Jimmie Johnson's quest for Sprint Cup title No. 6 goes up in smoke

Dan Wetzel

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson sat inside a race car that wasn't moving.

His famous five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winning No. 48 was up on four blocks in the garage while the sound of engines still roaring, the most haunting sound in racing, enveloped everything around him.

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Out on the track, the race was being run, the championship was being won.

And Johnson could only sit and wonder when, or if, his crew could fix his car that was leaking fluid underneath him for some unlikely miracle so that he could salvage a championship after all. And so he sat. And sat.

"Just hanging out," he'd say later.

Meanwhile the cars out on the track kept roaring by, all but taunting him at high speeds and higher decibels.

As many as five crew members worked frantically under his car all at once while a half-dozen more were milling about looking to do something productive. It was over, of course. Johnson instinctively knew that out on that track Brad Keslowski was cruising in for the Cup championship.

Johnson wasn't getting out of that seat until the race was done though.

[Related: Keselowski wins first Sprint Cup title]

"No way," he said later. If anything, he said, it was about trying to unload a final punch in this long fight, "about going through the motions in a pride standpoint to get back out for the last lap of the season."

This entire day was a bit of a long shot. Johnson needed to win, needed to collect various bonus points, and needed Keslowski to finish outside the top 15 to steal the championship. As he sat helpless, Johnson said he figured Keslowski was in the top five or something, some result that would've rendered this run of late-race bad luck meaningless.

Eventually, when the race ended and there was no sense trying to fix anything, Johnson climbed out of the car and asked Jamie Little of ESPN where Keslowski finished.

"Twenty first," Little said, inaccurately.

"I almost puked," Johnson said.

Actually Keslowski finished 15th, Little was told. She passed it on to Johnson. If Johnson was on the track, that would've been 16th. Keslowski may have needed to finish further back, but the pressure of needing to drive harder could've changed anything.

"Well, that would've been interesting," Johnson said.

Just laps before, a half hour maybe in real time, his comeback plan was coming together. He was leading the final race of the Chase for the Cup, Keslowski was wallowing in the middle of the pack, and due to superior strategy it was Johnson who enjoyed a favorable fuel situation.

"We were in the cat bird's seat," Johnson said. "We were in position to win the race. We were ahead of the 24 [Jeff Gordon] and the 24 won the race."

Then during a critical pit stop his crew failed to secure all of the lug nuts on his left-rear tire. NASCAR forced him to pit again, a move that took away his advantage. As he tried to rally, listening to crew chief Chad Knaus attempt a positive tone, he suddenly began smelling burning fluid. It was his own, leaking out the back of the car.

"I knew it was big," Johnson said.

And just like that he was sitting helpless in a dismantled car, his drive for six over. Even in a sport known for speed, this was quick.

In the end he could only shake his head and try to find the bright side. A missing lug nut? A blown line or gear box, Johnson didn't know which. "We had 80 percent of a perfect chase," he said of his first eight races before his car broke down twice; a blown tire last weekend at Phoenix put him in the 20-point hole heading to South Florida.

So much work, so much talent, so much planning, and a championship can slip away in the smallest of ways. Johnson has said his ultimate goal is eight Sprint Cup titles, one more than Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty.

To get there, chances can't slip away. This was one of those slips.

Johnson lives a dream life; rich, famous, the beautiful family, great friends, the well-adjusted demeanor. Lost sometimes in the calm is the ferocity of the competitor, the one that wants to win so very badly. You don't get to this level without it. And in moments like this, it's obvious to see.

"I had five magical years and I really feel I have more opportunities ahead," he said in a quiet moment later. "I hate that I missed this opportunity this year but there's a lot of pride. Last year we left disappointed, we just got outraced. This year there is some pride."

He forced a smile, but it was clear the bitterness of those helpless moments sitting in his blown-up car, a championship roaring around without him, fireworks soon blasting for someone else, wasn't going to be forgotten anytime soon.

Johnson turned and headed back to the track. He wanted to make sure he could congratulate Keslowski personally.

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