HAMPTON, Ga. — Audio and recap by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR photo —
A page of NASCAR history was made on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson tied seven-time champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr. with his 76th career victory in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.
Johnson led the final 45 laps of the event after a call by crew chief Chad Knaus to short-pit for tires with 49 to go, but had to survive an overtime restart after a blown tire sent Ryan Newman spinning with two laps to go in the scheduled distance and put race-long dominator Kevin Harvick to his outside.
Johnson, however, got a huge push from behind by Kyle Busch to get away from the pack and then received the aid of a caution after crossing the overtime line — for a crash involving Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, David Ragan and Landon Cassill — that froze the field and gave him the historic win.
“It is such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt Sr. in victory lane. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering how overtime worked, I (actually) lost sight of that (at first), but I remembered on my victory lap coming down that I could throw a “3” out the window and pay my respects to the man.”
“There’s a huge void in my career I never got to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record there.”
And though Johnson ultimately scored his fifth Atlanta victory in the end, he recognized the sheer speed of race-long dominator Kevin Harvick, who led 131 of 330 laps but failed to come away with the spoils of victory.
“The 4 car was tough all day long, and it was going to take some strategy to get by him,” the El Cajon, Calif. native admitted. “It was definitely a gutsy call, but this win is a great team effort. When he (Knaus) told me to whip it as hard as I could there, I felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires, but it worked in the end.”
The story of the race was long green flag runs, as the first 210 laps went uninterrupted and saw 18 lead changes between eight different drivers before debris on the backstretch slowed the pace.
In between, five sets of green flag pit stops tested drivers and saw the race’s early dominator — Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth, who led 47 of the first 115 laps — receive a crippling penalty for improper fueling by the gas man that ended his shot at victory.
The fueler, who by rule is not allowed to perform any function besides fueling when the gas can is engaged, laid a wedge wrench down on the rear decklid — sparking NASCAR’s ire and drawing the call at lap 117.
Kenseth stayed out for five laps under the black flag, finally coming to pit road after officials stopped scoring his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota. The 2003 Cup champion lost two laps during the exchange — one for the passthrough penalty and a second by virtue of not being scored by NASCAR — and finished 19th after never having a chance to regain those lost laps.
Following the caution, control of the lead position shifted back-and-forth between Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. over the next 65 laps. The most thrilling segment of the battle was from lap 256 to 262, in which the duo swapped the point four times between themselves in a span of seven laps.
Six-time champion Johnson, however, would change the game with Knaus’ short-pitting strategy when he ducked early to the pit lane with 49 laps to go. The Lowes Chevrolet dropped the hammer as Truex and Harvick stayed out until the 40 to go benchmark — emerging from the final cycle of green flag stops with a 13-second lead over a chasing Harvick.
That lead would start to evaporate as Harvick pushed his tires to the limit. 13 seconds became 10, and then eight. By the time the field hit 20 to go, the lead was six and a half seconds and began to stabilize. Johnson and crew’s gamble was paying off.
However, Newman’s spin — with one of the few in-run tire problems all day long — set up the race-deciding overtime restart. Johnson escaped off turn two with Kyle Busch in tow as Harvick spun the tires, then saw chaos erupt in his rear-view mirror as he headed for turn three.
Johnson flashed underneath the white flag as NASCAR waited to see whether all the cars involved in the backstretch crash would be able to pull away and finish, but when several were not, the caution flag came out and the field was frozen with Johnson in front.
His teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was able to sneak through late and finish second, with the significance of the 48’s win not lost on him at all.
“I told him on a couple occasions that when he tied daddy, he’d better say something cool,” Junior said after the race. “(I said) he’d better tell them that it’s awesome for him to tie (Dale Sr.), because I know Jeff had the flag and all that, so it’s awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that.”
“I knew this day was coming, but I didn’t know it until we got out of the car. I’m glad if he’s going to win and tie that record, I’m certainly glad that I got to run second today.”
Earnhardt Jr. also added that the new low-downforce package was “a blast” to drive with.
“I loved it. The fans probably thought it was boring, but we were sliding around and driving the hell out of those cars. … I had some good races there on the track with the 2, 18, and a bunch of guys there man it was so much fun. I’m glad we didn’t have a bunch of cautions today because sometimes those don’t show the true ability of the car.”
“Hated that we had a few of those cautions there, but at least they weren’t debris cautions. Those were legit ones today.”
Kyle Busch finished third after starting last due to a technical infraction in Friday’s post-qualifying inspection process, while brother and polesitter Kurt Busch was fourth. Three-time Atlanta winner Carl Edwards rounded out the top five.
Harvick faded to sixth at the checkered flag.
“We had issues about the last three runs. I had to start driving the car different and that just required a little bit different handling. Then we had a slow pit stop there (with 40 to go) and got way behind and the 48 was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right-rear burnt up,” Harvick said. “We just didn’t execute today.”
Truex, hometown rookie Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the top 10 at the finish.
Sunday’s 210 lap opening run was the longest green flag run in Atlanta Motor Speedway history, and led to a near-record pace. The average speed of 155.863 mph was just a shade off of the all-time race speed record (under the current configuration) of 159.904 mph — set in Nov. 1997 by Bobby Labonte.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action on Sunday, March 6 with the running of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick is the defending winner of the event.
Audio with race winner Jimmie Johnson:
Audio with race-winning crew chief Chad Knaus:
Audio with race-winning team owner Rick Hendrick:
Audio with runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr:
Audio with eighth-place Chase Elliott:
RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500; Atlanta Motor Speedway; Feb. 28, 2016
- Jimmie Johnson
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Kyle Busch
- Kurt Busch
- Carl Edwards
- Kevin Harvick
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Chase Elliott
- Brad Keselowski
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Austin Dillon
- Joey Logano
- Greg Biffle
- Casey Mears
- Aric Almirola
- Denny Hamlin
- Ty Dillon
- Paul Menard
- Matt Kenseth
- Danica Patrick
- Jamie McMurray
- Trevor Bayne
- Kasey Kahne
- Ryan Newman
- Ryan Blaney
- Kyle Larson
- A.J. Allmendinger
- Chris Buescher
- Matt DiBenedetto
- Michael Annett
- Brian Scott
- David Ragan
- Michael McDowell
- Regan Smith
- Clint Bowyer
- Landon Cassill
- Cole Whitt
- Jeffrey Earnhardt
- Josh Wise
About the Writer
Jacob Seelman is the Managing Editor of Race Chaser Online and creator of the Motorsports Madness radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Eastern every Monday on the Performance Motorsports Network. Seelman grew up in the sport, watching his grandparents co-own the RaDiUs Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series team in the 1990s.
The 22-year-old is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and is also serving as the full-time tour announcer for both the United Sprint Car Series and the Must See Racing Sprint Car Series.
Email Jacob at: [email protected]
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