By Mike Mulhern
So what next? A giant meteorite striking the track?
“I’m not sure how much more bizarre this season can get,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said plaintively after clearing post-crash analysis at the infield medical center Sunday night, as he tried to understand just how a rear wheel could fall off his car in the final mile at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt was running third at the final restart of the overtime shootout, with only Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards between him and the finish line, for what could have been his first NASCAR tour victory in a year and a half.
Then Earnhardt’s rear wheel broke, sending him hard into the outside wall.
Weird incidents like that have been the hallmark of this year’s NASCAR championship playoffs. In fact just moments before Denny Hamlin, while leading at what looked like the final restart of the Pep Boys 500, felt the panic of his engine suddenly sputtering. In the confusion Martin Truex Jr., the day’s biggest lap-leader, plowed into the back of Hamlin.
The verdict on Hamlin: water in the gasoline. And that wasn’t an isolated problem; several other teams reported water in their fuel too.
NASCAR said it was investigating the issue. Officials with Sunoco, the official NASCAR gasoline, offered no immediate explanation.
And once again car owner Rick Hendrick found himself in victory lane, this time celebrating with Jimmie Johnson, and pondering which way this one-two championship finish may go: to Johnson, or to teammate Jeff Gordon.
“It was a wild finish,” Hendrick said. “We’ve got three more to go, and we’ll see if our nerves will stand three more.
“But it’s looking good right now.”
Indeed, with Johnson trailing Gordon by only nine points, virtually a tie.
“We will keep putting the pressure on; we are in striking distance,” Johnson says. “It’s going to come down to a position or two in the next three races.”
It wasn’t easy for Johnson Sunday: “I could hang on inside the top-10. But being a threat for the win really was out of the question.
“Jeff was having some trouble, running near 20th, and I was up near the top-10—and I was trying to think ‘big picture.’ But the car was a handful, and I almost threw it away a couple of times. I had to have a couple of conversations with myself about how important the big picture really is and not drive over my head.
“With the strategy at the end, and the way it worked out, I really didn’t have to race for anything at the end.”
That is, after Johnson deftly eased around the faltering Hamlin in a crucial lane-swapping move that saved the day.
Of course Hendrick isn’t just running a two-man band. “At one point three of our cars were in the top-six, and Casey Mears was 12th,” Hendrick said.
But Hendrick’s luck hasn’t all been perfect. Kyle Busch had a slow pit stop at the end, which cost him the race.
Alan Gustafson, Busch’s crew chief: “We had trouble on the stop. We didn’t get the right-side jacked up enough
“But even if we had come out sixth, the way it went on, we wouldn’t have won the race because there wasn’t enough time.
“I hate it for my guys; they really deserve it, and Kyle drove a great race. But this is a very humbling sport.”
“We’ve had some breaks that don’t go our way,” Hendrick said. “Kyle had it rough. If the caution hadn’t come, he probably would have won.”
But it was Johnson celebrating instead. Johnson’s win continues not only a great season for him and his team, but it was Hendrick’s 16th of the year, and Chevrolet’s 24th.
Earnhardt is still kicking himself for trying to ride out the wheel problem that eventually doomed him: “I’m disappointed for being ignorant enough to think it would stay. They tell you when you’re a rookie, if you have a vibration, come into pits immediately. Never try to drive through it. Never try to fake it or hold together. Save everybody trouble.
“I should have done that. I was bull-headed. I was frustrated. We hadn’t got our finishes this year. I thought we could steal a third place. And it cost me a good finish. I was just disappointed I didn’t do a better job—not for only my own safety, but everybody else.”
Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, made the key call, for two tires on the last stop, when most took four. “Usually late in the race when cautions come out, cautions breed cautions, so track position was going to be important,” Knaus explained.
“We were fortunate to see guys taking two tires and made a call to take two tires and went with it.”
So now the title picture is pretty straightforward: Johnson has to beat Gordon, and Gordon has to beat Johnson, in these last three.
“We both need to finish in the top 10, the first goal,” Johnson says. “Clint Bowyer had a good run and has three good tracks coming up for him. So we can’t make mistakes or run 15th, because Clint can close up.
“If we’re running top 10, I’ll look for Jeff and try to outscore him from there.
“Just so we don’t end up in a three guy race. I know the fans would love it to be a three , five , six guy race come Homestead, but we would like to keep it a two car race.
“Whoever outperforms the other guy is going to be the champion, the way this thing is shaking out. I know his weaknesses, the weaknesses of his team, and I’m going anything I can to exploit any weakness I can find and capitalize on that. And I know Chad is going to do the same thing…and that’s what Jeff’s guys are doing to us
“We are really bringing the best out in each other. We are being required to step up our games.”
Within limits, he says. “There are some teammates out there where there is not as much love flowing around, and guys are not being as good as they need to as teammates,” Johnson says. “But that’s something we work really hard on.
“It’s just a level of respect that everyone likes to operate with.”
Gordon himself had an up-and-down day, that was down for long stretches but ended up. “We thought we were going to come out of here with a little better finish than this,” Gordon said.
“I got excited because there were times when I thought ‘Man, we’ve got a car that’s better than Jimmie’s, and even capable of maybe running second or third.
“Those guys ended up making a great call to win the race, and we had our struggles and ended up coming back to finish seventh.
“But we’re right here, right in the thick of it. And if a bad day for us is seventh, I’ll be very happy with that the next three races.
“It’s going to come down to one of us having problems more than anything else, and that’s the thing we’re trying to avoid. There are a lot of ways to lose this championship, and we want to make sure we don’t.”
While Johnson and Gordon may be in high gear, the rest of the playoff guys are really struggling.
Tony Stewart is a case in point. He dominated this race last fall and won; but he wasn’t in the chase. This time, though, it was simply a very bad day. He started 30th, ran as high as sixth early, but then his car developed handling problems. An unscheduled stop under green for chassis changes put him two laps down at halfway. More changes, and more changes, but nothing helped.
Then on lap 194 of the planned 325 Stewart’s oil pressure gauge suddenly went out. But it wasn’t an engine problem, the team discovered later, but rather a faulty gauge.
Nevertheless those pit road repairs cost Stewart another four laps. He wound up 30th.
Just two weeks ago Stewart had a shot at the title, but now he’s 322 points down with three to go.