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Why Jimmie Johnson’s 12th to first strategy didn’t work in the Sprint All-Star Race

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 21: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, leads Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 3M Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 21, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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CONCORD, N.C. – A smile creased Jimmie Johnson’s face as he exited his No. 48 Chevrolet to a simple question about one of the more convoluted races in NASCAR history.

How did the six-time Sprint Cup champion fall from first to 12th in the final segment of the Sprint All-Star Race?

“Tires were a little more important than it appeared it would be,” Johnson said with a chuckle.

That would be the streamlined explanation for an endlessly confusing Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in which nothing was as it seemed – particularly after the first 50-lap segment ended with a caution flag before Matt Kenseth had made his mandatory pit stop for two tires.

It resulted in a one-lap penalty for Kenseth that precluded an anticipated wavearound and left eight cars one lap down – a scenario that hadn’t been foreseen by NASCAR, according to vice president of competition Scott Miller.

And it ruined the strategy of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who had game-planned for the race with the intent of finishing the second of three segments in 12th place.

A random draw would ensure either the top nine to 11 cars would have to pit for four tires. Being 12th after the second segment would ensure a team of at least being in the first two rows for the final 13-lap restart – or first in a best-case scenario, which is exactly what unfolded for the No. 48.

In a race featuring 20 cars, it potentially meant enjoying an eight-car buffer over the strongest contenders with 13 laps to freedom.

“We thought that was really going to be it,” Johnson said. “That was the plan. It just didn’t work.”

Virtually every crew chief in the field probably considered those tactics. Todd Gordon, who helmed Joey Logano’s first win in the exhibition race, said he did.

“(With) 20 cars on the lead lap, and you fall back to 11th or 12th, starting on the front row with 15‑lap old tires and having four rows of cars that separate you from (fresh) tires,” Gordon said, “I think you’re probably pretty safe.”

The history was sound. In the three previous three All-Star Races, the winner led every lap of the final 10-lap segment, lending credence to the concept that being out front in clean air was the key to victory lane.

But because there were only 13 cars on the lead lap (a six-car pileup in the second segment exacerbated the situation that started with the late caution in the first segment), Johnson and Kyle Busch were the only lead-lap drivers who weren’t allowed to pit before the final segment.

They restarted first and second … but with no buffer to the next 11 cars on four tires.

When the green flag fell, it took less than a half-lap for the front row to be gobbled up in a four-wide mad scramble that ended with Kyle Larson in the lead.

Starting on the outside, Johnson said it also hurt that he couldn’t pass Busch before the first turn.

“I didn’t quite have him cleared,” Johnson said. “I think he got a push up in there. Then it kind of broke our momentum.

“Then those guys came so fast and came around us. But I felt like the way everything has gone that if I could have got the lead and got a lap or two under my belt and maintained it, I could have kept it. And that was our strategy all along. When they came by us on new tires, they came by in a damn hurry.”

How many cars would he have needed between him and those on fresh tires to have a shot at his fifth All-Star Race win?

Johnson paused before answering.

“It would have been nice to have a lap or two,” he said. “So maybe third row? Fourth row? Something like that would have really been a big help.

“I think I would have had a better chance if I would have cleared Kyle and got down in front of him. We kind of fought for space into Turn 1, and neither of us ran the corner flat. By the time we got to Turn 2, they were on both sides of me just blowing by.”

Some of Johnson’s four previous wins in the All-Star Race had involved sandbagging. After winning in 2003, he admitted to laying back in an event that involved a midrace inversion, and he won the race in ’12 by winning the first segment and then virtually sitting out the next two.

But that still didn’t make it seem any less weird when he allowed Greg Biffle to zoom by into 11th place three laps from the end of the second segment

Was it odd to yield a spot so easily?

“Yeah,” Johnson said. “Many spots. It’s definitely, definitely different.”

But different was the kind of game being played Saturday from every angle.