NASCAR’s current king, Jimmie Johnson, may be losing his throne very soon.
Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion, desperately needed a strong result last night at Charlotte Motor Speedway following a crash in the Contender Round opener at Kansas.
And it appeared the champ would rise to the occasion with a Top-5 finish that would at least improve his outlook heading to next Sunday’s elimination race at Talladega.
But after the caution came out with seven laps to go in the Bank of America 500, Johnson abandoned fourth position and went to the pits under yellow for right-side tires while the rest of the leaders stayed out.
The decision put Johnson in 10th for the restart with two to go, and the final rush to the checkered flag went badly as Johnson faded to 17th at the finish.
It was a poor conclusion to an up-and-down night that saw Johnson make significant progress from 21st on the starting grid but also have some tense radio conversations between himself and crew chief Chad Knaus.
The end result won’t make matters better for Johnson, who’s now 26 points behind the Top 8 cutoff for the Eliminator Round at 11th on the Chase Grid.
Johnson cracked the Top 10 on the track shortly after the restart at Lap 100 of 334, and with the help of good pit stops, he was able to stay in that bracket through the middle stages of the race.
A two-tire stop under yellow with 65 laps to go enabled Johnson to move up to third position behind Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. He slipped back a couple of positions in the early parts of this stint, but was able to remain in the Top 5 after a final round of green flag stops with less than 25 to go.
Then came the caution with 7 to go for Brian Vickers blowing an engine. Eventual race winner Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, and Hamlin were ahead of Johnson at the time, but instead of staying out with them, Johnson was called in – a decision that, in hindsight, appeared to backfire severely.
Now, he’s down to what is effectively a win or bust scenario at Talladega, the most unpredictable track in NASCAR.
It’s a situation that Johnson clearly wanted no part of after the end of the Challenger Round at Dover, saying then that such a situation would have drivers “on pins and needles and stressing like crazy.”
However, now that’s he in the spot he’s in, it would appear he’s trying to embrace it. He tweeted the following this morning: