LOUDON, N.H. — Autograph-seeking fans cluttered the pavement. Pit crews lifted gas tanks and mechanics disassembled parts. Every so often, a car wheeled through.
It was hot and frenzied outside the garage, 20 minutes after Sunday’s race. Not for Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief.
The No. 48 Chevrolet was one of the first cars examined, unhitched, and secured in a hauler.
So with a black leather briefcase hanging on his right shoulder, Knaus weaved through the traffic. The 41-year-old smiled, exiting through a small opening of the thin-wired fence.
Consider his business in New Hampshire a success.
“We wanted to make today a non-issue,” Knaus said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
Johnson finished sixth in the Camping World RV Sales 301 to build a 56-point lead over Clint Bowyer in the Sprint Cup standings.
Impressive considering the reigning Cup champion started the 318-mile race from the 43d — and final — position.
“Oh, it was tough,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t easy by any means”
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Johnson leads just about every category including victories (4), top-10 finishes (13), and average finish (8.8).
He recorded the second-fastest qualifying time on Friday but flunked inspection when it was determined the car was too low.
It was a minor issue, insisted Knaus. The team was still confident, Johnson claimed.
In the 18 previous races this season, Johnson started outside the top 20 just three times. Here he started last — for the first time in his career.
The ascent was gradual. By Lap 7 Johnson was in the top 35. Ten laps later, it was the top 25. By Lap 77, he cracked the top 15.
Then Johnson kicked into the mode fans are accustomed to. For the final 150 laps, he looked like a contender.
At Lap 121, Knaus was optimistic on the radio. The crew chief told his driver, “We’re gonna go to the front, man. How about it?”
In a race hampered by restarts (12) and accidents (5), Johnson’s car scooted past 37 other drivers unscathed.
“We just fought through the day,” Johnson said.
His car’s only visible damage? A few nicks on the front hood.
The track here is short and oval. It is easy to get to the inside lane. It’s hard to complete the pass. Most of Johnson’s movement came from restarts.
“It was the only opportunity,” he said. “Once we got single file, you couldn’t really get position on someone.”
Said Kyle Busch: “Even Superman didn’t pass today. Or even if he did, he didn’t make it up to the lead.”
That might have been unrealistic for Johnson, anyway. Only twice has anyone ever gone from last place to victory — but never in a 43-car field.
Bobby Allison last pulled off the feat in 1969. That race, in Richmond, featured only 25 drivers.
“We didn’t need to win today,” Knaus said. “But the most important thing is we didn’t need to lose.”
Overall, Johnson seemed pleased with his finish. Some of his strategies didn’t work out. For example, Johnson was one of two drivers to take a pit stop at the first caution — in the 12th lap. Knaus hoped that would give him an edge.
“Cautions didn’t fall right after that for us to take advantage of it,” Johnson said. “We just had to do it the old-fashioned way and drive up through there and pass a lot of cars.”
Johnson was cheery after the race. After swigging half of a red Gatorade in the garage area, he excused himself from a small pack of reporters.
Brian Vickers, who won Sunday’s race, is a good friend. Johnson knew what the race meant to Vickers, who previously had endured a 75-race winless streak.
He didn’t want to miss the celebration.
“Sorry guys, I gotta head over to Victory Lane right now,” Johnson said. “Dump some Gatorade on his head.”
So Johnson jogged back to the track.
Fans cheered, champagne splashed, the winner stood on the podium. It’s where Johnson has been on so many other Sundays, just not this one.Emily Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.