It’s not often a race car driver intentionally cruises slowly at the back of the field.
Jimmie Johnson did it for roughly 60 laps Saturday night, and it earned him a cool $1 million payday.
Johnson used a calculated strategy — he drove hard for the first and last segments, and coasted for the three in between — to join Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only three-time winners of NASCAR’s Sprint All-Star Race.
The five-time champion won the first 20-lap segment of the all-Star race, then deliberately faded to the back for the next three 20-lap segments at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His plan was to keep the No. 48 Chevrolet out of trouble, then make his play for the win in the fifth and final segment.
"We did a strategy that we thought was best for our team," he said.
It certainly was, even if it was the antithesis of what race car drivers do for a living.
But it worked for this year’s new format, which guaranteed the winners of the first four segments would be the first four drivers down pit road for a mandatory stop before the 10-lap sprint to the finish. Johnson’s win in the first segment meant he was guaranteed to be the first driver down pit road, and he had the first stall — the reward for his Hendrick Motorsports team winning Thursday night’s Pit Crew Competition.
His race, after winning that first segment, was simply to beat everyone else off pit road. Johnson raced Matt Kenseth down the lane, and edged him across the line.
He then needed a clean and quick restart, which he executed to perfection, to pull away for the win. This win comes a week after his Darlington Raceway victory gave Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup win.
"Man, I don’t want this week to end," Johnson said.
He celebrated by picking up team owner Rick Hendrick, who climbed halfway through the window of the Chevrolet for Johnson’s celebratory lap. It was Hendrick’s seventh all-star race win.
"He said come pick me up, and once I got to him, he didn’t want the ride," Johnson said. "I’m like, `No, no, I came to get you, Get on the car.’ It was great to take him around."
It didn’t look very comfortable — or safe.
"That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in racing," Hendrick said. "I thought I was going to be a busted watermelon."
Brad Keselowski, winner of the third segment, had no chance to catch Johnson over the closing 10 laps. The final segment was the shortest by 10 laps, but Keselowski didn’t think it mattered.
"I don’t think it was going to make a difference if it was a hundred laps at the end; Jimmie was just that fast," Keselowski said. "You can’t really steal any of his thunder on that. I was doing all I could to get by, but wasn’t meant to be."
But Keselowski, who won the third segment, wasn’t all that disappointed.
"It’s all about the restart," Keselowski said. "The high line on the restart just wouldn’t go. I don’t know if I would have been able to do anything, but I would have liked another shot. We got beat by a five-time champ and two-time all-star winner, so I think we’re doing pretty good. We didn’t have enough to pull it off."
Kenseth, winner of the second segment, finished third. He had some tense moments after teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle had engine failures — Biffle’s exploded into a giant fireball — and initially wasn’t all that comfortable following Johnson’s lead of running around the back until the final 10 laps.
"I watched what the 48 did. They won the first one, so they didn’t race until the last 10," Kenseth said. "They seem to know what they’re doing, pretty smart. We watched that, kind of hung back. There wasn’t any reward for racing up through there. You knew you were coming on pit road second."
And after losing the race off pit road to Johnson, and the restart, too, Kenseth knew he couldn’t catch the winner. It was Kenseth’s fifth top-five finish in 12 all-star races.
"For me, you got somebody as fast as him out front, there was no way I was going to have a shot in 10 laps," Kenseth said. "Ten laps is kind of short, but yet the fastest car was out front. It was hard to beat that."
Kyle Busch finished fourth and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the fourth segment and advanced into the all-star race by winning the qualifying race earlier Saturday night. Busch, the polesitter, wasn’t surprised by the finishing order.
"It was exactly like everybody thought it would be; Anybody who wins the first segment will win the race," Busch said.