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With 77 laps to go in the Advocare 500 on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, Jimmie Johnson looked like he would earn another top-10 finish in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Then a tire was cut on his No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, pulling Johnson into the wall and causing damage to the right side of his machine that required a trip to the garage for repairs. The crew got him back on track, but five-time champion Johnson was relegated to a 32nd-place finish.
The finish dropped Johnson to second in the standings, 20 points behind leader Brad Keselowski heading into the final race of the Chase. To win his first Sprint Cup, Keselowski must finish 15th or better, or 16th and lead at least one lap, or 17th and lead the most laps, even if Johnson wins and leads the most laps. No one else is mathematically eligible for the championship.
“We still have to go to Homestead and race, and anything can happen down there,” said Johnson, who has never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 11 starts. “But this is not the position we want to be in late in Phoenix. I feel terrible for my team and how hard these guys work, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and Lowe’s and Kobalt Tools and Chevrolet. Across the board there has been a huge effort put in to try to get us a championship, and I just hate for our day to turn out as it did today. But that’s racing, and we’ll go to Homestead and do all we can down there and see how things pan out.”
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus spent the first half of the race fine-tuning the Kobalt Tools Chevy after starting 24th. On lap 122, Johnson drove into the top-10 and reported the handling of his car was better. Johnson pitted on lap 168 for a debris caution, and Knaus declared them “as competitive as they’d been all day.” The duo discussed adjustments, anticipating changing track conditions as the sun set. Knaus added wedge to tighten the car and called for four tires. Most of the field took two tires, but Johnson only lost a few positions and restarted 14th. He worked his way back into the top-10 and was running eighth by lap 190.
On lap 236, with Johnson running solidly in the top-10, his right front tire went down, sending him into the wall. The crew took the Kobalt Tools Chevy to the garage for repairs, predominantly to the right front of the car.
“We were cruising along, and I think we would have had a top-five day or a top-10 day if things worked out at the end,” Johnson said. “And I had a slight vibration starting in the right front. I didn’t really know where it was coming from, but clearly now it was the right front. And as I was coming off of Turn 4, it went down, and I went straight in the wall. If I were another 30 or 40 feet around the corner, I probably would just have had a flat and not hit the wall. But where it let go, I had a direct line to the wall and knocked it down.”
Johnson returned to the race in 33rd place on lap 274, 33 laps down. He would pick up one spot in the closing laps to finish 32nd, his only career result outside the top-15 at the desert oval.
Kevin Harvick won the AdvoCare 500k to score his 19th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his third at Phoenix.
Denny Hamlin finished .580 of a second behind Harvick in the runner-up spot, while Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five. Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Mark Martin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were eight caution periods for 38 laps, with 15 drivers failing to finish the 319-lap race, which was extended seven laps by a green-white-checkered finish.
All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers made the Chase. Only Johnson is still mathematically eligible to win the championship. He is second with 2,351 points, 20 behind first-place Keselowski. Kahne is third with 2,321 points, 50 out of first, followed by Jeff Gordon in 10th with 2,281 points, 90 out of first. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 12th with 2,211 points, 160 out of first.