Jimmie Johnson can still smile after disappointing run at Fontana

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 01: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars at the start the NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 01, 2020 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

It would have been a storybook finish had he won.  And for a time Sunday he looked like it just might happen.

In his last start at Auto Club Speedway, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was feted all weekend long. The California native saw a mural in his honor, led the pace laps in front of a five-wide salute behind him and saw his wife and daughters atop the flag stand waving the green flag.

He started on the front row after securing a second place starting spot on Saturday missing the pole by just .007 of a second.

At the Southern California track where he won his first Cup race in 2002 and followed up with five more, Johnson was competitive early, finished third in Stage 1 and 2, and led 10 laps.

In the final laps however he faded and was denied a sixth-place finish by Denny Hamlin who past him on the final lap leaving Johnson with a seventh place run.

All he could do when it was over was look at the positives.

“This team is going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I know in my heart what I am capable of and what this team is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be.

“We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pits stops quite enough to get the tight out of it. It was really competitive and racy at the start of a run and then we would fade at the end. At the end, I thought I was going to blow a tire, I think I had cords on the fronts and I thought I wasn’t going to finish the race. So to salvage a top-10 out of it and two thirds in the stages, so we are headed in the right direction.”

“I was pretty bummed about that last run,” he added. “We got super-tight. I think I was pretty lucky to finish. I think one of the front tires was getting ready to blow out. We just didn’t stay on top of the adjustments needed to keep the car free and going, but we still had a great day and ran up front and led some laps and raced for the lead. But the longer the run, the tighter the car.”

He was close to a win and being closer makes him want a win even more.

“Oh, without a doubt,” Johnson said. “I’m a competitor at heart and I want to win races and be up front and get it all done. So, I was pretty disappointed the way it finished and ended up 7th. But it’s a good sign of where we’re heading.”

Before he left however, he was able to reflect on his final race at Fontana, the track where he won his first.

“Oh, there’s nothing like coming home and this was beyond anything I could have ever imagined,” he said.

FONTANA, CA – FEBRUARY 28: Jimmie Johnson (48) stands in front of a mural painted in his honor in the APEX area outside the Auto Club Speedway on February 28, 2020 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)