Another close call: Johnson third at Darlington after leading late
APR 12, 2014 1:11a ET
For the third time in four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, Jimmie Johnson led in the closing laps only to see a possible victory slip away.
The reigning six-time series champion couldn't feel but so disappointed with a third-place in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, however.
Johnson, who left pit road first following a two-tire call by crew chief Chad Knaus with eight laps of the scheduled race distance remaining, pulled away from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the ensuing restart and appeared on his way to his first win of 2014 before a caution for debris set up a green-white-checkered restart.
Choosing the outside lane alongside Earnhardt Jr., Johnson lost the lead to Earnhardt Jr. and then second to Kevin Harvick as Harvick pushed Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 car past the No. 48 Chevrolet heading into Turn 1.
Another caution -- this one for a Kurt Busch wreck -- set up a second and final green-white-checkered restart, but Johnson was unable to advance his position while Harvick passed Earnhardt Jr. for the win.
But despite the frustration of being denied another victory, Johnson found solace in the fact that he rebounded from a 26th-place starting position and rough opening segment of the race when his Chevrolet wasn't handling to his liking.
"Just very happy to finish there in the top three," said Johnson, who was seeking his fourth Darlington victory. "I thought we had a shot at a win. I think if things stayed green after our last pit stop, we had a good chance at it, good shot at it. I'm happy with Chad's decision to go with two (tires), and there were enough cars that took two that it gave us a little bit of a cushion, maybe enough of a cushion to make it four or five laps there.
"Solid performance, granted we struggled in qualifying. We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old-fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop, so proud of the hard work."
Johnson wasn't surprised to see the caution flag wave three times in the final 10 laps, setting up the longest race in the history of the fabled 1.366-mile oval.
"I don't know what brought out the caution with 10 to go or nine to go or whatever it was, but once we get the first caution, cautions breed cautions," he said. "I assume there's a lot of pent-up anger out there through 495 miles of racing, and when a guy has got four fires on him, I'm sure it was pretty aggressive in the middle of the pack and that's what caused the other two cautions."
Heading into the Easter off week, Johnson is cautiously optimistic that his No. 48 team is heading in the right direction -- despite still remaining winless in 2014.
"For us, it's just unloading closer," said Johnson, who leaves Darlington sitting fifth in the standings. "We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and, honestly, have a shot to win some races. But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us.
"We're really just trying to get a grasp on these rules, and we go home with what we've learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and, unfortunately, we've had to continue to work on it each week. That's really our goal is to show up closer."