Three of the four cars of one of the most powerful teams in NASCAR had issues in qualifying at Phoenix International Raceway Friday night. Only one of the four cars made it to the final round of qualifying, but at the end of the session, none of the Hendrick cars will start inside the top 15 Sunday.
The trouble started in the first round. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was outside the top 24 who would advance the second round. After going out early he made another two laps late in the 20-minute session but came up short and failed to advance past the first round for the first time since Richmond last fall, he will start 26th Sunday. The three remaining teams, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson all made runs in the first round good enough to advance to the second. However, Kahne who had just put down the second fastest lap, slowed entering turn four with smoke exiting the hood around the 8-minute mark forcing NASCAR to halt the session. The car was towed back to the pits and the team reported a blown engine that will need changed. Kahne’s team later said the engine likely went into EFI ‘protection mode’ and essentially blew-up.
“I got out of the car about when it started smoking,” Kahne said. “But I shut the car off in Turn 1 after I took the lap, and then in Turn 3 it started smoking a little. And then, I could hear it running. So, I shut everything off, batteries, everything in there. And then I got out and it was still running. It just kept running until I drove away in the ambulance. So, I don’t know. I’m just really confused on what was going on. I have no idea.”
Kahne was forced to settled for a 24th place starting spot. Due to his engine change however, he will start from the rear Sunday. Elliott managed a 17th place spot.
Johnson did make it into the final five minute session and had just put down a quick lap behind pole winner Kyle Busch to go second when disaster struck. Johnson had some sort issue that prevented him from turning. His Chevy crashed hard into the wall forcing the second red flag of qualifying. Johnson was uninjured but the team will need to go to a backup car on Sunday, where he will join Kahne at the back of the field.
“I don’t know for sure,” Johnson said when asked what had happened. “That’s why we have to go back to the truck and talk about things. But, certainly, a lot of straight in an area of the track that I didn’t need to have straight. So, we’ll have to get to the bottom of it and see what went on. But, just a really hard impact to the outside wall. I’m thankful that we have Safer Barriers and soft walls. I’m very disappointed because we had a very fast race car and the guys have been working so hard to get this thing tuned-up.”
Replays of the accident appeared to show something break, although there was some speculation that the car had simply gotten away from Johnson.
“I definitely was driving the car through the center of the corner a little bit, and then it was just a lot of straight,” Johnson said. “So, until we can look at data and kind of understand what went on; certainly something happened and the car went straight. I just don’t know what caused it at this point.”
There will be two practice sessions for the teams on Saturday. Johnson said Friday that going to a backup car will now change the teams agenda for those sessions.
“It doesn’t help any that is for sure,” he said. “You get things scienced out pretty nice on this race car even though its in qualifying trim. Tomorrow we will have to start over and find our travels and heights and all those kinds of things. At least we still have tomorrow, if this was in Happy Hour tomorrow it would be a whole different story. At least we have tomorrow to work on it.”
Johnson will be joined at the back of the field by teammate Kahne. Johnson said having a teammate with him at the rear of the field won’t really help on Sunday.
“Yeah, not really,” Johnson said. “Every car around you is somebody you just want to get by and into clean air. It’s almost better when it’s people you don’t know or your teammate so you can be a little bit more selfish. I hate that he is back there. What a weird situation he had as well.”
Late Friday Johnson Tweeted that his steering wheel had come off. He added that he wanted to tell the team first and that was the reason he was so vague with his interview immediately after the incident. Saturday, Johnson met with the media and took full responsibility for the accident.