Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson looks on during qualifying at last week’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY)
BROOKLYN, MICH. — Jimmie Johnson’s quest to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway suddenly got significantly more difficult.
Roughly 22 minutes into Saturday’s final practice at the two-mile track, Johnson spun in traffic entering Turn 3. His No. 48 Chevrolet SS nosed hard into the outside wall in Turn 4, damaging the car beyond repair.
The team immediately rolled out a backup car and began preparing it for today’s Pure Michigan 400. Because the car change occurred after Friday’s time trials, Johnson will give up the third-place starting position he earned during qualifying and drop to the rear of the field for the start of the race.
Johnson’s primary car came to rest in the infield grass, the splitter buried in the turf. After a quick trip to the infield care center, the five-time champion was back in his garage stall, describing the wreck to crew chief Chad Knaus and lending moral support to the team.
There was one minor complication. Johnson’s primary chassis, which raced at Michigan in June, sported decals of sponsor Lowe’s. The backup chassis, which raced at Dover in June and served as backup at Indianapolis in late July, was wrapped in KOBALT Tools colors.
But that was the least of Johnson’s worries. Of more concern was determining why the car stepped out into the third corner.
“It just got loose,” said Johnson, who was third fastest in Saturday’s first session and fastest in Happy Hour (before the car change). “It was definitely unfortunate, because that was a very fast race car. We always bring fast race cars to the track, and we’ll get this one (the backup) tuned up.
“I’m noticing that we’ve got the wrong paint job on it. So we’ll figure something out — I’ll either change driver suits, or we’ll put a wrap on it. I just hate that I’m putting this work load on my crew guys, but they’re ready for the challenge, and we’ll be just fine come Sunday afternoon.”
Between practice sessions, the track got warmer, and handling characteristics of the cars tend more toward the loose side.
“That’s definitely part of it,” Johnson said. “I’m a little puzzled as to why I spun out going in, because I’ve had great entry stability, and even on that run I had great entry stability. I got a little close to the 27 (Paul Menard), but then again, it’s not like I was right on him. To me it felt like I lost downforce just from a traffic scenario, but I’m not real sure.
“Either way, we’ve got a torn up car, and we’ll have to work hard to get this one ready to go and hopefully make a couple of laps before the session’s up and take it from there.”
In fact, Johnson’s team had the backup car for action with enough time left in Happy Hour to run 10 laps.
With Juan Pablo Montoya exiting the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet at the end of the season, speculation has quickly turned to potential replacements.
Kyle Larson, 21, is under contract to the organization for eight years, but from an experience standpoint, he has less than one full season of NASCAR Nationwide Series racing under his belt.
The way Jimmie Johnson sees it, that may not be a big issue — and Johnson ought to know. After learning the sport with limited success in NASCAR Nationwide cars, Johnson made the jump to NASCAR Sprint Cup and has dominated that division in terms of race wins and titles since he joined the series full-time in 2002.
“When you look at Kyle’s background (Sprint Cars), he’s driving cars with far more power than grip,” Johnson said before Friday’s practice. “I think the Cup car will suit his style far better than a Nationwide car. But you do need that foundation of knowing these tracks, because when we show up, our fastest lap we’ll run all weekend will probably be our first lap right now.
“And if Kyle Larson wants to go to Cup next year, that’s tough to do. He’s going to need the whole session to get where he needs to, and then you’re five or six adjustments behind the fast guys.”
On a cool race track in a session that started at 8:30 a.m., Kevin Harvick was fastest in Saturday’s first practice, posting a lap at 202.577 mph. Kasey Kahne, who qualified 31st on Friday, showed considerable improvement in race trim relative to the rest of the field. Kahne’s best lap (202.338 mph) was second quickest. … Country music superstar Luke Bryan will drive the pace car, a Ford Fusion Energi Hybrid, for today’s race. The Academy of Country Music’s entertainer of the year is promoting his latest album, “Crash My Party.” Bryan’s face is part of the paint scheme on the hood of Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing Ford this weekend, but, with a place in the Chase on the line, that’s one party the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion definitely doesn’t want to crash.