Mark Story: Jimmie Johnson's trip takes a turn for the worse

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 30, 2013 

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Jimmie Johnson, in the No. 48 Chevrolet, led 182 of the first 248 laps before spinning out on a late restart. The five-time Sprint Cup champion rallied for a ninth-place finish and maintained his points lead.

TODD WARSHAW — Getty Images

SPARTA — Rain spoiled Saturday night's planned running of the Quaker State 400; Jimmie Johnson seemed on his way to ruining Sunday's rescheduled Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Many NASCAR fans find Johnson — with his five Sprint Cup championships — a bit too buttoned-down, a bit too corporate, a bit too darned perfect to embrace.

On Sunday, in a rocket ship masquerading as the No. 48 car, Johnson was turning in the kind of dominating performance that seems to drive his critics mad.

Of the first 248 laps in a scheduled 267-lap race, Johnson led 182. His team may as well have been clearing space for the horse-head-shaped trophy that goes to the winner of the Quaker State 400.

Then fate and Matt Kenseth threw Johnson a harsh twist that left the normally unflappable Johnson fuming.

After a caution on lap 248, Kenseth took no tires and beat the No. 48 (which took two) out of the pits.

Still, Johnson had been best all day on restarts, long runs, short runs, so there was no real reason to think Kenseth and his old tires would pose much of a threat.

But when the green flag flew, Joey Logano tried to roar past Johnson on the inside in Turn 1. The 48 veered to block the pass attempt. As a result, it appeared Johnson lost the air on his car.

He spun out in front of the field. Somehow, no one hit him.

But the damage was done.

On a day when even Kenseth acknowledged Johnson had much the best car, it was the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that went to victory lane.

Johnson settled for a ninth-place finish.

Afterwards, frustration rose off the 37-year-old El Cajon, Calif., native like heat rising off asphalt.

"I don't know what the traffic situation was," Johnson said of the pivotal restart. "I just got turned around, I got turned around in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2 and thankfully I didn't hit anything and was able to rally back to a decent finish."

Chad Knaus, the No. 48 crew chief who has guided Johnson to all five of his Sprint Cup titles, said he didn't know what happened on the restart.

What he did know is "we felt like we should have been walking out of here with the trophy," Knaus said. "The 48 car was super-fast today. I don't think anybody had anything for us, I think that was obvious."

Amazingly for a driver so accomplished, restarts have been something of an on-going bugaboo for Johnson in 2013. He was black-flagged with 19 laps to go this season at Dover for jumping a restart, handing what seemed a certain victory to Tony Stewart.

On Sunday, Johnson fumed over his radio that Kenseth should have been penalized on the pivotal restart for failing to maintain pace-car speed. No such penalty was called by NASCAR.

Kenseth pleaded innocence.

"I have no idea what happened or what happened to him or what I possibly could have done to upset him," Kenseth said. "... You know, after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end, I imagine it's frustrating."

For all the star-crossed issues Kentucky Speedway has had since joining the Sprint Cup circuit — 2011, massive traffic; 2012, extreme heat; 2013, torrential rain — what the track needs more than anything to build a niche both in NASCAR and among sporting events in the commonwealth is racing that gets people talking.

"That was good, wasn't it?" Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said of the late-race excitement. "I thought Jimmie was going to stink it up (by dominating)."

It's possible Sunday's late-race reversal could have championship implications.

Seeming revived in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing after leaving his long-time home at Roush Fenway Racing, Kenseth, 41, now has four wins this year to Johnson's three.

In the Chase for the Sprint Cup, now just nine races from starting, the driver who ends the regular season with the most victories will start the "playoffs" in first place.

"The 48 was the class of the field all day," Kenseth said. "So we know we have to continue to get better."

In their five championship runs, the No. 48 team has shown a knack for turning adversity to motivation and then to prosperity.

Leaving Kentucky Speedway without the winner's trophy on a day when he was clearly driving the best car had Johnson feeling plenty frustrated.

When a reporter tried to ask Johnson just how frustrated he was, the driver said "What do you think? Just a little bit."

Jimmie Johnson then walked away.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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