HAMPTON, Georgia: Jimmie Johnson captured his first Sprint Cup victory of the season, winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in a green-white-checker finish on Sunday (Monday in Manila).
The victory was the 76th of Johnson’s career, tying him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on NASCAR’s all-time list.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second, making it a 1-2 afternoon for Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Busch, who started at the rear of the field after failing post-race was third. Pole-winner Kurt Busch was fourth.
The race ended in overtime when Ryan Newman crashed with two laps remaining. Johnson, who was leading at the time, went to the pits for four tires. He stayed in the lead after the restart. Johnson had taken the lead after a pit stop on Lap 276, nine before Kevin Harvick, who was in second before Newman’s wreck.
Johnson made a post-race victory lap in honor of the senior Earnhardt, who died in a crash at Daytona in 2001. He held out three fingers — symbolic of Earnhardt’s car number.
“It’s such an honor with the chaos at the end, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered on my victory lap to come out and throw a 3 out the window,” Johnson said.
His fifth victory at Atlanta probably wouldn’t have occurred had crew chief Chad Knaus not made a strategic call that wrested control of the race from Kavin Harvick, whose dominant No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet led a race-high 131 of the 330 laps.
As soon as Johnson hit the fuel window that would get him to the end of the race, Knaus brought the No. 48 Chevrolet to pit road for four tires and gas on Lap 276, nine laps before Harvick pitted from the lead. With the nine-lap advantage on fresh tires – not to mention issues with the left front tire that cost Harvick more than three seconds on pit road – Johnson was 13.631 seconds ahead of Harvick’s No. 4 when the green-flag pit stop cycle was completed on Lap 287.
“Definitely a gutsy call,” Johnson said. “It was just a great team effort. The No. 4 [Kevin Harvick] car was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When he told me to whip it as hard as I could there [after the lap 276 pit stop], I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. But, it worked. And I got rolling around the top and got to where I got this Lowe’s Chevy in Victory Lane,” he said.
But it wasn’t easy. Harvick cut into Johnson’s advantage, reducing it to 5.1 seconds before the speeds of the top two cars leveled out. When Ryan Newman blew a left rear tire and spun at the end of the frontstretch with two laps left in the regulation distance of 325 laps, the eight lead-lap cars came to pit road for tires.
Johnson held the lead, with Harvick second and Busch third. But on the overtime restart, Harvick had trouble in the outside lane and Johnson surged ahead, pursued by Busch and Earnhardt.
A wild wreck on the backstretch caused the caution that ended the race under yellow five laps beyond its scheduled distance.
“We had issues about the last three runs,” said Harvick, who suffered late-race brake problems and finished sixth. “I had to start driving the car different. It just required a little bit different handling. And then we had a slow pit stop there.
TNS WITH REPORT FROM NASCAR.COM