LONG POND — One could be forgiven for stifling a yawn as Sunday’s race neared the halfway point. But those expecting to see Jimmie Johnson cruise to another leisurely victory at Pocono Raceway were jolted awake by a rare sound indeed.
Having just regained the lead, Johnson caromed off the wall in the tunnel turn after he cut his right-front tire. The wreck dramatically altered Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400, opening the door for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne to pick up the win.
Johnson missed a chance for a season sweep at Pocono after winning here in June. But the Sprint Cup points leader managed to battle back to a solid 13th-place finish despite slipping to 28th while pitting for repairs.
“I’m really proud of the efforts of the whole crew,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how with all the trouble we had today that we salvaged a 13th. It was just a team effort.
“I’m very proud of everyone involved. Unfortunately we had that flat after leading the race, but stuff happens. It’s racing.”
Just like in June, when he led for 128 out of 160 laps, Johnson appeared to have a dominant car while once again starting from the pole.
This time he led for the 43 of the first 75 laps before losing that tire and mangling the right side of his No. 48 Chevrolet.
“It’s bad,” Johnson sighed over his radio while navigating back to pit road.
“It just exploded,” Johnson said of the tire after the race. “I’m not really sure what caused it. But late off of turn one, it just exploded, and that was it.
“I hit the wall so hard that knocked a spark plug wire off the spark plug and I was running on seven cylinders. They were able to find the right plug and get everything hooked back up, and the engine took off. Off we went, and salvaged a very nice finish.”
That’s an understatement, given the situation. Though he initially dropped almost 30 spots, Johnson managed to stay on the lead lap to start the comeback.
And at the end of the day, Johnson actually added to his points lead. He ended up edging out his closest competitor, Clint Bowyer, by one spot on Sunday and now leads Bowyer by 77 points headed into next week’s race at Watkins Glen.
“I know Jimmie had an issue, or I think he would have finished in the top five, too,” said fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon, who took second.
That’s a safe bet. That tire might have cost Hendrick a clean sweep on Sunday as Kahne, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running 1-2-3 before two late caution flags pushed Earnhardt down to fifth.
Last week at Indianapolis, all four Hendrick drivers finished in the top seven, with Johnson narrowly missing the victory to wind up in second.
“When they start rolling,” third-place finisher Kurt Busch said, “it’s a tough steamroller to slow down.”
And Johnson, the five-time Cup champion, is right at the forefront.
As another example of his performance this season, Sunday was the first time Johnson finished outside the top 10 in the last six races.
“Jimmie and (crew chief Chad Knaus) do the best job of it each year,” Kahne said. “I feel like we can run with them, but we have to do everything right.”