CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas at Pocono Raceway in June, turning a second-place finish into a seventh-place finish, it was viewed as a rare mistake for the three-time defending NASCAR champion.
Then it happened the very next week at Michigan International Speedway, where Johnson led 146 laps but ran out of gas two laps from the finish. It turned a victory into a 22nd-place finish.
Sunday in the return trip to Michigan Johnson was once again headed to a dominant victory but once again ran out of gas two laps from the finish.
He wound up 33rd in the third high-profile instance of Johnson running out of gas this season.
So what’s the problem with crew chief Chad Knaus’ calculations?
Nothing at all.
The Chase for the championship format gives the best teams in NASCAR an opportunity to weigh risk versus reward. In Johnson’s case, he’s already got his spot in the Chase locked down. He’s third in the standings with three races to go before the 12-driver field is set.
That field is reset at the start of the 10-race title hunt, and the drivers are seeded by their bonus points earned during the regular season. Johnson, with three wins, has 30 bonus points and would be tied with Tony Stewart for the second seed behind Mark Martin if the Chase started this week.
The only thing Johnson has to race for right now is bonus points, and that’s exactly what Knaus was doing in all three of those races that the No. 48 seemed to uncharacteristically err and run out of fuel.
Brian Vickers and his Red Bull Racing team recognized that Sunday as Johnson was pushing hard for the win. When he ran out of gas, the win went to Vickers, who was conserving fuel in an effort to stay in position to pounce should Johnson come up empty.
“Jimmie, in the situation he is right now, second place doesn’t do him any good. He needs to win the race,” winning crew chief Ryan Pemberton said. “I kind of felt like he was going to go harder than he needed to go. If he runs second, it doesn’t do anything.”
So it was strange when crew chief Alan Gustafson followed a similar strategy with Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Martin. Although they have a series-high four wins this year, early season bad luck has them clinging to a Chase spot and not in a position to take risk over reward.
Yet Gustafson did just that Sunday, keeping Martin on track in pursuit of a top-10 finish rather than calling him in for a splash of gas that would have gotten him to the checkered flag – but likely in a lower finishing position.
Like Johnson, Martin ran out of gas. With his 31st-place finish, he dropped to 12th in the standings and now clings to just a 12-point cushion over Vickers with three races left. Gustafson took the miscalculation hard, telling NASCAR.com he made “a blatantly wrong decision and it cost us a lot.”