Just like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jimmie Johnson needed a win at Talladega Sunday to advance to the Elimination round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Johnson was 11th of 12 drivers in the Chase going into the race, meaning the only way to stay alive was to win, a tall order late in the season at one of the series’ most challenging tracks.
Things were looking up for Johnson early on in the race. The six-time Sprint Cup champion qualified second and led the most laps of any driver on the grid (84 of 194). Johnson was fighting for position near the front of grid when three caution flags mixed up the field order. Kyle Larson spinning out, a chunk of metal on the front stretch of the track and a four-car accident on the backstretch (which teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr got wrapped up in) all prompted caution flags.
The last restart is what put the final nail in the coffin for Johnson’s Sprint Cup hopes. He didn’t anticipate a second caution flag to come out and thus wasn’t able to position himself correctly for the restart.
“I was trying to make something happen on the restart,” he told Motorsport. “I was in a weird position there behind the No. 2 and if I pushed him to the win, he moves on and I don’t. So I tried going to his outside. I looked up and I had no friends in the mirror. If I had known we were going to have a second green-white-checker, I would have stayed in line. That would have shuffled the order around and I wouldn’t have been behind him, and maybe we would have had another shot at it.”
Johnson wasn’t overly torn up about the result, though. He had finished 40th an Kansas and 17th at Charlotte in the first two races of the “Contender Round”, putting him in a tough spot for the final race. Radio chatter between him and crew chief Chad Knaus in the last few races also indicated there was some ongoing tension between the two.
“Am I disappointed in our Chase? Absolutely,” Johnson said. “In the last two weeks, people have tuned in the radio and there have been plenty of articles written this week. Frustration was high between Chad and I and the fact that we haven’t been able to produce like we wanted to.”
“I really wanted to enter today’s race feeling like I was playing with house money,” Johnson said. “I was given an opportunity today to get back in the championship battle after two bad races. We tried our best … and unfortunately we just didn’t get it done.”
Johnson and two other drivers from Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, were all knocked out of the Chase Sunday, leaving only Jeff Gordon to fight for the title. The final elimination series before the Sprint Cup Championship race is held kicks off this weekend at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, October 26.