Throughout his career, Jimmie Johnson has won races because he had faster cars than the competition or he flat out-drove them, or both. Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, when he didn’t have the best car, Johnson outsmarted his rivals to win the SpongeBob SquarePants 400.
Defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kevin Harvick had the fastest car and led 53 laps in the race, with Johnson taking his first and only lead with 10 laps to go.
Johnson didn’t outrun Harvick and the other racers; instead the six-time champion chose not to pit under the night’s final caution, while Harvick did. Johnson took the lead when Harvick and the field peeled off for the pits, and from there Johnson held on to win.
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The decision by Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to stay out was spot on. Johnson wouldn’t have won had he pitted with Harvick.
"I felt like we had a good car," said Johnson, the first three-time winner in 11 Sprint Cup races so far this season. "As we got to the front and got out of the turbulent air and traffic our car just got faster and faster. I felt like we were a top-two or -three car but I didn’t have enough time up there in the top two or three to know where I stood against the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and the 4 (Harvick)."
As a result of having a good-but-not-great car, Johnson and Knaus had to mix it up a little bit to win.
"We gambled with our pit call and had just enough time to get to the finish line before the 4 on his new tires could get to us," said Johnson. "Just well played. In some ways we fought really hard to get to victory lane, but it’s fun to win one gambling. We haven’t really gambled before and won. Not to my knowledge. So it feels a little different and pretty cool to have that come together."
The key to victory, according to Knaus, was the fact that three other cars stayed out and a fourth took fuel only. When the race restarted on Lap 262 of 267, there were four cars between Johnson and Harvick and just six laps of racing left.
"We knew that we were going to need to have probably four or five guys at the minimum stay out for us to have any shot at pulling it off," said Knaus. "We were tossing back and forth what we should do, and I didn’t want to say too much until the very last moment, and when I threw it out there to Jimmie and he said, ‘Well, let’s gamble.’ I was like, ‘That’s easy, it’s done.’
"So when we did that I felt very confident the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) was going to stay out, I felt very confident the 24 (Jeff Gordon) was going to stay out. I didn’t know about the other guys. And I felt like even if those other guys came down, like 78, for instance, he took fuel. And I really expected the 4 to take fuel as opposed to taking right-side tires. Once he took right-side tires, I knew that he was going to be difficult. I knew that he was going to be the one to beat. But yeah, it was — man, it just played out. We started to set up that strategy three stops from the end, and it worked out."
And as if to prove the old adage about success breeding success, Johnson was willing to gamble because he came into the race with two victories already and a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup all but clinched. He wanted to win, sure, but if he didn’t win, it didn’t matter a bit if he finished second or 42nd. That made the decision easy.
"(Chad) asked me what I wanted to do, and it just dawned on me, we’ve won two races, we’re locked in the Chase, points don’t matter, it’s all about wins. I said, ‘Man, I feel like gambling.’ And that was the call, and we stayed out."
And they won. Right time, right place, right call.