CHARLOTTE, N.C. The dust was still settling Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson lost the championship lead for the first time in five years on the same day his crew was benched in the middle of the race.
Hendrick Motorsports moved swiftly to help Johnson, who suffered through shoddy pit stops Sunday until crew chief Chad Knaus pulled the team. After an accident knocked Jeff Gordon out of the race, Gordons crew replaced Johnsons on pit road for the remainder of the day.
On Monday, the swap was made official for the final two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Its a jarring shake-up for the four-time defending champion, who along with his team had previously been Teflon at this time of year. But uncharacteristic mistakes on pit road led to a ninth-place finish, and Johnson was passed by winner Denny Hamlin in the points standings.
He trails Hamlin by 33 points heading into Phoenix, the first time since 2005 hes not been the points leader this late in the season.
The swap Sunday showed just how far Hendrick Motorsports will go to get Johnson that fifth straight championship, and how cutthroat the game has become. Its not unusual though Richard Childress Racing gave Kevin Harvick teammate Clint Bowyers crew last month although the mid-race timing raised eyebrows.
I think it was kind of a desperation move, said Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford on Sunday, before the swap became permanent.
But its something that ... Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.
Knaus was scheduled to discuss the swap Tuesday, but did not apologize after the race for benching his guys. And it shouldnt have been a surprise that the move became permanent on Monday.
Their confidence likely shaken by getting pulled, it was going to be hard to recover in time to have the execution necessary to reclaim the points lead. With Gordon out of contention to win the title, the swap was really the only thing Hendrick Motorsports could do to rectify what had quickly developed into a major weakness.
Although Johnsons over-the-wall team hasnt been the best on pit road this season many in the industry consider the No. 48 crew to be the weakest of the three title contenders the struggles were not scrutinized until Sunday, when Johnson routinely lost position under caution.
Knaus said Sunday he was optimistic he could get the issues ironed out once the team got back to its North Carolina shop. That obviously didnt happen.
Johnson wasnt surprised by the mid-race timing of the swap, and didnt seem to have any issues with the potential hurt feelings from such a move.
You watch pro sports and if people arent getting the job done, youve got to pull them out and put someone else in, he said. I really do care for these guys to the bottom of my heart, theyre my guys, but we have to perform. We cant come down pit road and lose 10 spots every stop. Its just killing us.
I knew the possibility (of a change) existed. At this point in the game, you cant have feelings, you have to go out and try to win the championship and if somebodys feelings got hurt, its too bad, were here to win a championship and weve got to do everything we can.The master of staying calm and playing it cool the past four years, Johnson also indicated that his slumping team members may not have been able to rebound the next two weeks.
I know they have it in them but every once in a while an athlete gets something in their head that slows them down or makes them overthink things, he said.