Commentary

Johnson's Pocono finish may be telling

Updated: August 4, 2009, 11:23 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- It's days like Monday afternoon at Pocono that prove Jimmie Johnson can win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title.

Johnson was three laps down late in the race. He was 36th with 40 laps to go and 34th with 30 laps left. He had an engine problem the team couldn't figure out.

And after all that, Johnson finished 13th in the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, an astonishing comeback to make a respectable showing off a horrible situation.

That's how you win championships.

"For us to salvage a 13th-place finish means a lot to me," Johnson said. "I think we are going in the right direction. It shows me what my team is capable of and what I'm capable of going into the Chase."

[+] EnlargeChad Knaus
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterIt took some time for crew chief Chad Knaus to figure out what was wrong with the No. 48 car at Pocono, but they did figure it out.

Johnson ran first or second in the first 100 laps of the 200-lap event before his engine started to sputter. He didn't know what was wrong.

"OK buddy, check your switches," crew chief Chad Knaus said calmly over the radio.

No help. Johnson had to pit. The 48 Chevy team lifted the hood, looking for a loose spark plug wire. No luck.

Johnson went back out and tried to stay on the lead lap until he could pit under caution, but Kasey Kahne quickly put Johnson a lap down.

The crew still was searching for answers. Johnson came in again and they changed the carburetor. Didn't work. Another caution flew and they changed some of the spark plugs.

Bingo.

"After that, it ran," Johnson said. "I knew we were about out of stuff to try. We lost another lap because it's a time-consuming process and we could only get to a few [plugs]. I was hoping the problem was in one of the few we were able to reach. Luckily, it was."

Five cautions in the last 50 laps enabled Johnson to get back on the lead lap with the lucky dog rule, but he raced his way past a gaggle of cars at the end.

Johnson was 25th on the final restart with 13 laps to go. His finish enabled Johnson to remain second in the Cup standings, 197 points behind leader Tony Stewart and two points ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon.

Speaking of making the most out of a bad day, Stewart finished 10th after starting in the back in his backup car. He was 28th after 80 laps.

"We were just really loose at the beginning," Stewart said. "It was going to take big steps to fix. We finally just made a huge change and we got it closer, but we never got it right. We made the best of a bad situation."

A good lesson for everyone with championship hopes.

***

Officially, NASCAR started 43 cars Monday at Pocono. Unofficially, only 36 actually were racing.

The start-and-park problem reached an all-time embarrassment with seven drivers calling it a day and heading to the hauler before 40 laps were completed.

None of those cars was involved in an accident. Mike Wallace's car was parked by NASCAR because he didn't have a pit crew.

All seven drivers/teams made at least $64,000 for showing up. And all they had to do was show up. Only 43 cars came to Pocono.

For now, NASCAR can continue to say every event has had a full field. It's only an illusion.

***

The new IRL is looking more like the old CART series every day.

Assuming the 2010 Brazil race isn't an oval (it's TBA, but that's a safe assumption) the IndyCar Series will have more road and street events than oval races for the first time in IRL history.

[+] EnlargeKanaan & Andretti
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeTeammates Marco Andretti and Tony Kannaan are going to see even more road and street courses in 2010.

The series would have nine road/street races and eight ovals. It's possible the Milwaukee Mile could solve its financial issues and get added to the schedule and continue a long Indy-car tradition, but that's a no at the moment.

The IRL eliminated Richmond (granted, not the best oval race) and added the Barber Motorsports Park road course in Birmingham, Ala.

So the 2010 schedule is a plus-2 for road/street courses (assuming Brazil isn't an oval), a minus-2 for ovals.

The IndyCar Series had a thrilling finish Saturday night on the Kentucky Speedway oval with Ryan Briscoe edging Ed Carpenter by inches. The new push-to-pass option (another Champ Car innovation) was a big success.

No one was happier to see it than Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith, who was in Kentucky watching his latest acquisition host the action. But Smith wasn't happy about the IRL's move to add road and street races.

"It's a mistake that's going to bite them in the rear, eventually," Smith said. "History is going to repeat itself. I don't know who is making those decisions, but they will find it was not the proper decision, in my very humble opinion."

Jerry Gappens, GM of New Hampshire Motor Speedway (another SMI track), sent out an angry e-mail about the IRL turning down his offer to race on the 1-mile oval at Loudon.

The IRL also will open the 2010 season outside the U.S. for the first time.

This is the old CART/Champ Car model, some good and some bad. If that's the game plan, IRL officials should proceed with caution. We all know how it turned out for CART.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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