DOVER, Del. – So this is how ignominiously the end can arrive for a six-time Sprint Cup champion.
With a whimper and a whiff of axle grease.
That was the cold truth for Jimmie Johnson on a blustery Sunday at Dover International Speedway, where his championship hopes wafted away in a puff of smoke at the track where he had enjoyed more triumph than anywhere in his illustrious NASCAR career.
“I worry about a flat, a pit call, hard racing,” Johnson said calmly while facing down a wave of cameras and recorders Sunday evening. “I don’t worry about an axle seal failing, and the rear end burning up. It’s just not on your radar.”
It will loom large in his rear-view mirror, though, as the unexpected death knell for the No. 1 seed of NASCAR’s 2015 postseason.
With a 41st-place finish, Johnson’s first-round elimination was the most stunning development of a race in which all of the focus had been centered on which of a trio of heavyweights – Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – would be knocked out of the playoffs before the 10-race title run hardly had begun.
Incredibly, Harvick, Busch and Earnhardt all advanced.
The only star eliminated Sunday was Johnson, who had entered the AAA 400 with a comfortable cushion on the Chase for the Sprint Cup cut line and surely the feeling that his team already had weathered all the adversity that can be expected from a three-race elimination round.
At Chicagoland Speedway, he escaped with an 11th after a dicey restart collision with Kevin Harvick led to the shove seen around the world.
At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he rallied for sixth after falling to a lap down in 30th because of a flat tire with 100 laps remaining.
Surely, he could breathe easy at Dover.
His 10 victories here rank first in the record book, and he hadn’t finished lower than 17th in 11 years at the concrete 1-mile oval.
All he needed to secure a berth in the second round, regardless of anyone else’s finish, was a 25th at Dover.
And after a summer slump in which he didn’t finish in the top five for six consecutive races, the first 100 laps of Sunday’s race seemed to indicate his team was continuing to turn a corner. After a Lap 42 penalty for speeding in the pits, Johnson quickly sliced through traffic and seemed headed for at least a top 10.
“We had a very, very fast race car,” he said. “The last three or four weeks, we’ve had very competitive cars. We’ve been moving forward.”
Until Lap 103, when his No. 48 Chevrolet started shaking violently as he exited the fourth turn.
The sickening, grinding sound of metal on metal filled the cockpit as the fluid drained from the right-rear hub, and the bottom literally dropped out on the bid for a seventh championship.
After a brief stop in the pits, Johnson hung a left at the end of the pits into the garage. He waited in his car as his Hendrick Motorsports crew hustled over for a repair job that took roughly 25 minutes and gave Johnson a lot of time to ponder the delicate harmonics behind the thousands of parts and pieces needed to keep an 800-horsepower stock car humming
“You just take things for granted,” said Johnson, who patiently answered every question for more than seven minutes with his typical class and diginity. “There’s so many parts and pieces on these cars, and we take for granted what they all do. It can’t be more than a $5 part that took us out.”
If there’s any consolation, it apparently has become something of a silent killer in NASCAR. Harvick’s team discovered their right-rear wheel and brakes covered in gear lube after an eighth at Martinsville in March, and crew chief Rodney Childers said it “scares me to death” to learn of Johnson’s misfortune because they use the same equipment as Hendrick.
“It’s one of the things that is the scariest of everything that race teams deal with,” Childers said. “You think that the race teams worry about engine trouble or things like that. But these axle seal problems, they happen all the time, and a lot of times you don’t hear about them.
“It’s something that all the teams have fought for a long time. We fought it earlier this year. We still change stuff on it. It seems like every week we’re looking at those things trying to figure out how to make them better. Those things are pretty dangerous.”
Yet the failure rate is relatively rare. Johnson lost an axle seal in practice earlier this year but estimated it had happened to his team perhaps five times in the past 14 seasons.
“It’s a really vulnerable and simple piece,” he said. “We’re always very cautious with axles coming in and out of the car.
“We pride ourselves on no mechanical (failures). Stuff doesn’t fall off our race cars. Our cars don’t break. This stings for sure.”
It’s a sting that will last much longer than the faulty part that caused it.