When Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag on Saturday night, his crew chief Chad Knaus appropriately dubbed him “the only four-time All-Star champion.”
Once again, Johnson rewrote the NASCAR record books as he broke a three-way tie with the late Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon for the most All-Star wins with his latest victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It’s amazing to be there with my heroes and icons of the sport,” Johnson said.
Johnson started the All-Star race 18th and was 15th after the first segment, when Knaus elected to have him pit for tires. Johnson moved up to fifth after the second segment, but dropped to seventh for the start of the third segment after losing ground on a pit stop and then raced to third.
When the fourth 20-lap segment was complete, Johnson was third again behind Kurt Busch, who had won two segments, and Kasey Kahne.
However, under NASCAR’s new rule for the final pit stops, the field was reset to enter pit road according to average finishes from the first four segments. Therefore, Johnson lined up fourth and then raced through a stop and exited second for the final dash for cash.
“I really felt the winner would come from the front row,” Johnson said. “That last pit stop set everything up.”
With an 11-second, four-tire pit stop before the final 10-lap shootout, the No. 48 team was able to put Johnson in position to start on the front row alongside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kahne. But Kahne didn’t hold onto the point for long.
Johnson powered down and pulled out to a sizeable lead that was extended as Kahne battled Joey Logano for position.
At the finish, Johnson had extended his lead to 1.722 seconds over Logano, who had passed Kahne and scored a career-high second in the event.
“Second is nothing to hang our head down, but it doesn't mean much when there's no points,” Logano said. “It's all about the million bucks tonight.”
Kyle Busch, who won the second and third segments, finished third followed by Kahne and Kurt Busch. The elder Busch topped the field after the first and fourth segments and tied his brother for most laps led in the event — 29. However, Kurt Busch dropped from first to fifth in the pits on the final stop prior to the final 10-lap segment of the race.
After the race, Johnson said he expects Kurt Busch's No. 78 Furniture Row Chevy to be a car to watch in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 — but in order to contend the Denver-based team will need it’s A-game on pit road.
“You always want more and when you lose to a guy like Jimmie Johnson, a five-time champion — those guys they were just perfect again," Busch said. "We were just one click slow on pit stop and one click off on the final adjustment. We came out fifth and got stuck in a little bit of that traffic. I thought we could race our way into that.
“You know, to win some segments and to be in position with the All-Star race and the way it is, it shows the full strength of this team. Even though we were running 20 laps at a time, it still makes you proud to race for these guys. They put me in position with the best average finish through the first four segments but we were just a shade slow on pit road and maybe a shade off on that last adjustment because I couldn’t race back through traffic. Even if we came out first, it would have been tough to hold those guys off.”
Still, Johnson believes that on intermediate tracks, being in clean air is a clear advantage — particularly when the field is on fresh tires.
“The front row was going to have an advantage,” Johnson said. “We've seen that here for a long time, and when we look back to last year and the strategy we used, we knew we needed to win the first segment which would put us up front on the start for the final segment, and we were able to take advantage of that.
“We all knew it going into it and that's why I was really — I don't want to say I counted myself out, but starting 20th or 23rd or whatever we were, it wasn't good.”
Although Johnson’s crew wasn’t electric throughout the night, his No. 48 crew stepped up on the money stop when the race was on the line. Knaus contends the development of the team has “been a long process.”
“We've been fortunate over the course of the last few years to start to develop and get that fruit from what we started four years ago,” Knaus said. “A lot of the individuals that we brought in didn't know anything about motorsports but they were fantastic athletes, and now these athletes are starting to understand racing and understand the pressures that are involved to pit a race car for a guy like Jimmie Johnson.
“It's tough, especially when you have cameras on your grille and watching every move and as soon as you make a mistake you get blasted in the media and the paper and everything else. These guys are starting to become numb to that type of pressure. We're fortunate to have a little bit of depth and we've made three changes this year and I'm not saying we're perfect by any stretch because we had a couple mistakes tonight on pit road, but it just so happens they nailed it on the last one and hopefully that's a good sign of things to come.”
You will be tested . . .
Polesitter Carl Edwards was stout during the first two segments of the All-Star race, but then he dropped back through the field over the final 50 laps to finish 10th.
After finishing the second segment in third, Edwards opted not to pit. Clint Bowyer also stayed out instead of pitting for tires prior to the third segment. They quickly paid for that decision.
“Yeah, it was going well and then we stayed out and obviously we should have pitted,” Edwards said. “Clint did the same thing. I think we gambled on the air being a little more important than it was. We thought we could hold them off and it just wasn’t meant to be.
“We learned a big lesson, though, so we can apply that to the 600. If we would have come in, we would have wondered what it was like if we had stayed out, so you learn lessons. That’s how it goes.”
2: Drivers have won consecutive All-Star races – Davey Allison (1991-92) and Johnson (2012-13).
3: Top 10 All-Star finishes for Joey Logano in three career starts.
3: Consecutive top-five All-Star finishes for Kyle Busch.
Jimmie Johnson, on conspiracy theorists questioning the validity of Saturday night’s win.
“People just want to hate,” Johnson said. “That's fine. That's fine. I'm just lucky. NASCAR rigs the races and whatever they want to believe. I'm going home with a cool trophy and a big check and we all really know what happened. So whatever.”