3 keys to Jimmie Johnson’s historic victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway

It was another wild day at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as drivers wrestled with NASCAR’s new low downforce package and heavy tire wear.

And at the end of 500 long miles, Jimmie Johnson persevered to capture his 76th career victory, tying Johnson with the late Dale Earnhardt. 

Jimmie Johnson ties late Dale Earnhardt's record with 76th win

Here are three keys to Johnson’s historic victory:

Short-pit — Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus made a great strategic call, bringing Johnson in for tires nine laps before Kevin Harvick on the penultimate green-flag stop. Harvick dominated the race, leading 131 of 330 laps. But with fresh tires worth so much speed, Johnson was able to build a big lead while Harvick was still on old rubber.

“It was a gamble for sure,” said Knaus. “ … We could have easily just hung out and finished third, but we weren’t going to pass those guys, so we had to do something. So it was just a matter of how early to pit because if we didn’t pit early enough, if we only pitted just a couple laps earlier than everybody else, it would have pulled the rest of them down with us, so we had to make it to where we did it to where it would make them uncomfortable and not willing maybe to take that risk.”

“Definitely a gutsy call,” said Johnson. “It was such a great team effort. The 4 car (Harvick) was awfully tough and we knew it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When he (Knaus) told me to whip it as hard as I could there, I felt it was going to take too much life out of the tires, but it worked.”

Johnson’s lead, which at one point was more than 13 seconds, was too much for Harvick to overcome late in the race, although the gap dropped to about 5 seconds at one point.

“Being the hunted, it’s just a weird position to be in,” said Johnson. “You just know he’s (Harvick) coming.  You’re staring in the mirror and wondering where he’s at, and then also wondering if Chad was telling me the truth about lap times and the gap back to him, and it all worked out.”

Jimmie Johnson wins Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta

Make a great restart — When Ryan Newman cut a tire with three laps to go, Johnson and Harvick restarted on the front row. The green flag came out and Johnson made a perfect restart and Harvick didn’t, falling to sixth.

On the restart Johnson had Kyle Busch right behind him, but he was able to hold off the defending series champion as Harvick drifted up high and out of contention. At the start-finish line, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to edge Busch for second place.

Don’t make mistakes on pit road — Matt Kenseth had one of the fastest cars in the race, but a pit-road violation cost him a shot at victory. During a stop, his gasman placed a wedge-adjustment wrench on the trunk of Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota while the gas can was plugged into the filler neck, a violation of the rules

While crew chief Jason Ratcliff argued whether Kenseth should have been penalized or not, NASCAR black-flagged Kenseth, which went ignored. He ultimately was penalized one lap for the pit infraction and another for ignoring the black flag.

Likewise, Joey Logano had to pit his No. 22 Team Penske Ford under green to replace a loose wheel that wasn’t properly tightened on the previous stop. Logano, who won more races than any other driver last year, had a disappointing outing, winding up 12th.

Kevin Harvick dominated the race, but his next-to-last pit stop was a disaster, taking about 16 seconds.  “We just didn’t execute today,” said Harvick.