec said. "You don't want to go out there again. Even if it's the Daytona 500."

And so it was. Jimmie Johnson would not win the 54th Daytona 500. He would finish 42nd, his worst ever. Knaus called it at 7:32 p.m., 11 minutes after the tow truck dropped the 48 in the garage. A crew member cut the generator. Another let it down, making sure the front wheels, their axle bent and tilted at 15 degrees, sat on casters.

Crew members work on the No. 48 car of driver Jimmie Johnson.
(AP)

Life went on outside the garage. Other teams rolled spent gas cans and burned-out tires on dollies to their haulers. Every 40 seconds, cars roared by. Johnson's team would get 199 more of those reminders.

[Related: Dan Wetzel: Danica Patrick's Daytona 500 dream turns into nightmare]

Cleared by doctors, Johnson walked into the garage to survey the damage. He shook his head. Others did the same. Johnson patted them on the back and thanked them for the hard work. He strolled away seconds later.

"Sorry, Jimmie," a fan yelled.

"Jimmie, we love you," said another.

Johnson waved to them.

"Take care, Jimmie," one said.

"It happens, Jimmie," another said.

He waved again.

One child wearing a No. 48 hat looked at Johnson through a chain-link fence wearing the same expression as Johnson: of sadness, missed opportunity, annoyance – the fruits of misfortune. Johnson stripped off the top of his racing suit. He shook the hand of a friend who offered apologies before jumping into a golf cart that whisked him to a press conference, where Johnson tried to explain what happened.

"A lot of energy in the lane," he said.

And then it just happened.

It does that way in auto racing. Cars zoom by at inhuman speeds separated by inches. That there aren't more accidents, and that they aren't of a far more spectacular nature, is one of the wonders of racing. Johnson had gone almost 200 mph headlong into a stationary object and was here giving the play-by-play of the crash as well as his emotions.

"I'm just really, really bummed to start the season this way," he said.

Back in the garage, his team traversed the garage with little to do. The gloves came off. The saw lay on the floor. Their night was over. Eight of them pushed the car toward the hauler. The back left fender jutted out. The opening for the gas tank bore a long scratch. The front left side no longer existed. Most of the front right was a memory, too.

"You're not gonna try to fix it?" joked Ken Howes, the vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports, owner of the 48.

"Ha!" Malec said. "Not tonight."

"A little straightening here and there with the radiator," Howes said.

"Yeah, that's all it needs," Malec said. "I've got a front clip on this cart."

Howes laughed and walked away. Malec sighed.

"Yeah," he said. "No fixing this."

[Related: Juan Pablo Montoya sets Daytona track ablaze after hitting jet dryer]

Malec had tried. One of the great challenges of this sport is optimizing something so uniform. Knaus had been penalized before for tricking out Johnson's car. This week, NASCAR busted him for using illegal C-posts that will prompt a reprimand. Rescuing a wrecked car is perhaps even more of a challenge than making one go faster than the rest.

This car lived a short life. It will be reincarnated by Johnson's crew back in North Carolina. They'll salvage the back half of the vehicle, the engine, some of the other pieces that survived the wreck.

"All right," Malec said, "let's do it."

They rolled the 48 onto a platform. It lifted the car above the hauler's main cabin and into the top compartment, behind the pristine backup. In the front of the 48, an open hose still puffed steam, the last breaths of the great machine that gave its life on Lap 2, Turn 1 of the Daytona 500.

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