Entering the last race of the NASCAR season, Jimmie Johnson knew what he had to do at Homestead-Miami Speedway if he was going to win the Sprint Cup Series championship.
Trailing points leader by Brad Keselowski by 20, Johnson's only chance to catch and pass him was to lead as many laps possible, take whatever risks were needed to win and hope that Keselowski stubbed his toe somehow.
For the first 200-plus laps, Johnson did exactly what he set out to do, as fought his way to the front and then used pit strategy to stay there. And as this was happening, Keselowski and his team were dealing with poor fuel-mileage, which put them a lap down and teetering on the verge of falling outside of the top 15 – the minimum of where the team could finish if Johnson won the race.
"We were in position and putting the pressure on the 2 car like we needed to," Johnson said. "I said at the beginning of the week, 15th isn't a lay‑up, and I certainly had him in position."
But for Johnson, his quest to win another championship quickly unraveled in a span of about 15 minutes.
The downward spiral all started during what should have been a routine green-flag pit stop – his last of the day – when a lug nut was left off the left rear of the No. 48 car. And just like that, Johnson's title hopes were dealt a serious blow when he was forced to come back down pit road.
But a few laps later, his title hopes went up in smoke – literally – as a parts failure having to do with the rear gear caused Johnson to head to the garage prematurely. And just like that, the championship fight was over with Keselowski holding the title Johnson so desperately wanted.
Johnson finished 36th.
"I'm proud of the fact that we went out there and backed up what we said we could do and we put the pressure on," Johnson said. "It doesn't take the sting away from losing the championship. It helps in some ways and stings in others, so it balances out, I guess."
Instead of winning his sixth Cup title, Johnson ended the year third in points. In retrospect, it was the back-to-back finishes in the 30s to end the season that did Johnson in – the first time he's done so in consecutive races since 2009.
"Definitely disappointing," Johnson said. "But again, I feel that we had the speed, we had 80 percent of the Chase that we needed to have. So it's hard to be real down on myself or real down on where we finished. These championships are special, and it takes an entire 10 races – clean 10 races – to win one of these things."
And for a driver who has talked openly about being known as the best NASCAR driver of all-time, coming so close to winning and not doing so is a tough pill to have to swallow.
"To be close it sucks to be close and not get it," Johnson said. "That's just the way it is."