Have you ever noticed that trouble strikes when you least expect it? For Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, that was the case Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. With a 184-point advantage over teammate Mark Martin, Johnson simply needed to finish 10th or better in the final three races in order to claim his fourth straight title. After making it through the chaos in the closing laps at Talladega, Johnson was unable to make it three full laps at the Dickies 500, where he was the favorite to win.
Exiting the second turn, Johnson looked to make a move around the No. 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. As the No. 48 went to the high side, the No. 00 of David Reutimann peeked on the inside of Hornish’s Dodge. With Reutimann on his left rear, Hornish bobbled exiting the corner and got into the door of the No. 48. Johnson slid trying to regain control, but shot down the track and into the right rear of the No. 77 before smacking the inside wall. With heavy damage to the No. 48, Johnson went to the garage for lengthy repairs.
More than an hour later the No. 48 emerged beaten, bruised and more than 100 laps down to the race leader. Johnson was able to maintain the minimum speed required stay on the track and finished 38th, the No. 48’s worst finish since Atlanta nearly three months ago.
With Johnson out of the picture, the rest of the Chasers went to work making up ground on the man once deemed unstoppable.
Despite sitting on the pole and scoring a win there earlier in the year, Jeff Gordon’s Texas struggles got the best of him again. The No. 24 fought poor handling for much of the afternoon and struggled to finish 13th. The four-time Cup Series champion called the day a disappointment and saw it as “a total missed opportunity that completely got away from us."
Also looking to capitalize, Juan Pablo Montoya hoped to make up for points lost after poor results at Lowe’s Motor Speedway (35th) and Talladega (19th). Racing hard with Carl Edwards, Montoya lost control of his Chevrolet and slid into the side of Edwards’ Ford. The No. 42 received heavy damage, but the team was able to make repairs and Montoya limped to 37th, dropping him two spots in the Chase to sixth.
Although he struggled throughout the weekend’s practice sessions, Mark Martin ran in the top 10 for much of the afternoon. Continuing to work on the car throughout the event, Martin came on strong in the late stages and was able to benefit from a number of cars running out of gas in the closing laps to earn a fourth-place finish.
Scoring the win, Kurt Busch jumped two spots in the standings to fourth and now sits 171 points behind Johnson. While it seems unlikely the 2004 champion can overcome this deficit, the race is heating up for second through sixth.
Johnson’s point lead over Martin has been cut to 73. Only two races remain in the Chase and next week the series returns to Phoenix, where Martin got his first win of the season after leading the most laps.
"It was definitely not the day we wanted,” Johnson said. “We did not want to lose points like that. Luckily we had a big margin. We’re going to two great tracks for us here and we’ll just keep racing. We’ve been saying all along that anything can happen. I just wish that Sam (Hornish) could have waited a little while longer before he hit something. Instead, he lost it and hit me and off we went."
Two more races remain and, as Johnson pointed out, anything can happen. The defending champion has an average finish of 5.4 at Phoenix, but Martin was dominant there earlier this year. Gordon, who now sits 112 points back, has also been strong in the desert and will refuse to give up the fight for the title.
There is no doubt Johnson’s struggle on Sunday shook up the Chase, but it was not a crushing blow to his campaign to make NASCAR history. Seventy-three points is still a strong lead to have with two races to go and Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the poise to overcome this setback.