Jimmie Johnson stood on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway late Sunday afternoon and “vividly remembered” missing a meal.
It was a luncheon press conference in 2011, the year that a five-year Johnson reign as NASCAR champ was coming to an end, with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in a two-driver duel going into the season finale.
He noted “how much that ate at me to watch it on TV and not be a part of it.” And now, he said, “I get the pleasure of going through that again.”
Johnson, the defending premier series champion, came into the GEICO 500 with a must-win scenario. He was 11th in points, so the only way he would advance into the eight-driver “Eliminator Round” segment of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was with a victory at Talladega.
He qualified second and led the most laps (84 of the 194). As he said, “We dominated it. We just didn’t lead the lap that counted.”
Johnson and two other Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, were eliminated, with only Jeff Gordon advancing among the eight survivors still eligible for the title.
Nonetheless, Johnson was in a relatively chipper mood and, indeed, oozing with more than a little bit of pride.
“It feels relieving to go down swinging,” he said.
The last several weeks, one wondered when the members of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team might be swinging at each other. There had been palpable tension on radio conversations between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who had helped chart the path for those six championships.
“Am I disappointed in our Chase?” Johnson said. “Absolutely. In the last two weeks, people have tuned in the radio and there have been plenty of articles written this week. Frustration was high between Chad and I and the fact that we haven’t been able to produce like we wanted to.”
Sunday seemed like old times all over again. Johnson, a two-time ‘Dega winner, snatched the lead from pole-sitter Brian Vickers on the first lap and led 33 of the first 74 laps. He was even more imposing in the second half until – surprise – Danica Patrick passed him on lap 167 (of the scheduled 188).
But Talladega being Talladega, there were three late caution flags of odd variety – a spin by Kyle Larson after green-flag pit stops, a chunk of metal on the front stretch and a four-car accident on the backstretch a half-lap into a green-white-checkered finish. It was the latter that stymied Johnson and led to his 24th-place finish.
“I was trying to make something happen on the restart,” he said. “I was in a weird position there behind the No. 2 (ultimate winner Brad Keselowski), and if I pushed him to the win, he moves on and I don't. So I tried going to his outside. I looked up and I had no friends in the mirror. If I had known we were going to have a second green-white-checker, I would have stayed in line. That would have shuffled the order around and I wouldn't have been behind him, and maybe we would have had another shot at it.”
All that said, Johnson knew all weekend his shot was remote at best after his 40th at Kansas and 17th at Charlotte in the first two races of this “Contender Round” part of the Chase Grid.
“I really wanted to enter today’s race feeling like I was playing with house money,” Johnson said. “I was given an opportunity today to get back in the championship battle after two bad races. We tried our best … and unfortunately we just didn’t get it done. We were playing with house money and lost.”