The finish, which came in Johnson’s 658th series start, was his first of the season, and his first in a Cup race since Martinsville on October 27, 2019, ten races ago. In the Cup Series’ last-place history, this was the 23rd for the #48, the 24th from disqualification, and the 781st for Chevrolet. Across NASCAR’s top three series, this was the 30th for the #48, the 35th from disqualification, and the 1,710th for Chevrolet.
Despite the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the current schedule, Johnson reaffirmed his decision to retire from full-time Cup Series competition at the end of the 2020 season. Prior to the national emergency declaration in March, Johnson had secured 5th in the series standings, bouncing back from a late wreck at Daytona to finish 5th in Las Vegas, 7th, and Fontana, and 12th at Phoenix. The Fontana run was perhaps the most emotional, as he nearly took the pole from Clint Bowyer and led a five-wide salute at his home track with his wife and children waving the green flag from the flag stand.
Johnson also participated in several iRacing events during the suspension, including six of the seven rounds of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. After a disastrous opener in Homestead, where he was involved in several accidents, he continued to struggle for the rest of the series, finishing no better than 19th. He ran better in two IndyCar rounds at digital Indianapolis and Barber Motorsports Park, which seemed better suited to his open-wheel designed sim rig: Johnson finished 16th in the former and 12th in the latter.
Back in action at Darlington, Johnson looked to pick up where he left off in March. Incidentally, he’d won at Darlington the last time the track hosted two Cup dates, taking the spring race in 2004. He drew the 8th starting spot and chased down teammate Alex Bowman in the early laps, taking the lead on Lap 81. He was still leading on the final lap of Stage 1 when he caught Chris Buescher off Turn 2 and bumped the #17 Fastenal Ford into the wall. Buescher’s car bounced back into Johnson’s, sending the #48 careening head-on into the inside wall. Johnson was uninjured, and as his crew chief Cliff Daniels rallied the troops on pit road, the #48 team left the track 38th in a field of 40. This placed him 37th on the grid for Wednesday’s return to the track, where he bounced back with an 8th-place finish.
Charlotte was next, another of Johnson’s best tracks. He’d won there eight times, including four Coca-Cola 600s – three in a row from 2003 through 2005. Though he hadn’t won at the track since 2016, he’d also finished worse than 8th just once since then – a 17th in the spring of 2017. He’d even come within one swerve of taking the inaugural Charlotte “Roval” race in 2018 before his last-turn spin collected race leader Martin Truex, Jr.
As part of NASCAR’s Memorial Day tribute, Johnson’s windshield would carry the name of Army Corporal Patrick Deans, who served in the 101st Airborne Division. On December 12, 2010, Corporal Deans and five other soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. Adding to the tribute, Johnson’s car and helmet would be painted an olive drab color with stenciled white graphics and an exposed rivet pattern. “To have Corporal Deans on my car and run a special paint scheme is a big honor for me to recognize the individual, and all those who have lost a loved one,” said Johnson.
Johnson qualified a strong 2nd with a lap of 181.214mph, but held the provisional pole for most of the session before Kurt Busch edged him by nine-thousandths of a second.
Starting 40th and last in Sunday’s race was Aric Almirola, whose #10 Smithfield Ford spun out during his qualifying lap and backed lightly into the Turn 4 wall. By rolling past the stripe during his spin, Almirola was the only driver to not record a completed qualifying lap. Repairing the minor damage also incurred Almirola a redundant tail-end penalty for unapproved adjustments, joined by 9th-place qualifier Brad Keselowski in the #2 Miller Lite Ford, 32nd-place Timmy Hill in the #66 RoofClaim.com Toyota, and 34th-place J.J. Yeley in the #7 VCP Chevrolet. Also sent to the rear was Matt DiBenedetto, who during qualifying slapped the Turn 4 wall with the passenger side of his #21 Menards / FVP Ford. Unlike Almirola, DiBenedetto’s wreck sent him to a backup car. However, none of these drivers spent much time in last place.
|Clint Bowyer's wreck that left him last at the end of the race.|
Hamlin was still on pit road when the race went green, the crew scrambling to find new ballast. Someone on the FedEx crew suggested they just go home, but someone else on the team said “we can’t do that.” Hamlin remained in last place while Gase came down pit road in the first six laps. Contact with Hamlin’s ballast cut the inside sidewall of one of the tires on the #51, forcing a pit stop, and on Lap 6 he lost more time serving a penalty for too many crew members over the wall. Hamlin then returned to the track on Lap 8, completing his first lap on the ninth circuit. Hamlin then tried to focus on his car’s handling, saying it was running tight while in traffic.
Hamlin and Gase remained in the final two positions for much of the first stage. On Lap 69, Gase was three laps ahead of Hamlin. Then on Lap 97, with just three laps to go in Stage 1, the caution fell for a wreck in Turn 4. Involved was Clint Bowyer, whose #14 Rush Truck Centers / Mobil Delvac 1 Ford suffered a lower control arm failure that sent him hard into the outside wall. Bowyer, who was running 11th at the time of the accident, was slow to get out of the now-burning car, catching his breath as crews put out the flames. On Lap 100, as Stage 1 ended under yellow, Bowyer’s car was towed to the garage. He took last from Hamlin on Lap 106, the first car out of the race.
Bowyer’s car carried the name of Private First Class Andy Krippner of Garland, Texas. Just six weeks into his tour in Afghanistan, and just days after his 20th birthday, Private Krippner and three other soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in 2011 when their vehicle was struck by an IED. “I am incredibly honored to carry Andy’s name on our car and can’t thank him and his family and friends enough for the sacrifices made for our country,” said Bowyer in an interview with NBC Sports.
From then through the end of the race, Bowyer seemed assured of his second last-place finish at Charlotte, following an engine failure on October 11, 2014. Car #14 hadn’t finished last in a Cup Series race at Charlotte since October 7, 1979, when Jimmy Means made a one-off start in H.B. Cunningham’s #14 Cunningham-Kelley Chevrolet for the NAPA National 500. Means qualified 19th and falling out after 1 lap with handling woes. The car was most commonly driven by the late Coo Coo Marlin, who finished last in both Charlotte races in 1975, including the only previous last-place finish for the number in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 25, 1975.
Meanwhile, Johnson enjoyed one of his best runs of the season. After saving his car when it broke loose early in Turn 2, he led six laps and earned stage points in all three stages, finishing 8th, 10th, and 4th, respectively. Twice in the final laps, he was in contention for the win, including the final restart, when he took the green on the front row alongside eventual race winner Brad Keselowski. Johnson closed to Keselowski’s bumper on the final lap, and came just short of making a move in the high lane. The runner-up finish was Johnson’s best of the season and jumped him three positions in points, from 12th to 9th, tied with Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola as 82 points back of the lead.
But after 2 A.M. local time, following post-race inspection, news broke that Johnson’s car failed the Optical Scanning Station (OSS), specifically the rear alignment tolerance. The result was an immediate disqualification, dropping Johnson from 2nd to last place, and forfeiting his 11 stage points earned during the night. The disqualification lifted Bowyer from last place, bumped Quin Houff out of the Bottom Five, and Brennan Poole out of the Bottom Ten. UPDATE: Johnson now loses three spots in points, tying him with Tyler Reddick for 15th.
Finishing 38th was Bubba Wallace, whose #43 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet suffered a hub failure that sent him behind the wall just before the halfway point. Wallace fell 70 laps down before he returned to the track briefly on Lap 209. But someone then said “Something broke in the rear. Let’s go to the garage – we’re done.” Wallace ultimately fell out with 164 completed laps, citing a vibration for the hub issue.
Rounding out the Bottom Five were J.J. Yeley, whose #7 VCP Chevrolet was eliminated under the damaged vehicle policy following an undisclosed accident that didn’t draw the caution flag, and Joey Gase, whose #51 ACS Ford spun on Lap 349, drawing the caution flag just short of scheduled green-flag pit stops. Gase finished as the final car under power, 20 laps down to the leaders.
Tyler Reddick’s incredible first season continued with a 9th-place finish, his third top-ten finish in just nine career Cup starts. He finshed just one spot ahead of Christopher Bell, who like at Las Vegas, saved his car from a wreck in a four-wheel drift after contact from Ryan Blaney entering Turn 3. Bell’s 10th-place finish was his first career Top Ten in his seventh series start.
*This marked the first last-place finish for car #48 in a Cup Series points race at Charlotte.
*Johnson is also the fourth driver to be classified last at Charlotte by reason of disqualification. The first came in the June 19, 1960 inaugural, when Lennie Page was the lowest-ranked of six penalized for cutting off the entrance to pit road. Buddy Baker was disqualified on October 7, 1973 after a disagreement between his team owner and NASCAR officials over inspecting the engine. And Bobby Hillin, Jr.’s disqualification on October 11, 1992 was the last for a Cup driver in a points race until Erik Jones’ penalty at Richmond just last year.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
40) #48-Jimmie Johnson / 405 laps / disqualified / led 6 laps
39) #14-Clint Bowyer / 96 laps / crash
38) #43-Bubba Wallace / 164 laps / vibration
37) #7-J.J. Yeley / 251 laps / dvp
36) #51-Joey Gase / 385 laps / running
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Hendrick Motorsports, JTG-Daugherty Racing, Motorsports Business Management (2)
2nd) Leavine Family Racing (1)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Chevrolet (4)
2nd) Toyota (3)
2020 LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP