Jimmie Johnson came back with a vengeance at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
After losing the lead — and the race last weekend at Dover Downs when he was penalized for jumping the restart — Johnson received a gift at Pocono when qualifying was rained out on Friday.
As the Sprint Cup Series point leader, Johnson started from the pole on Sunday and was able to select the first pit stall. With those advantages at Johnson’s disposal along with his strong car and solid pit strategy, the Hendrick Motorsports racer had everything he needed to dominate the Party at the Poconos 400.
“Woohoo,” Johnson exclaimed after earning his third victory on the 2.5-mile track and his third win of the season. “I’m sure we’ve had some other really strong races like that, but not in recent memory. What a racecar. Not only the car and the handling and the grip that it had, but also the engine and what was under the hood. When I would lean on the throttle, this baby would yard anybody and everybody.”
Johnson led a career-high 128 laps at Pocono and extended his lead over second-place Greg Biffle by 1.209 seconds at the finish line. While Johnson wanted to execute a dramatic restart in the closing laps, the timing wasn’t right with Dale Earnhardt Jr. lining up next to the No. 48 Chevy on the penultimate and final restarts.
“I wanted to prove a point and show everybody really what could happen in that restart zone than what happened to me last week,” Johnson said. “But I couldn’t do it to a teammate. I just couldn’t. So I guess if things stay the way they do, I’ll save that for another day and prove my point even more.”
For Earnhardt, who finished third, it would not have mattered. Despite having a car and engine built in the same shops as Johnson, Earnhardt acknowledged he had nothing for Johnson running Turn 3 over the closing laps.
“It looked like to me we got beat through Turn 3 pretty bad,” Earnhardt said. “Jimmie was just real fast through there.”
Although Pocono Raceway was repaved prior to last season, Johnson felt the track was aging well and that allowed him to regain some of the magic he had here in the past, not just in Turn 3 but throughout the entire track.
“I knew I was faster there,” Johnson said. “In years past, I’ve learned a line and a rhythm to that corner that’s been useful. A lot of available grip with the fresh repave and I think it’s kind of come my way coming back to the old way of the way Turn 3 used to work for me and that’s the way I drove it today. Just got to be smart with it.
“But I think our car was rolling all three corners pretty good. I could get a nice gap off of 3 and manage my fuel the rest of the way around the track and the guys would kind of inch back up to me and then blister 3 again and get my gap.”
Still, Johnson’s speed was undeniable. Not surprisingly, Hendrick-powered cars driven by Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five finishers.
While Biffle has struggled over the last six races, the Roush Fenway racer was optimistic following Happy Hour on Saturday. On Sunday, track position and “lucky” lane choices allowed him to maximize his opportunities on the restarts, but Biffle didn’t feel he was in the same class as the Hendrick cars.
“The 88 was faster than we were, clearly, 78 was faster than us,” said Biffle, who posted his first top five finish since Texas. “Most of the top five cars were probably a little faster than we were on sheer speed. But it’s track position, you’ve got to pass a guy.
“We’ve still got a little bit of work to do. We’re not quite there yet . . . but definitely this is a step in the right direction. We certainly ran better here than we have all season, and certainly that’s a positive for us going into next week, hopefully continue to build on that.”
With Johnson extending his lead to 51 points over the field in the Sprint Cup standings, Biffle and the rest of the field may be running out of time to catch the five-time champion. And given the way crew chief Chad Knaus and Johnson are feeling right now, the effort might be futile.
“Jimmie and I are in a really good spot,” Knaus said. “Jimmie is switched on right now. He’s as good, or better, than I’ve ever seen him.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gaining momentum just at the right time.
On Sunday, Junior was relieved to execute a solid third-place performance with the No. 88 team at Pocono Raceway. His first top-five result since Auto Club Speedway in March — and his fourth top-five finish of the season — elevated NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver from sixth to fourth in the point standings.
While the Steve Letarte-led crew is tied with the No. 48 team for most top-10 finishes (nine), Earnhardt was encouraged by “the balance of the car” and the amount of speed he had on Sunday.
“Dover (last week) we just didn’t have speed, couldn’t really take advantage of any opportunities that were given to us during the race,” Earnhardt said. “We just didn’t have the car to do it. But we had good speed. We didn’t have the winner of the race covered, but we had everybody from fifth on back covered.
“So when your car can run that well, you want to finish where you can finish.”
While some drivers might feel animosity toward a teammate as successful as Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt feels “fortunate” to be in the same shop as the five-time champion.
“I get to lean on them and I get to know exactly what’s happening under the hood,” Earnhardt said. “I can learn and use that to my advantage.
“When it’s good for Jimmie, it’s equally as good for us in an indirect way and hopefully, we can see what they did and come back to Pocono and try to improve on what we did today.”
Earnhardt feels his solid Pocono effort will provide the team with momentum entering next week’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, the site of his last Sprint Cup win.
“We’ve got a good package going to Pocono and going to Michigan,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully going to Michigan we’ve got a good package. When we get there, we’ll see. But so far it’s been real similar to last year. We were strong here last year.”
0 — Toyotas among the top five finishers for the first time in 2013
4 — Pit stops for Ryan Newman – the only driver to run the full distance of the race on four stops
8 — Top-10 finishes for Kurt Busch since joining Furniture Row Racing 20 races ago — the same number of top 10s the organization posted over 193 starts before the former champion assumed driving duties.
After the race, Kurt Busch’s spotter Rick Carelli relayed that Ryan Newman said “thank you” for not pushing the issue over the final run to the checkers. Busch, who finished seventh, replied, “10-4, they were going to need three choppers to come lift all three of us out of there if I stuck it in there.”