J-J-S Win Slips Slides Away

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CONCORD, N.C. – You could say Jimmie Johnson lost the Coca-Cola 600 by an inch or two.

Sure, Johnson finished a distant seventh place to winner Mark Martin, but it was an error on pit road that cost the rookie a chance at winning one of NASCAR’s biggest races.

After leading 263 laps, Johnson headed to pit road for what was his last pit stop of the day. A clean stop would have gotten Johnson back in the lead, where he likely would have been unbeatable.

The crew made a clean stop, but the damage had already been done. Johnson slid past his pit stall and had to back up before the crew could even start. He was dropped to ninth for the restart.

“I don’t know if you can chalk it up to inexperience,” Johnson said. “It can be read either way. I was trying to get everything I could out of getting into the pit stall. You see the best still slid through their stalls and make mistakes like that. I haven’t done it very many times in my career. With the adrenaline and excitement of winning a Winston Cup race, I just got in a little hot. The brakes locked up, and I slid past.

“We looked at the video. It couldn’t have been an inch. The inspector over there has got some eagle eyes. But it’s the rules. I have no one to blame but myself.”

It was a disappointing end to what would have been his second victory in three races for Hendrick Motorsports’ young rookie. Johnson has already had a terrific start to his first season in Winston Cup, but dominating the Coca-Cola 600 would have been really special.

And he knows it. He knows he had the race in the bag. He knows he blew it.

But he also knows that his career is just getting started. There will be plenty of chances to win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” Johnson said. “A mistake on my behalf. I can’t blame it on anyone but myself. That tells the tale. We came home seventh instead of winning it.

“Now that I’ve had a chance to get out of the car and think about it, I remember that we are rookies. This is our 14th race. We finished in the Top 10, and we’re now fifth in points. You look at all the stuff for the big picture, it was a great day. To run in the Top 10 at the Winston Cup level this early in our career is a great accomplishment.”

While putting it in perspective, Johnson also realizes how close he was.

“After you get that first win, you know what it tastes like, and you want more and more,” Johnson said. “I had my fork dug into the cake and was getting ready to take a big old bite out of it, and it fell right off my fork on the floor.”

It does seem odd that Johnson couldn’t come back from the botched pit stop to challenge Mark Martin for the victory, but that’s the nature of the Winston Cup beast these days. Track position is everything, as Johnson learned first-hand at California Speedway last month when a no-tire pit stop got him the lead. And in clean air, he was gone.

Sunday at LMS, he wasn’t in clean air, and the chance of victory was gone. The cars need all the air they can get to run well, and with Johnson mired in traffic, he couldn’t catch up.

“It’s pretty much the same routine at all the tracks,” Johnson said. “You have the lapped cars lined up inside of you, and even with the 40 laps there at the end, I had to get by 18 cars to get to the front. And that’s extremely tough to do.

“The car doesn’t lose a lot of balance (because the aero push) to where you’re real tight or real loose. You’re doing everything you can to drive the wheels off the car, but the lap times are slow. When you’re up front in clean air, you can let off 10 car lengths early and just cruise back into the throttle and drive up off the corner and you pull them by two-tenths. It’s not something real big that you can feel in the car, but looking at the times on the computer, you’re a hero one lap, and if you’re back in the traffic, you’re a zero.”

Johnson’s team wasn’t planning to make a pit stop – hoping to make it the rest of the way on fuel – but Johnson brought out a caution when he punted Hut Stricklin in Turn 4.

“I had followed him for 20 laps and was perfectly content following him,” Johnson said. “No one was catching me. We were trying to save fuel, thinking we might be able to the distance, so I was using him for the draft down the straightaway. When we went into 3, all of a sudden there was a lot of closing speed. I moved up to go around him, and I clipped him in the right-rear quarterpanel and turned him around.”

Then came the pit stop, and with it brought disappointment. That was two straight races Johnson had led a lot of laps but didn’t win. He won the first two segments of The Winston, but after the field was inverted for the final 20-lap dash, Johnson was toast.

So all he had to show for two races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway was a fifth in The Winston and a seventh in the Coca-Cola 600.

“We had the speed to run up front to race with these guys in the all-star event and the 600,” Johnson said. “But unfortunately, we weren’t able to take home that prize at either of those events. I’ve learned a lot and the team has learned a lot, and I think we’ve got great setups for when we come back here in the fall and for next year’s races.

“Overall, I guess maybe I have a disappointed feeling that we had the speed to win but didn’t come home with it. But we’ve just got to remember to look at the big picture and be happy with it.”

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