As Johnson's mangled No. 48 Chevrolet limped back to pit road, the Sprint Cup points leader had to believe that Sunday would evolve into a stellar points boon.
But that didn’t happen.
The caution for the accident lasted five laps and enabled the Hendrick Motorsports team to make six trips to pit road for repairs. After major plastic surgery with bear bond — industrial sized sheets of duct tape — the five-time champion lined up 30th with 121 laps remaining in the race.
Keselowski must have thought he was witnessing the Terminator, sans Johnson declaring “I’ll be back.”
“I thought they did a hell of a job fixing that car is what I was thinking,” Keselowski said. “They were coming.”
The realization surely set in after the race, when Johnson pulled up one position behind Keselowski’s No. 2 Dodge. And since Johnson led 44 laps earlier in the event, the one-point advantage Keselowski would have gained by finishing eighth to Johnson’s ninth-place result evaporated.
Keselowski has raced long enough not to take his seven-point advantage for granted, particularly when his team is racing against formidable opponents such as Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. They have been together since Johnson’s rookie season in 2002 and have posted incomparable numbers the past 11 seasons.
No other organization was won five consecutive Cup titles. And in 395 starts, Johnson has amassed 58 wins, 164 top fives and 246 top-10 finishes.
On Sunday, Johnson felt fortunate that the damage to his car was “cosmetic.” He characterized the comeback as “big” and credited his team for pulling together. Johnson, 37, says the team’s racing is “more mature” this year than it was in 2011, when he and Knaus were sniping at each other.
“That’s what truthfully we didn’t like about our attitude and execution at the end of last year,” Johnson said. “When things got a little trying for us, we didn’t communicate and work as we needed to. That’s all people; not just the guy calling the shots and what to fix on the car, but all of us.
“And (Sunday), we executed like there really wasn’t anything that happened and did our best to get the car back on the track and get our best finish.”
Johnson was disappointed that he personally made a driving error and wasn’t able to capitalize on Keselowski at an intermediate track where the Penske Racing crew has excelled this season. However, he remains confident that with four races remaining in the Chase — starting with Martinsville this weekend, where he has six career wins and an average finish of 5.8 — he’ll continue to close in on Keselowski.
“The best way to send (a message) is how you perform on the track. And (on Sunday), we showed what our team is capable of,” Johnson said. “Outside of that, and the one mistake I made, everything else went pretty awesome. I’m proud of the team, and I hope the other guys are paying attention.”
Compared with Johnson’s record at Martinsville, Keselowski knows he’s vulnerable. Although Keselowski posted his best career finish (ninth) in April on the 0.526-mile track and completed all but two laps of competition, he has led only two laps in his five starts.
But after the surprise attack by Johnson & Co. on Sunday, Keselowski recognizes that he’s in a fight to the finish.
“I see it coming all the way down to Homestead,” Keselowski said. “It will be decided there. I’m happy with the season that we’ve had so far and the position that we’re in. It’s going to come down to the last race. That’s pretty obvious after (Sunday).”
Here are 10 topics to ponder with four races remaining in the Sprint Cup season:
1. Will Christmas come early . . .
. . . for Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell? NASCAR’s oldest track is also one of its most cherished — and has a loyal Dale Earnhardt Jr. following. Earnhardt was expected to test at Gresham Motorsports Park on Monday and follow up with neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty on Tuesday to ensure he has completed the prescribed recovery path. If Petty clears Earnhardt and NASCAR provides its seal of approval, Junior Nation will really have something to cheer about this weekend.
2. NASCAR Trucks at The Big E?
Track owner Tony Stewart said on Friday he would be “ecstatic if we could get any NASCAR race at Eldora” and acknowledged that he has talked to NASCAR, which has “been looking at all kinds of tracks.” What Stewart failed to mention was two trucks tested last week on the half-mile clay oval and, according to sources, the three-time champion drove one of the trucks, along with Austin Dillon. Dillon characterized the test as “fun” but coyly added “you will have to wait and see” how the trucks actually perform.
“It will be interesting to see how they do,” Dillon said. “They still have a lot of work to do, but I’d enjoy going back.”
3. So close . . .
Kyle Busch almost pulled off that first Nationwide Series win when he was driving his team’s own equipment on Saturday at Kansas Speedway — until he ran out of gas when the event went into overtime. It appears that Rowdy has three more chances to pull off the feat before the Nationwide division of Kyle Busch Motorsports integrates into Joe Gibbs Racing. Sources tell us KBM will evolve into a Truck-only operation for 2013. Busch and Monster Energy will move forward with JGR.
4. Reunion run
Stewart Haas Racing unveiled its crew chief lineup for next season, but Ryan Newman will have a head start on 2013 as Matt Borland rejoins his former Penske Racing driver beginning at Martinsville.
“I have good rapport with him personally and professionally,” Newman said. “Hopefully, we can rekindle some of the success that we had winning poles and races.”
Together the pair won 12 races, 37 poles and qualified for two of the three Chase for the Sprint Cup's during their tenure. In their first four seasons together, Newman’s worst finish in points was sixth.
5. Vacation’s over
No one was happier to see crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe return from his NASCAR-imposed sabbatical than Paul Menard. And the driver responded accordingly with a third-place finish — his first top five on the season. Labbe wasn’t sitting idle during his suspension for an illegal car frame. The crew chief was testing on a nearly weekly basis at Nashville Speedway. It obviously paid off. Five days at Kansas Speedway allowed the No. 27 team to hone in on a comfortable package for Menard, while the driver’s participation in the Nationwide Series race Saturday proved invaluable.
6. Holding his own
Martin Truex Jr. didn’t earn the credit he deserved for surviving Sunday’s “wreckord” 14 cautions with a second-place finish — matching his season-best finish also at Kansas before the repave. Although he qualified 16th, Truex dodged a lot of drivers to post his seventh top-five finish this season, tying a career-best effort. Truex has mixed results at Martinsville but earned his second fifth-place finish there in the spring.
7. Hoping to make up ground
Denny Hamlin has been the hottest driver at Martinsville Speedway of late. He has won three of the past six races, and his 6.4 average finish is second only to that of Johnson. After a disappointing 13th-place showing at Kansas Speedway, where Hamlin was mired in traffic, he lost five points to Keselowski.
“We’ll just try to rebound at Martinsville,” Hamlin said. “It’s been a good track for us.”
8. Second chances
Don’t expect Phoenix Racing to jump the gun in announcing its driver lineup for this weekend. However, should Earnhardt Jr. be cleared, Regan Smith will drive the No. 51 Chevrolet. Smith posted his fourth top-10 finish of the season on Sunday subbing in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports car. General manager Steve Barkdoll said Monday morning that the commitment had been made to Smith before AJ Allmendinger filled in. Still Barkdoll, who spotted for Allmendinger during throughout Smith’s absence, described the experience as fun.
“The way AJ performed the last two weeks, he deserves to be in a full-time ride,” Barkdoll said.
9. For hire
Will some Nationwide Series owner please step up and offer Johanna Long a competitive ride? Not only did Long outqualify Danica Patrick at Kansas Speedway, she also outraced the No. 7 Chevrolet before she blew out a right front tire. Perhaps Long’s greatest attribute is not blaming other competitors when something in the race does not unfold according to plan.
10. Class act
Matt Kenseth became the second driver to win multiple races in the Chase with his victory at Kansas. Had it not been for mechanical failures, Kenseth could be in contention for his second Sprint Cup title. Still, it was rewarding to see the camaraderie between the driver, crew chief and owner on Sunday. Kenseth’s departure from Roush Fenway Racing is bittersweet, but it’s clear that his friendships will remain intact.