March 12, 2016

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) When Jimmie Johnson jumps on the gas, he pulls on the steering wheel. Only this time, the steering wheel came off in his hands and led to one of the scariest moments in the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion's life.

''That sensation, the last time I had it was at Watkins Glen with no brakes,'' Johnson said Saturday. ''There are only a few moments in my racing career I've had that moment where you're totally helpless and along for the ride.''

Johnson took responsibility for the incident Friday night in the final round of qualifying at Phoenix International Raceway, saying it happened because the removable steering wheel wasn't on tight enough. He thanked recent safety improvements that left him unscathed.

''Just grateful I drive in an era with such a safe driver's compartment, softer walls, (Head And Neck Support) device, all those things,'' Johnson said. ''Years ago, that probably would have been a concussion at a minimum. To feel as good as I do - no sore spots, no aches or pains - is really good.''

Johnson went to his backup car for practice Saturday, while the buzz around the track centered on how such a mistake could happen.

''We've just got to make sure we get these wheels locked on,'' Johnson said in front his hauler. ''I'm going to make some small changes in my routines in getting in the car.

''We have lines in the steering shaft to make sure your steering wheel is straight. I'm going to add an additional line to make sure that the steering wheel is on far enough and hopefully, it's locked at that point.''

Steering wheels are removable in stock cars because the driver's compartment is so tight. It's also a safety measure in case a driver has to be removed from a wrecked car.

A driver usually puts on his own steering wheel after he gets in the car, with a member of his crew helping to ensure the wheel is locked.

''I've always believed that my belts, my HANS, my helmet being buckled and my steering wheel is my responsibility,'' Johnson said. ''Members on the team say, `This one is on me.' That's not the case.

''It's the driver's responsibility to make sure he's safe. And those three or four connection points are my lifeline. This is on me. I'm completely shocked it happened to me.''

The full-speed crash into the second turn of the mile oval brought back terrible memories of the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. This time, Johnson was able to walk away and prepare for Sunday's race.

''When I saw the blue (wall), the angle I was at and the speed I was at, I knew it was going to be a big impact,'' Johnson said. ''And I was just so thankful for when I came off the wall that feet, legs, arms, wrists, head was all fine and nothing was hurting.''

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