Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson dominated the second half of Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, scoring his first victory of the season in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Johnson earned the 71st victory of his career in impressive fashion as he held off the Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a second Hendrick car, Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford and Matt Kenseth in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
The victory was Johnson’s fourth at the 1.54-mile Atlanta track, and his first win since last fall’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
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"I’m just so excited that the guys could understand — we’ve got new guys — this new team could understand what I was complaining about and the things I didn’t like about my race car," said Johnson. "… This thing was just bad fast. I had a blast racing with the No. 4 (Harvick). He was awfully strong today. I think track position there at the end set things in place."
Indeed Harvick was fast, but got bottled up late in the race on a couple of restarts.
"I had one bad restart there where I spun the tires on the outside and we just never recovered from that one," said Harvick, who led a race-high 105 laps and has now finished first or second in five consecutive races dating back to last year.
Earnhardt was pleased with his team’s performance on the cold, gray day.
"Real happy to run good here," said Earnhardt. "I love this race track, I just haven’t run that good here in a long time. Feels good to run well."
Logano qualified on the pole, but Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Kenseth and Tony Stewart all started 35th or worse. That’s because on Friday they were among the 13 drivers who failed to make it through tech inspection and as a result didn’t post a qualifying lap.
Also stuck out back was reigning Sprint Cup champ Harvick, who began the race from the rear after a rare engine failure in practice.
Those in arrears charged hard early, with Harvick all the way up to eighth on Lap 35.
On Lap 87, Harvick went to the point for the first time, immediately pulling away from Logano, the driver he beat in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race here.
Logano led 84 of the first 89 laps, but was never a factor afterwards.
"Everyone got better (as the race went on) and we didn’t," Logano said bluntly.
Harvick led at the halfway point at Lap 163, but he surrendered the top spot pit road during a caution stop on Lap 176. During that yellow for debris on the fronstretch, Denny Hamlin was first off of pit road ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hamlin.
After the track went green, Harvick was able to retake the lead, moving out front on Lap 190.
Eight laps later, Johnson took his first lead of the day, easily passing Harvick. The two waged an excellent battle up front, at this point clearly the fastest cars in the field.
Harvick regained the lead after a round of pit stops that saw the No. 4 come in on Lap 224, one lap earlier than the 48.
Johnson won the race off pit road following a caution for debris on Lap 253.
On the restart, Hamlin lost it on the backstretch, triggering a big crash that took out Gordon and Jamie McMurray, with Gordon going headfirst into a section of track that didn’t have SAFER barriers.
With 28 laps to go, Cole Whitt blew an engine to send the track yellow again.
On the restart, Johnson took the lead, but a huge crash that began with Greg Biffle and Joe Nemechek involved at least eight cars, including Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. NASCAR brought out the red flag, setting up a late-race shootout.
The race restarted with 15 laps to go, Johnson leading Kenseth and Earnhardt. Despite a hard challenge initially from Earnhardt, Johnson pulled away and drove to victory.
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