Over the last few weeks Jimmie Johnson has won three of the last seven Sprint Cup races and darn near everyone has been hailing Johnson as the first man to win four consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. But Johnson’s coronation parade stumbled on the second lap of Sunday’s 500-mile race at the Texas Motor Speedway. After qualifying fifteenth Johnson tangled with Sam Hornish and hit the wall hard.
Johnson was able to limp around to the pits and drive into his garage where his crew spent an hour repairing their ruined car. The Hendrick Motorsports people replaced and rebuilt half the car while Johnson sat in the cockpit, waiting to salvage the best possible finish from a bad day. Eventually, he made it home 38th, 123 laps behind, and his 184-point lead over Mark Martin going into the race was cut to 73 points.
“We still have the points lead, but it definitely wasn’t the day we wanted,” Johnson said. “We did not want to lose points like that. It was lucky we had a big margin. We’re going to two great tracks for us (Phoenix and Homestead-Miami) and we’ll just keep racing. We’ve been saying all along that anything can happen. I just wish that Sam could’ve waited a little longer before he hit something. But he lost it and hit me and off we went.”
Meanwhile Kyle Busch was the man to beat in Texas and enjoyed his best Cup race in months. Kyle had won the Truck and Nationwide races earlier in the weekend, recording his 39th and 40th NASCAR victories over the past two years. He looked like winning the Cup race, too, but while leading with just two laps to go Kyle’s Joe Gibbs Toyota ran out of fuel. He led 232 laps, but not the ones that counted.
Older brother Kurt was hard on Kyle’s tail when his engine hiccoughed and Kurt came through to score his second win of the year in Roger Penske’s Miller Dodge, putting him fifth in the points table, 171 behind Johnson. Denny Hamlin finished second in Texas in another Joe Gibbs Toyota. Matt Kenseth was third while championship contender Mark Martin finished fourth, cutting Johnson’s point lead in half.
Even though he made ground on Johnson in Texas, Martin said he was concerned primarily with finishing as well as possible in the championship rather than believing he could steal the title from Johnson’s grasp at the eleventh hour. “I’ve got my hands full with all those guys in the top six positions in points,” Martin remarked. “Two guys (Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart) who’ve knocked me out of championships are breathing down my neck, so the race is still on! I don’t know why everybody tries to count this thing out, instead of just waiting and watching. There’s still two races to go and anything can happen.”
Jeff Gordon qualified on the pole in Texas but was unable to take advantage of team-mate Johnson’s travails. Gordon was never a factor in the race, struggling to stay on the lead lap and finally finishing thirteenth. Gordon hangs onto third in points, 112 behind Johnson. He was 194 points behind going into the race.
Nor did Juan Pablo Montoya enjoy a good day in Texas. Midway through the race Montoya slithered into Carl Edwards and the pair crashed, finishing their days in the garage. The incident effectively ended Montoya’s long-shot championship hopes.