By Seth Livingstone
NASCAR Wire Service
DOVER, Del.—Jimmie Johnson has had so many memorable and triumphant days at Dover International Speedway.
He’d won three of the previous four NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the Monster Mile and taken the checkered flag in 10 of his 27 Sprint Cup starts.
But when it came to securing a place in the 2015 Contender Round of NASCAR’s playoffs, the six-time premier series champion and his team were literally unable to seal the deal on Sunday.
A faulty axle seal on the No. 48 Chevrolet sent Johnson to the garage, creating an obstacle he could not overcome, in the process short-circuiting his attempt to match Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. as seven-time Cup champions.
Crew chief Chad Knaus and the 48 crew elected to replace the entire rear end assembly in the hope of saving time. Still, the major operation dropped Johnson to the back of the pack, 37 laps behind the leaders.
He finished 41st, ahead of only crash victims Jeb Burton and Brett Moffitt, in the AAA 400.
Entering the day, Johnson appeared to be in excellent position to advance in the Chase. He was fifth in points, 27 ahead of the dreaded 13th-place elimination point.
Although he was 16th in the running order, thanks primarily to a speeding penalty on pit road, he was doing what he needed to do when his racing luck turned sour after his 100th lap.
“It was instantaneous,” Johnson said of the moment he experienced trouble. “I was coming down the front stretch and it started vibrating. The right rear hub started seizing up and it was just metal-on-metal.
“It’s part of racing. It shows how critical everything is on a race team and how important every component is. You just can’t take anything for granted.”
Still, a rear end seal was one of the last things on Johnson’s mind at Dover.
“As I worry about things, I worry about a flat. I worry about a pit call. You worry about hard racing and something going on,” he said. “You don’t worry about an axle seal failing and the rear end burning up. It’s just not on your radar.
“Maybe five in my career have ever gone (failed). I know it’s a delicate piece and, obviously, a very important piece. But I don’t think it was due to anything on the track. It’s inside the hub. … Not being at the root cause of the mistake, I guess I’ll sleep a little bit better.”
That was small consolation. Sitting in his car in the garage as his team made the necessary repairs, Johnson knew his Chase hopes were in definite jeopardy.
“Once you’re behind the wall and you get more than one or two (laps) down, you know it’s out of your hands,” he said. “I was trying to run through scenarios. Chad updated me a couple of times of what needed to happen. We needed a few big pileups to get us back in that thing and I just didn’t see it happening.”
Back on the track, with laps ticking down, the sickening feeling only intensified.
“I really didn’t have anything to fight for,” Johnson said. “It was completely out of my control how many laps we were down. Within 20 or 30 minutes of being back on the track, I could see the flow of the race. Guys were minding their manners (with) a lot of green-flag runs and I knew we were in trouble.”
Just out of his car on pit road, Johnson had yet to digest the day with his team. But he knew Knaus and his crew would take this one hard.”
“We pride ourselves on no mechanicals (issues),” he said. “Stuff doesn’t fall off our race cars. Our cars don’t break. So, this stinks for sure.
“We take for granted how indestructible these cars are. But a very simple and inexpensive axle seal took the rear end out of our car and cost us.”