SONOMA, CALIF. — Jimmie Johnson appeared poised for one of his patented comebacks but came up short Sunday at Infineon Raceway, a track where he's never won.
The El Cajon, Calif., native, winner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title the last three years, started the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in 11th place and was working his way to the front.
But he was penalized for entering pit road too fast on an early pit stop and was sent to the rear of the field.
"I had to come back from that," said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. "I passed a lot of cars, so very proud of the effort, very proud of the race car."
As the race neared its end, Johnson had climbed back to fourth. But that's where he finished because he was unable to get past the top three finishers: Winner Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Marcos Ambrose.
Even so, "this has been a tough, tough track for us so we are getting better," Johnson said.
Johnson also bumped into Kurt Busch's Dodge with 20 laps left in the race, which sent Busch spinning and into the wall. Busch ended up finishing 15th.
Johnson apologized to Busch after the race, and later said, "I hit a curb and I was out of control" when he turned into Busch.
"I feel really bad about that," he said.
Busch, who drives for Penske Racing, said, "You had two guys trying to go for the same spot on the track. But I just didn't expect that from Jimmie. I trusted him a little bit."
Busch started 27th and had moved up to third place after 80 of the race's 110 regulation laps, but the accident knocked him from contention.
"The run-in with the 48 car just put us back to the rear and fighting as hard as we could to get all the spots possible," he said.
Johnson is third in the Cup point standings behind leader Stewart and Jeff Gordon, and Busch is fourth.
The Dodge of Sam Hornish Jr., Busch's Penske teammate, was so banged up by the race's end that it appeared the former Indianapolis 500 winner was racing "open-wheel" cars again.
The entire front body work of Hornish's Penske Racing car was missing when he took the checkered flag, ripped off by his crew after Hornish was involved in the latest of several mishaps.
On Lap 60, for instance, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Hornish's car, spinning them both out. And later Hornish was involved in another accident with Boris Said and David Gilliland.
"Just a tough deal," Hornish said. "There was a lot of beating and banging going on out there and we just got caught up in somebody else's mess and put a hole in our radiator."