NASCAR: Johnson gets third win of 2014 season
BROOKLYN, Michigan — At long last, Jimmie Johnson knows what it feels like to visit victory lane at Michigan International Speedway.
The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion took the lead for good on Lap 191 after a cycle of pit stops and cruised to the checkered flag at Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 to end a 24-race drought here.
“We’ve figured out every way to lose this race and today we were able to get it done,” he said after getting out of his No. 48 Chevy.
Johnson had encountered heartbreak several times when leading late here and admitted he was nervous as he dashed through the final few laps.
“About 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I’d still make it across the line,” he said with a chuckle, “so that’s when I finally relaxed.”
Johnson pitted on Lap 165 and took on four tires and enough fuel to finish the race, which was green the rest of the way. Anyone close to him pitted later and left Johnson comfortably ahead as Hendrick Motorsports captured its fifth straight Sprint Cup series race.
“We were really in a win-win situation,” said Johnson, who led 39 laps and jumped to second in the Sprint Cup points standings behind Gordon. “Those guys had to come to pit road to make it to the end.
“Once the strategy unfolded, we knew we were in the catbird’s seat.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus said the team had an extra ace in the hole.
“We knew there was going to be some opportunities to play some strategy today,” he said. “We were fortunate to have a fast racecar and hit the strategy correct.”
The car was the same the team used to win Johnson’s first race of the season at Charlotte.
Pole sitter Kevin Harvick, who led a race-best 63 laps, was second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne.
Johnson’s win capped a stellar day for HMS, which saw all four Chevys in the top seven thanks to Kahne and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who were sixth and seventh.
Johnson became the series’ first three-time winner and picked up his 69th career Sprint Cup victory. He has finished first in three of the series’ last four races and jumped to from fourth to second in the series points standings, 15 points behind Gordon.
Harvick was especially fast on restarts during the first 150 laps of the race but got caught in a series of green-flag stops that dropped him to second. He did little to hide his frustration.
“The car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of the strategy,” he said.
Harvick had the fastest car on the track for most of practice and set a new track record to earn the pole.
The pit strategy chess game forced several other contenders farther back in the field, including Joey Logano, who led the field for 15 laps before being passed by Harvick on Lap 141.
The race wasn’t quite a lap old when Brian Vickers brushed the Turn 4 wall, then spun before collecting Travis Kvapil near the entrance to pit lane. Rookie Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. brought out another caution on Lap 6 when they made contact near Turn 2.
Casey Mears and Brett Moffitt tangled in Turn 4 on Lap 115 and Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin spun in the same place on Lap 122 to bring out another caution. The race was yellow-flagged eight times for 36 laps.