As far as five-time Sprint Cup Jimmie Johnson knew, his plan to bump off points leader Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was proceeding perfectly with 45 laps left.
Johnson, the only man who could keep Keselowski from the title, needed one fewer stop than Keselowski. He thought he could sense the pressure of an imminent title affecting Keselowski, who needed to finish only in 16th to beat Johnson’s maximum points by that point in the race.
Then, racing happened.
A missed lug nut cost Johnson a lap penalty, meaning Keselowski didn’t have to do much more than keep running to take the title. Then a fluid leak in a drive line put Johnson behind the wall and in the garage. As Keselowski celebrated the title, Johnson ended the night sitting in his car in his garage, 36th in the race and third in the points.
As Johnson climbed out of the car after the race, he asked ESPN’s Jamie Little where Keselowski finished.
“At first, she said 21st, and I about lost my lunch when I heard that,” Johnson said. “She said, ‘Well, he got to 15th.’ I said, ‘Well, it would’ve been interesting.’ ”
Though Keselowski needed only a 15th-place finish coming into the weekend to clinch the title no matter what Johnson did, Johnson tried to peck away at the confidence of Keselowski and his team. He brought up recent last-race reversals of series fortunes.
He reminded everyone of all the racing things that could happen to keep a car from even 15th. He said the pressure of an imminent title could tighten Keselowski or even a crewman into a fatal error.
“I would’ve hated to come out there and do the trash talking I did to start the week and run 25th all night long,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do. We put the pressure on.”
Johnson led at one point and ran in the top four most of the day. Even Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, said afterward they wished they had given Keselowski a better car. So, there was some drama.
And, then, the lug nut. The Johnson pit turned funereal, somehow seeming as quiet as a wake in the middle of a race.
In the car, “I got on the track and was trying to think through what was going on,” Johnson said. “[Crew chief] Chad [Knaus] had some optimism left in his voice. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe he was just doing a good job of being a cheerleader.
“But I ran a handful of laps and then I could smell some oil,” he continued. “And when the gear failed, there was a lot of shaking in the car. I knew it was big and going to be fatal. First, I thought it was the engine, but it was the gear. It was still running.”
Johnson pointed out they were ahead of teammate and eventual race winner Jeff Gordon in the race. As far as the points, Johnson figured DNF’s in the last two races, at Phoenix and Homestead, kept him from the title.
“If someone outruns you, then you get back and go to work,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “If things happen outside of your control, that’s just the breaks of the game. I thought it was a long shot anyway. Brad, as good as he’s been, has run a flawless Chase [for the Cup].”
Hendrick said of the split results for his team, “I’m celebrating that one [Gordon’s win] and letting the other one go.”