A dislodged steering wheel is what caused Jimmie Johnson to crash during qualifying Friday, the six-time Cup Series champion revealed Saturday morning at Phoenix International Raceway.
Johnson was running at speed in the third round of qualifying when his No. 48 car veered right suddenly and went nearly head-on into the outside Turn 2 wall. The impact was significant, severely damaging the car and sending it careening down the track where it came to rest.
Johnson extracted himself from the car and was transported to the infield care center where he was evaluated and released.
The accident made Johnson feel "totally helpless" as his steering wheel was in his hands but not connected to the steering column, rendering him unable to control the car.
"As I came into Turn 1, just working my way through the center of the corner and jumped in the gas and as I jumped in the gas, I guess I pull on the wheel when I do that," Johnson said. "As I pulled on the wheel it just came off in my hands. I was just sitting there with no steering and holding the steering wheel staring at the blue wall and I was along for the ride at that point.
"I remember looking down at the steering shaft and seeing it spinning and I knew there was no way I could get the wheel back on. It was all happening so quick."
That the wheel came detached was not a mechanical failure Johnson said, but his own fault. He did not properly connect the wheel to the steering column before going out to run another lap. Hendrick Motorsports examined the car overnight to determine the cause of the crash and concluded nothing had broken on the No. 48 Chevrolet.
Johnson took full responsibility for the crash, absolving his team of any wrongdoing. He admitted to being "shocked" that the steering wheel came off while in his hands.
"I've always believed that my belts, my [head-and-neck restraint], my helmet being buckled and my steering wheel are my responsibility," Johnson said. "Members on the team say ‘Hey this one is on me.' That is not the case, it's the driver's responsibility to make sure he is safe.
"Those three or four connection points are my life line. This is on me."
To ensure his steering wheel is correctly fastened going forward, Johnson will add a line that will indicate that the wheel is pushed in and locked securely -- a suggestion former teammate Jeff Gordon made Friday night.
The impact of the crash and feeling of being "totally helpless" reminded Johnson of a crash he had on the Watkins Glen International road course during a 2000 Xfinity Series race. In that incident Johnson lost his brakes entering Turn 1 and went nose-first into a foam protective barrier.
"There are only very few moments in my racing career I have had that moment where you are just totally helpless and along for the ride," Johnson said. "It's not a fun position to be in."