Following Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson likely looked at each other and asked one another, “What the heck just happened?”
Starting from the pole, Johnson dominated by leading a race-high 104 of the event’s 206 laps (six additional than scheduled due to a green-white-checker situation) and appeared headed to a track record sixth win at Fontana.
Didn’t happen, though. Far from it, in fact.
Even though Johnson and Gordon were running 1-2 with 20 laps to go, that was far from where each would finish Sunday.
While in the lead with seven laps remaining, Johnson was among several drivers in the race that experienced a flat tire – and for Johnson, at the worst time possible – ultimately leaving him with a disappointing 24th-place finish, the last car on the lead lap, negating all the momentum he had earned throughout the race.
“Yeah, we did an awesome job as a race team,” Johnson said. “We did everything we could to win the race today, unfortunately something out of our control let us down.
“I had that feeling I thought we were going to win here at my home track once again and it’s just a bummer it didn’t work out.”
Gordon, meanwhile, led 23 laps, hung around the top 10 for most of the day, took over the lead when Johnson’s flat tire brought out the caution, but ultimately wound up 13th due to the race’s final restart, which quickly went from good to bad for him.
“The closing laps were pretty much a typical restart for me,” Gordon said. “I got the inside lane which was absolutely the worst lane for me.
“I got actually a decent restart and it just didn’t go well. I went to the inside of the No. 18 (Kyle Busch), he swerved left that put him in the middle, me on the bottom three- or four-wide and it just went downhill from there.”
NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said after the race that there didn’t appear to be a common thread in the failure of so many tires, and that the sanctioning body felt it was more an issue of overly aggressive setups on many of the cars in Sunday’s race rather than the Goodyear tires they rode upon.
But that didn’t stop Gordon from taking an uncharacteristic swipe at Goodyear.
“I don’t know where to begin with the disappointment for this Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet team,” Gordon said. “They gave me the most incredible race car today and it is just so disappointing for it to end like that.
“I hate the caution came out. I hate Goodyear was not prepared today for what happened. They are so good at what they do and that is just uncalled for. We were having a tire issue there on that last long run and I just backed off. When I saw the No. 48 had issues, I was just hoping we would make it to the end. I was just going as slow as I possibly could, trying to maintain the lead and cars were just blowing tires left and right all around me.
“It’s unfortunate that was happening, but most importantly that the caution came out because we did not need that restart.”
The other two Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, had respective respectable and terrible days, with Earnhardt finishing 12th, while Kahne finished a season-worst 41st.
Ever the optimist, Johnson tried to find a silver lining in what wound up being a grey day for his team Sunday.
“This No. 48 is fast and we will come back next week to a very strong race track for this Lowe’s Chevrolet and hopefully get the job done there.”
You can bet on that. For as good as Johnson has been at Auto Club Speedway coming into Sunday’s race (5 wins, 12 top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes in his first 19 career Cup starts there), he’s virtually unstoppable at Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson will make his 25th career Cup start at the half-mile, paper-clip shaped bullring in southern Virginia this coming Sunday. He’ll bring with him an amazing record of eight wins, 17 top-5 and 21 top-10 finishes.
Think about that for a second: Johnson has finished outside the top-10 at Martinsville just three times in his 24 starts there to date.
Let’s just hope his tires hold up this time.
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