TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson was a solemn spectator for Brad Keselowski’s post-race celebration after a disappointing day that saw three Hendrick Motorsports drivers eliminated from championship contention.
Johnson, the six-time and defending NASCAR champion, led nearly half the laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway but couldn’t pull off a Hail Mary in a race he had to win to advance into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Neither could teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., leaving the Chase without NASCAR’s most dominant driver of the past decade (Johnson) and its most popular figure.
Fellow Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne also was eliminated on a day that saw the 12-driver field cut to eight.
In the aftermath, with his bid for a record-tying seventh championship officially over, Johnson climbed partially out of his car and perched on his window to watch Keselowski do celebratory burnouts on the frontstretch.
Later on pit road, he turned his head slightly and watched as Keselowski drove by waving a large American flag.
“I went down swinging, and I take pride in that,” Johnson said. “Am I disappointed in our Chase? Absolutely. In the last two weeks, people have turned on the radio and there have been plenty of articles have been written this week. Frustration was high between Chad (Knaus, crew chief) and I and the fact that we haven’t been able to produce like we wanted to.
“We went down swinging. We had a chance and came up short.”
Johnson finished 24th after leading a race-high 84 laps. Earnhardt led the second-most laps at 31, but got swept up in contact from Greg Biffle in the first attempt at a green-white checkered finish and was 31st.
“I don’t know if I came down on him or what,” Earnhardt said. “I thought I was holding my line, but we were all kind of tight back there.”
Kahne was 12th. Team owner Rick Hendrick offered a familiar refrain from the chaotic scene at Talladega.
“It’s just Talladega,” Hendrick said. “We have been up front all day and I don’t know where we are going to end up. You just can’t avoid it down here when you are running that close together. It’s just what you have to get used to, accept it and move on. It’s not easy.”
Only Jeff Gordon is still in the championship hunt for Hendrick, which couldn’t set the stage for an anticipated showdown with fellow powerhouse team Team Penske.
Roger Penske’s team advanced both drivers, Keselowski and Joey Logano. Keselowski had to win to move on, and wasn’t taking any comfort in the elimination of three Hendrick drivers from contention.
“There’s a lot of racing left to do, a lot of great teams,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake to really focus on one thing. The 4 car (Kevin Harvick) has been so strong. It’s not going to be easy. No matter who gets eliminated, it’s not going to be easy.”
Johnson was left without help and out of position to make another move to the front after the first of the two late restarts, when he was lined up fourth. He remembers the agony when he was out of contention for a possible sixth consecutive title in 2011 and Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart were fighting it out.
“I vividly remembered the lunch presser that took place with the champions and how much that ate at me to watch it on TV and not be a part of it,” Johnson said. “I get the pleasure of going through that again.”
Earnhardt seemed more ready, or determined, to move on. He wasn’t prepared to rank the disappointment as the biggest of his career.
“There have probably been worse things,” he said, laughing. “I’m not retiring or anything, so we’ll try next year. We’ve had a good season and have a lot to be looking forward to. We’re definitely not going to get too torn up about (it). We didn’t run well.”
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