AVONDALE, Ariz. — Jimmie Johnson won’t vie for a record eighth NASCAR Cup championship next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His frustrating playoff run continued Sunday after a flat tire resulted in a crash, ending his day just short of halfway through the elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson has had a miserable playoffs, with four consecutive finishes outside the top-10 heading into Phoenix. He was 51 points behind the cutoff going into the race Sunday, facing a virtual must-win situation to make it among the four finalists.
He finished ninth in the opening stage Sunday, which mathematically eliminated him from being able to advance on points as he battled Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott for the last spot available to be among the four championship finalists at Homestead. He was running 11th when he crashed on lap 149 of the 312-lap race, which relegated him to a 39th-place finish.
“It’s disappointing,” Johnson said. “I anticipated this to be a really scrappy race to the end. We had good speed. I know I wasn’t leading the race, but my lap times compared to the leaders was respectable.
“With some strategy or opportunities where we had clean air on the front, I think we had a shot at it. That is what we were trying to position ourselves for.”
Johnson said he did not think he was working the brake hard enough that it would create enough heat to blow the right-front tire.
“I felt like the run before reports back were that the brakes were good and we didn’t have anything to worry about and unfortunately, I just got them a little too hot trying to charge hard and put up a lap time that was needed,” Johnson said. “Such a bummer, it really is.
“We have been staying alive, and that is not going to cut it for [late in the playoffs]. We put a lot of effort into the whole season, especially the last couple of weeks and I just feel terrible that we didn’t get better results than what we have had.”
In the four years of the elimination-style system, Johnson has made the championship round only once — last year, when he won his seventh Cup title on a day where he ran behind the other championship contenders for much of the day but capitalized late thanks to some crashes and some late adjustments giving him a strong car at the end.
Johnson hopes a new front end of the Chevrolet cars next year — the passenger car the Cup car will emulate will be the Camaro instead of the SS — will help Hendrick Motorsports be more competitive.
Johnson wasn’t the only one to have trouble when trying to advance. Hamlin led a race-high 193 laps but was battling for third when he and Elliott banged doors, and Hamlin scrubbed the wall. Several laps later, Hamlin blew a tire and slammed into the wall with a little more than 36 laps remaining.
Elliott soon grabbed the lead and led 19 laps before Matt Kenseth passed him with 10 laps remaining, holding on to win and keeping Elliott from advancing. For Elliott, looking for his first win in his 76th career Cup start, he felt Hamlin had taken away his chance to win and advance two weeks earlier at Martinsville when Hamlin dumped him for the lead with a couple laps remaining.
“A wise man once told me that he’ll race guys the way they race him with a smile on his face,” Elliott said after this second-place finish. “That’s what I did. I raced him how he raced me. That’s how I saw it.”
Hamlin said there was a difference between Martinsville and Phoenix.
“It just proves of what drivers are capable or willing to do,” Hamlin said. “It also proves that he is no different than I am. Mine was obviously unintentional. He had intention today.
“That’s his prerogative. I was trying to stay away out of the way. I gave him the bottom line, but he ran us into the fence.”
Keselowski, who finished 16th, advanced to be among the four championship finalists.