Jimmie Johnson won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, holding off the rest of the field after a late caution took the Sprint Cup race to overtime.
After a brilliant decision by crew chief Chad Knaus to bring Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet to pit road early to gain track position resulted in giving Johnson a 13-second lead with 37 laps to go, it looked like Johnson was going to sail easily to his fifth career Cup win at the Atlanta track.
But with three laps to go, Ryan Newman blew a left-rear tire on his No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, erasing a 6-second lead Johnson still had on Kevin Harvick and bringing out the caution flag to set up a green-white-checkered overtime finish.
I remembered it on my victory lap and had to come by and throw a ‘3’ out the window to pay respects to the man.
Jimmie Johnson, on tying the late Dale Earnhardt on the all-time win list in NASCAR's Premier Series.
On the ensuing restart, Harvick stumbled and Kyle Busch jumped to second — but he could not catch Johnson and, in fact, ended up getting beat to the finish line for second by Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a big wreck behind the leaders brought out another caution and ended the race.
It was Johnson’s 76th career Sprint Cup victory, tying him with the late Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list.
Of Knaus’ call to come to pit road six laps before anyone else in the field and nine laps before Harvick on what turned out to be the next-to-last stop of the race, Johnson told FOX Sports: "It definitely was a gutsy call. Just such a team effort. The 4 car (of Harvick) was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him."
Harvick led 131 of the first 288 laps. But he lost the lead not only because Knaus ordered Jonhnson to pit road before everyone else — but Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports crew subsequently pulled off an 11.2-second stop. When Harvick came in for his stop nine laps later, his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing crew took 15.5 seconds for the same four tires and fuel.
"We just didn’t execute," Harvick said.
Kenseth led 47 laps during the first one-third of the race, but a costly pit-rod penalty may have cost him a shot at victory.
During a green-flag stop on Lap 121, Kenseth pitted for four tires and fuel on his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. When he did, his gasman placed a wedge-adjustment wrench on the trunk of Kenseth’s car while he was fueling it.
By rules, the gasman cannot do anything other than fuel the car when the gas can is engaged. NASCAR caught the infraction and penalized the team.
Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, vehemently argued the case with NASCAR officials. But while the discussion was going on, Kenseth got black-flagged. He ultimately was penalized one lap for the pit infraction and another for ignoring the black flag, taking one of the fastest cars in the field from the lead to two laps down.
It was a caution-free race for the first 209 laps, with the first yellow flag coming out on Lap 210 for debris. That represented the longest green-flag run in history at the start of a Sprint Cup race at the 1.5-mile Atlanta track.
Rounding out the top five in finishing order after Johnson and Earnhardt were Kyle Busch, pole-sitter Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. Harvick ended up sixth.
Of tying Earnhardt for seventh place on the all-time Cup wins list, Johnson was philosophical.
"It’s such an honor," he said. "With all the chaos at the end of the race and the crash and the overtime and wondering how it all works these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap and had to come by and throw a ‘3’ out the window to pay respects to the man.
“It was a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record here."