KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jimmie Johnson knew his car was damaged. He just didn’t know the extent of it.
When he pulled into the garage after Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, the five-time champion finally realized that crew chief Chad Knaus had been lying to him all along.
The rear end had been crushed during a spin midway through the race, and the crew of the No. 48 Chevrolet had spent half a dozen pit stops trying to smooth out the damage. The calm, confident voice of Knaus never gave Johnson any indication that his car was so heavily damaged.
“There’s nothing wrong with that thing. Nothing,” Knaus told Johnson over the radio after his fourth trip to the pits. “You just might have a little trouble looking out the back window.”
No problem for Johnson, a two-time winner at Kansas. He wound up driving through the field to a ninth-place finish, his eighth straight top-10 over the 1.5 mile tri-oval.
“I had to get a look at it here. It’s pretty tore up,” Johnson said after the race, which was won by Matt Kenseth. “Definitely proud of this team and the fact that we never give up and continue to fight and get every point that we can.”
Johnson finished one spot behind point leader Brad Keselowski, and remains seven points back with four races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“I’m very proud but I was disappointed,” Johnson said. “We could have been in Victory Lane.”
Johnson certainly had the car to do it, leading 44 laps early in the race. But he had just pitted with 148 to go when Aric Almirola got into the wall, and that shuffled Johnson back in the field. Now with cars in front of him, Johnson saw Martin Truex Jr. bobble a bit and hit the gas trying to get around him, and “when I did that, my car took off and I couldn’t catch it.”
Johnson backed into the wall in Turn 4, compressing the rear end. It took four pit stops during the caution flag and a couple more over subsequent cautions before enough damage was ripped off the car, buckled down or taped over that Johnson could start racing through the field.
“Unbelievable,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I have never in my 30 years of racing seen anyone perform that kind of surgery and not lose a lap.”
Keselowski was just as impressed by his closest championship competition.
“The race kept giving him opportunities to recover with all the yellows,” Keselowski said, “and they took advantage. They’re a great team and that’s what great teams do.”
Danica Patrick decided to stand up for herself – and it cost a car.
Patrick was on the lead lap early in the race when she said Landon Cassill “slammed into me on the front straight for no other reason than his radio communication, `She was in the way.’“
So, Patrick decided to nudge the No. 83 car when he slid in front of her, and both of them spun out. Cassill managed to save his car while Patrick slammed hard into the wall.
“I’ve always played fair,” Patrick said in the garage area. “If it’s one time, I can imagine it’s frustration, but it’s been pretty consistent with him getting into me. At some point in time, I have to stand up for myself, or everybody is going to do it.”
Patrick officially finished 32nd, and has yet to record a top-20 result in eight Sprint Cup races. She’s running an abbreviated 10-race schedule to prepare for a full-time ride next season with Stewart-Haas Racing, and is still scheduled to run at Texas and Phoenix this year.
Of course, the car she wrecked is the same one she was planning to run at Texas.
Cassill ended up finishing 18th, and offered his unvarnished opinion of Patrick over the radio: “Rule No. 1 in stock car racing is learn how to wreck someone without wrecking yourself.”
Evidently, Kyle Busch hasn’t learned his lesson when it comes to retaliation.
Busch, who was fined and suspended last season for intentionally wrecking Ron Hornaday Jr. in a truck race, warned Ryan Newman to watch his back after the two got together Sunday.
Busch had been fighting for grip all afternoon when Newman closed in on him. Busch went low to protect the bottom, and Newman ran up the back of him, getting both cars a little bit loose.
“Then he ran into the back of me and spun me out,” Busch said. “There’s still 80-something laps to go. I don’t know what that was for or why or whatever, but I’m glad he’s wrecked along with me, and he’ll get another one here before the year is out.”
Busch was fined $50,000 and parked by NASCAR for his incident involving Hornaday at Texas Motor Speedway. He ended up having to miss the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races that weekend, and spent the remainder of the season on probation.
After winning 18 times over NASCAR’s top three series last season, things haven’t gone nearly as smooth for Busch for this year. His only victory came in the Cup race at Richmond in April.
Then there’s the fact that Kansas has been especially bad for him. His average finish in 11 races is 21st, and twice he’s been in title contention when he’s been wrecked.
“It’s impatience,” he said. “You’ve got to be patient enough to know there’s 80 laps to go.”