LOUDON, N.H. — Something was off about Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy. His crew chief Chad Knaus knew when they were prepping it for qualifying Friday for the Camping World RV Sales 301, even if he couldn’t necessarily put his finger on it.
“We saw that there was an issue,” Knaus said. “The left side was real high. The right side was real low . . . We knew that there was something that just wasn’t jibing right.”
And it turned out to be a problem that couldn’t be fixed. After scrambling to make it through pre-inspection, a failed post-inspection wiped out Johnson’s time. The car was determined to be too low on both sides and as a consequence, the five-time champion will start the race from the back of the pack of 43 drivers.
From the time Johnson’s team ran the car through pre-qualifying inspection, the smallest things seemed to go wrong.
NASCAR inspectors said the height on the car’s side skirt missed by a sixteenth of an inch and a weight on the right side of the car was off by a pound.
It meant that they had to make the adjustments as quickly as possible in order to have a shot at qualifying.
The longer it took inspectors to comb over Johnson’s car before he could make his qualifying lap, the more it wracked his nerves.
While he was hung up in the inspection process, he watched both Danica Patrick and Morgan Shepherd roll by him in their qualifying runs. All Johnson could think of was what would happen if they didn’t make it to the track to qualify.
“It was more anxiety to get out there and post a lap and try to minimize the damage,” Johnson said. “That whole anxiety threshold, it was high. I did my best to calm down and take some breaths and all but when they told me to fire it up and roll out, my heart rate was still pretty high.’’
The car had to be looked over twice before it was approved to qualify.
When it was, Johnson whipped around the track, beating Brad Newman’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway record of 135.232 set in 2011. The run stood until Brad Keselowski topped it with a 135.922 that put him atop the pole.
In 22 races at Loudon, Johnson has won three times, never starting lower than 28th. On average, he’s started 11th. It erased what would have been his 11th top 10 start of 2013.
“We were able to get the car right but it just wasn’t exactly right and we weren’t going to know until after qualifying, once we started to tear it apart, what the problem was,” Knaus said. “What ended up happening was there was a mis-assembly issue with the left front. That’s why the heights were so messed up as we were going through initial inspection.”
Before his time was disallowed, Johnson was one of 10 drivers to top the NHMS qualifying record.
After Johnson’s mad dash, Keselowski turned in the best time of the day. In 144 career Sprint Cup races, Keselowski has won three poles. Two of them have come at Loudon.
After winning the Sprint Cup last year, Keselowski is 13th in the points standings, 2 behind Kasey Kahne for the last wild-card spot. Although he’s got eight top-10 finishes and five top-5s, he’s still looking for his first win.
“There’s a sense of urgency but not a sense of panic,” Keselowski said. “I think there’s a strong difference between the two. We’re eager to get going. We’re hungry, we feel like we can do it. I don’t feel a sense of panic. There’s still two months of racing to get into the chase. We’ve got fast race cars. If we do our part we don’t need any help. We don’t even need any luck. We just need to not have bad luck and do our jobs and I feel like we’ve got the team to do just that.”
NHMS joined the list of tracks that have had their qualifying records shattered this season.Halfway through the first year with NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car, nine tracks have seen their records broken.
Kurt Busch, the No. 2 qualifier, clocked a 135.835 to post his 14th top-10 start in Loudon.
Despite his setback, Johnson’s team still sees an opportunity to bounce back.
“It’s actually kind of a funny race,” Knaus said. “The way the ebb and flow of the event goes, the guys in the back typically get an opportunity to get to the front. So, if nothing else, we can make it exciting.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.