20 October 2014
NASCAR Sprint Cup Talladega: Johnson 'went down swinging'
There was huge disappointment for reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on Sunday as he was eliminated from any chance of winning the 2014 title.
It won't be seven-up for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, at least not this year, after he tumbled out of this year's Chase play-offs that will decide who claims the 2014 title along with two of his team mates, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, in what was a deeply disappointing turn of events for Hendrick Motorsports as a whole.
At least Johnson had gone into this weekend's race at Talladega knowing that he was up against it. Poor results from Kansas (where he was caught up in an accident) and Charlotte (where a late pit stop left him stuck in the midfield) meant that realistically only an outright win at Talladega would be enough to allow him to make it into the final eight left in the Chase.
He set about that task with absolute determination, picking up a front row position for the race in a confused qualifying on Saturday and then quickly taking the lead of the race itself for what would be the first of 84 laps out in front which was more than twice as many laps led than anyone else during the day. It wasn't quite textbook domination - no one can truly dominate at Talladega where aerodynamic pack drafting sees a constant ebb and flow - but it was as impressive as Johnson and the #48 Hendrick Motorsports team could possibly have hoped for.
"Today we went down swinging. We had a chance and came up short," he said after finishing the race back in 24th position. "Disappointed we didn't advance, but truthfully the way the last two races went, today was an opportunity for us, and we were kind of playing with house money and just didn't get it done.
"Two restarts from the end, I was trying to make something happen on the restart," he continued. "I was in a weird position there behind the #2 [Brad Keselowski] - 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 [for the draft.]
"If I had known we were going to have a second green-white-chequered, 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.
"It feels relieving to go down swinging," he insisted. "The last two weeks were really poor. At least we went down swinging. I'll take some pride in that.
"This year for sure there is disappointment, but to be honest with you the disappointment has been the weeks leading up to right now," he said. "You are not going to win every championship battle you enter. We would like to. I've raced for 30-something years and I've really only won six big championships, so the numbers show that you don't win a lot of championships. We will be back next year."
It's certainly odd to realise that - with four races still to go in this year's Sprint Cup season - Johnson is not a contender for the title. Pretty much the only time he's not been in the running since he won his first title in 2005 was back in 2011 when the championship came down to a two-horse race between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards - which is not a memory Johnson likes to recall.
"The last I can think of is with Carl and Tony. I vividly remembered the lunch presser that took place with the champions and how much that ate at me to watch it on TV and not be a part of it. I get the pleasure of going through that again," he said dryly.
But Johnson certainly wasn't blaming the new Chase format for his early exit from the title race - far from it, in fact
"It's kind of an interesting thing because after the last two races in any Chase format, I wouldn't have been able to win the championship," he pointed out. "Truthfully, I showed up this weekend thinking I've been playing with house money and I've had a very unique opportunity to advance.
"Today we had a fast car. Today we ran up front. Had awesome pit stops. Had a shot to win. Just didn't get the golden ticket to go on to the next round. Definitely disappointed but we'll dig in deep and finish up the year strong and look forward to 2015."
Even though he's not going to be competing for the Sprint Cup championship any more this year, there's still other business to attend to. Currently Johnson is listed in 11th position in the standings, but the points get reset after the outcome of each Chase knock-out round and Johnson could still finish as high as fifth place at the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
"We have a chance to finish fifth in points, which would mean the world to me," he said. "The worst I've finished is sixth in the points, so it's not time to put our feet up. We need to finish strong and try to be in the top-five."
And now without the added pressure of the Chase expectations, things should start to settle down in the #48 garage where tensions have been running high in recent weeks, even between Johnson and his long-time crew chief and friend Chad Knaus.
"In the last two weeks, people have tuned on the radio and there have been plenty of articles have been 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," he explained.
"The frustration was kind of peaking over the last two weeks [but] this week's been chill. We qualified second and ran up front all day. And it's so hard to win one of these races - you can't come in here and say you're doing to dominate Talladega and win the race.
"We dominated it. We just didn't lead the lap that counted."
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