Johnson goes to backup car after practice crash, team elects to skip NASCAR qualifying

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 24: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, has his backup car unloaded during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start from the rear of the field for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.  His Hendrick Motorsports crew elected to skip Friday’s qualifying session after being forced to go to a backup car.

Johnson had trouble during the lone practice session earlier in the day.  While making a mock qualifying run, Johnson’s Chevy got loose exiting Turn 3 and went for a solo spin. The car shot down to the infield with the front splitter hitting the grass. Although there didn’t appear to be much damage, there was enough for the team to pull out the backup.

“We just showed up at the track swinging hard, trying to get all that we could,” said Johnson. “We crossed the line there, for sure, and the car came around on me. But we have a great Lowe’s Chevrolet (backup car) coming out.

“I thought we might be able to stick with this one, but that was too much (damage) on the front of the race car. It’s not the way we wanted to start the weekend. But the only way we’re going to get better without testing is just to keep trying harder in practice and swing harder. We know we got the race side in a respectable spot but just need to start better on Fridays.”

The team ran out of time to get the backup car ready for any practice time.

“In order to get the car right for the tolerances and inspection, there was just no way,” Johnson said later. “The right front splitter structure and the whole nose structure was folded under probably a good half-inch, or three-quarters of an inch. It didn’t look too bad from the outside, but once you lifted the hood and looked inside, the ductwork was kind of blown out of it and the inlet for the brake ducts and all of that. So, there was enough damage that it was best to bring the backup out.

“I just lost it. The turn into Turn 3 landed, the car was pretty loose there in general. You, as a driver, may tighten it up and you pull your seatbelts tight and just pray for the best. And I shot it off in there in Q-trim and just rotated around on me. I, unfortunately, was in the gas pretty hard trying to stay out of the outside wall and drove the car back down into the grass indirectly. And looking back on it, I should have just locked them down and I could have stayed out of the grass and we wouldn’t be in this position.”

Crew chief Chad Knaus elected to skip qualifying.

“I just felt it was wiser to get the car prepared correctly rather than qualify poorly,” Knaus said. “I wasn’t comfortable putting Jimmie in a position where he would have to hustle a car that he hasn’t turned a lap in yet.

“We are all the way out here on the west coast, and brought two race cars. If we were to crash this car, we would have to pull a car from a teammate and it would be a very difficult obstacle to overcome. We want to be prepared to put the best racecar on the track for our driver, Lowe’s, Chevrolet and all of our sponsors. So, we are going to take the time to do that by working on it this afternoon.”

After watching qualifying, Johnson summed up his Friday.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” Johnson said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there.”

“Pit road is going to be a problem,” he added. “We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

He also backed up his crew chief’s decision to skip qualifying.

“If I was to tear this car up again in qualifying,” Johnson said. “We’d be heading next door to the No. 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example) to pull out their back up car. Put a wrap on it. Change the seat and interior and a lot of other things. So, we just felt like it would be best to get everything right and just get prepared for tomorrow and start at the tail end. I think my record shows that I can make up plenty of spots and pass plenty of cars and we’ll just make it exciting coming from the back.”

Johnson is the defending winner of Sunday’s Auto Club 400; one of his six wins came in last year’s race. He will start 37th Sunday.

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