After Jimmie Johnson crashed in Sunday's Kansas race, the five-time NASCAR champion initially got some chilling instructions from crew chief Chad Knaus: "Go to the garage."
If Johnson had gone to the garage – what drivers must do if major repairs are needed – his Chase hopes would have taken a much harder hit than his No. 48 car did when it slammed into the wall. He would have returned to the track many laps down and, according to the final rundown, would have finished no higher than 26th.
But Johnson did not go to the garage. A change of plans had the driver come to pit road, and the team fixed the damage there while keeping the driver on the lead lap. He ultimately salvaged a ninth-place finish – a difference of at least 17 points in the Chase standings.
"The team did an amazing job," Johnson said Tuesday. "I made a mistake, put us in a bad situation. Proud of the composure the team kept."
So how did it happen? How did the No. 48 team defy the odds yet again and pull off a comeback Johnson said ranks in the top three of the group's history?
When Johnson spun out and backed into the wall on lap 136, it was reminiscent of the Charlotte mistake that ended his 2011 title hopes. But while the crash happened in similar circumstances, the damage wasn't nearly as bad.
After he got his car pointed back in the right direction, Johnson noticed he was at the start of the grass near the pit road entrance. Instead of staying on the track as Knaus requested, Johnson made a split-second choice to come down pit road.
"Making that decision allowed me to go by the pit box to where Ron (Malec, car chief) put a sharp eye on the back of the car and knew it was fixable on pit road," Johnson said. "If the decklid mounts were ripped off, NASCAR wouldn't let us back on the track. But they were still intact, and Ron spotted it and told Chad, 'Hey, bring it to the pits, we can fix this thing. We have a shot of fixing this thing on pit road.'"
By the time Johnson pitted for repairs, he knew there was a chance the team could fix the car enough to get it back in raceable condition.
"I could tell from the impact it wasn't all that hard," he said. "I knew I didn't bend the rear suspension. I knew the front end didn't hit. From a mechanical standpoint, I knew the chassis was sound and it really was an aero situation."
Johnson pitted several times, but Knaus released him just before the pace car would have put him a lap down in each instance. Once the crew didn't need him to pit again and the back end was seemingly taped up enough to race, Johnson "assumed things were decent."
He took his time getting back up to speed in case there was something wrong, but the car felt fine. In addition, the spoiler had been crunched up in the air – so it actually helped create more downforce.
"It drove well," Johnson said. "That's what allowed me to work traffic like I did to allow me to get up inside the top 10."
After it was over, Johnson was initially disappointed – but he was also fired up that what might have been a Chase-losing mistake didn't hurt the team very badly. Johnson trails points leader Brad Keselowski by seven points, which is the same deficit prior to the Kansas race.
"(I was) overwhelmed with pride and that championship motivation like, 'Hey, we're in this thing,'" Johnson said.
Ultimately, it was just the latest example of Johnson's team defying the odds. But if it proves to be the difference between winning and losing this season's championship, the driver said it could go straight to the top of the No. 48 team's all-time best comebacks.