Jimmie Johnson finished second in the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, in a backup car, after starting 41st in a 43-car field.
This was comparable to a No. 15 seed coming up a few points short in the NCAA championship game.
If, say, the No. 15 seed was Kentucky.
Johnson, whose No. 48 team is to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series what Adolph Rupp’s and Joe B. Hall’s and Eddie Sutton’s and Rick Pitino’s and Tubby Smith’s and John Calipari’s teams were, and are, to college basketball (but not what Billy Gillispie’s teams were), charged from the back of the pack to finish .461 of a second behind Tony Stewart.
For much of the race, Johnson’s black Chevrolet looked like Kentucky on the fast break.
At the end, after he had pulled onto Stewart’s bumper for multiple restarts, it looked like Wisconsin in the halfcourt.
On TV, they were saying it looked like Richard Petty vs. David Pearson. Those two NASCAR legends finished 1-2 some 63 times. This was the 13th time Stewart and Johnson did it.
“Are you worried about a five-time (series) champion?” Stewart said, repeating a question that was asked after he had set aside the first-place trophy, a giant wrench.
“Was he worried about the three-time champion he had to pass?”
Yes, he was worried.
Johnson tried the bottom of the track. Johnson tried the top of the track. Johnson didn’t really try the middle of the track, because that’s where Stewart’s No. 14 was riding, as if on rails. Greased rails.
So after winning here four times, Johnson had to settle for second.
Kentucky doesn’t win every year.
Kentucky, in fact, doesn’t win nearly as much as Jimmie Johnson wins, at least not recently. Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson does not lose to Vanderbilt; Jimmie Johnson does not lose to AJ Allmendinger.
“With everything we went through, I’ll take it,” he said after climbing from his jet black racecar. “Man, we want to win. We’re close. Tony really got through the gears on those restarts.”
When the 1.5-mile LVMS oval was reconfigured and repaved several years ago, it became a multiple-groove track. Good for passing, the drivers said.
But not quite as good as running up front, in clean air.
The way Stewart ran up front, race control should have inspected under his hood for an industrial-sized can of Renuzit.
“Clean air was very important. My only chance was to be at his outside through (turns) 1 and 2,” said Johnson, who had sawed through the field like a lumberjack on Red Bull, going from 41st to the top 10 by lap 60 of 267.
“Didn’t have that opportunity. (Stewart) had the lane at that point. Drove my guts out, but just didn’t get it done.”
Johnson said the 48 team had just one hiccup — he got a bad set of tires a couple of stops from the end and lost some track position — while its driver had one big belch: On the next-to-last restart, Johnson spun his tires like rubber tops and immediately fell back.
“I blew it,” he admitted.
He did not blow the last restart, which came with four laps to go.
Johnson nailed that restart. Stewart nailed it more.
Johnson said he would try to improve on his restarts, which apparently are like free throws. One can work on them after practice. One can also analyze the engine mapping — a fancy term for computer printouts — of the other cars, if NASCAR so decrees.
Johnson said the 48 team would request the 14 team’s mapping. He suggested the team would go over it with the spyglass Ferdinand Magellan used in sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in the 16th century, if the team can lay its hands on it.
“Yup,” Johnson said, laughing, alluding to the many points the 48 team has been docked after it started hanging championship banners from the rafters. “I’ve already asked for it, too. They’ve been looking at our stuff for a lot of years.”
During the postrace news conference, Stewart’s crew chief, Steve Addington, was asked if the 14 team would allow the 48 team to see those computer printouts.
“Let me handle this,” Stewart said before Addington could answer.
So unless NASCAR intercedes, it appears that Johnson will just have to practice his free throws as the traveling circus that is NASCAR loads up the tent and heads to Bristol, Tenn.
Even John Calipari’s guys have to practice their free throws every now and again.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.