HAMPTON, Ga. and CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Recap by Race Chaser Online Managing Editor Jacob Seelman — Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images North America photo —
Jimmie Johnson may not know what his crew did to make his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet perform when it counted, but he probably doesn’t care either — not after notching his fourth career Atlanta Motor Speedway victory during Sunday’s Folds of Honor/QuikTrip 500.
“What did you guys do to this thing last night? Thank you!” Johnson exclaimed over the team radio after taking the checkered flag.
The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion did not take the lead for the first time until lap 198, but led 92 laps overall and had to fend off a late race charge from his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the race’s final restart with 13 laps to go before crossing the line to notch his 71st career Cup Series victory and 21st win all-time on a 1.5-mile race track (most among Sprint Cup drivers).
“I knew within about two sets of corners when the race started we were going to have an awesome day,” Johnson said. “The car was just incredible, bad fast. I think where the race really opened up for us was once I was able to get in front of the 19 car. We’d get close to him, but then we had so many quick cautions at the start of the race, I could never get in front of him.”
“The way we were arranged on pit road, I would have to come in front of the 19 (Carl Edwards), get blocked in by the 34 (Joe Nemechek). Once I was able to get in front of the 19 and the 34 went down a lap, the race completely changed. I was able to rely on my guys on pit road to get me out first and things changed at that point and went our way.”
Johnson started 37th after inspection issues prevented him from making a qualifying attempt on Friday afternoon — but even that could not keep him down for long in Sunday’s race.
“To fly through the field like that, to feel those sensations in the car, the car create that much grip, be that friendly, be able to work traffic from my standpoint was surprising,” Johnson said. “This does a lot for us. We feel really good about coming here and having this kind of showing. I think what we did here we can take to a lot of the racetracks ahead and I’m excited about it.”
Race-long contender Kevin Harvick got around Earnhardt Jr. for the runner-up spot with six laps to go but could not make up enough ground to challenge for the win after leading the most laps (116) all afternoon, settling for his second-straight second place finish.
“I had one bad restart on the outside where I spun the tires, fell back to fifth or sixth, never quite recovered that, then got stuck behind (Moffitt) when they stayed out on tires,” said Harvick, who has now finished in the top two in his last five Sprint Cup Starts dating back to Texas last season. “Just never made those spots up. All in all, still a solid day. We had a heck of a race, had a lot of fun out there racing with Jimmie, trading the lead back and forth several times. It was fun.”
This is the fourth time in the last five Sprint Cup Series races that Johnson has won where Harvick has been the runner-up at the checkered flag. However, behind those two — there was still a lot of competitive action.
Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano led 84 of the first 86 laps, including the opening 25-lap stint of the event from the pole, as the heavy hitters charged from the back to the front. Harvick, who qualified second but had to drop to 40th after blowing his motor in final practice, picked up 26 spots and was running 14th by the time the competition caution flew at lap 25.
Tire problems bit multiple drivers throughout the race, including Ricky Stenhouse, Austin Dillon and Carl Edwards. Stenhouse lost a tire coming to the competition caution at lap 25, while Dillon’s No. 3 Dow Chemical Chevrolet shredded a tire and forced the caution on lap 47 for debris. Dillon’s problems continued on lap 60, when he lost a second left rear and spun into the turn two grass to bring out the third caution of the event.
Edwards’ tire problems would strike much later on in the race — after lurking in the top ten for most of the event, the driver of the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota fell off with a flat left rear tire with 52 laps remaining that ended his bid for a top result. Edwards ultimately finished 12th.
Harvick took the lead for the first time at lap 87 when Logano wobbled off of turn four and began to drive away from the field, but his charge would be stalled at lap 95 when Landon Cassill blew his second motor in two races and oiled down the track — slowing the pace for the fourth time.
After lap 100, longer green flag stretches would characterize the middle stages of the event — Harvick and Matt Kenseth traded the lead amid a 76-lap run from lap 99 to lap 175 that saw a round of green-flag pit stops and a pair of quick cautions for debris ending the halfway stretch.
After a lap 187 restart that saw Denny Hamlin and Harvick scrap for the top spot, Harvick and Johnson would begin to assert their power at the front of the field, driving away from the pack over the next 66 laps and swapping the lead several times among themselves — and even twice in one lap at lap 239 — before debris again drew the caution with 72 laps to go.
Stops under that caution period would prove to be pivotal, as Johnson would take the lead from Harvick on pit road at lap 254 and never give it up again (save for green-flag it stops) the rest of the way.
Chaos would break out behind Johnson though on the restart, as Hamlin got loose when he tried to check up to avoid a major stack-up and spun at the exit of turn two, clipping Jamie McMurray and sending both cars hard the outside wall. McMurray just tapped the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon in the melee, sending Gordon down the track and into an unprotected concrete wall at the end of the backstretch.
Hamlin shouldered much of the cause for the incident, but said he had little choice to keep from running into the back of his teammate.
“I moved to the right of (Edwards) to get around him and it put me right on the door of the 4 and just sucked me around,” Hamlin explained. “I apologize to all the cars involved. It’s tough. We had a good car for most of the day but we just lost the handle on our last run and it put us in a spot we hadn’t been in all day. Just got a little loose and it was on from there.”
Gordon, while shaken, was okay and exited his 3M Chevrolet under his own power — but was very critical of finding an unprotected wall for the fourth time in the last five years on the Cup circuit.
“I saw the 11 getting sideways and I cleared him, but he clipped the 1 and it turned him back into me. I was just long for the ride after that,” Gordon said. “It wouldn’t have been too bad except I found that one spot where there was no SAFER Barrier. I can’t believe it — that’s amazing to me. Hopefully soon that will get fixed. It was a pretty big impact.”
Following the incident, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. took to the top two spots on the restart at lap 263 and began to leave the field as the handle continued to deteriorate on Harvick’s machine.
The final round of green flag pit stops began with 32 laps remaining, led by Harvick and Brad Keselowski — forcing Johnson’s hand to pit a lap later. When it all cycled out, Johnson reassumed the point by 1.8 seconds over new second-place man Harvick before the caution flew with 27 laps remaining when Cole Whitt’s engine expired in a cloud of smoke.
Kenseth did not pit and assumed the lead, along with Clint Bowyer and Brett Moffitt, subbing for Brian Vickers. Johnson led the cars that pitted off pit road and set up for a restart with 22 laps to go, when he blasted to the point around Kenseth on the restart. However, the worst carnage was yet to come — as Greg Biffle and Joe Nemechek got together in turn three after the restart, sparking a massive eight-car pileup that collected Stenhouse, Larson, Smith, Stewart, Bowyer and Hornish in its wake and necessitated a red flag for cleanup with 19 laps to go.
From there, it was one final bonzai charge from Earnhardt Jr. that got him even with Johnson on the final restart, but Junior could not clear his teammate and he and the rest of the field could only watch the Lowe’s Chevrolet drive off into the sunset.
“We had a great car today, just not enough to beat Jimmie,” Junior said. “I got outside of him there on that last restart, but I knew in turn three and four I didn’t have the preferred line. He was pretty quick around the bottom, and then we ran over something on the racetrack, knocked the grille out of it and it was pretty much over with when that happened.”
Logano and Kenseth rounded out the top five, with the driver of the Shell/Pennzoil No. 22 Ford saying his car just stayed neutral throughout the event.
“Everyone got better (as the race went on) and we didn’t,” Logano said simply, frustrated after being so strong at the drop of the green flag. Logano will have something to smile about leaving Atlanta, however — he takes a one point lead over Johnson into the series’ next race.
Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger both delivered solid performances, finishing sixth and seventh respectively, while Brett Moffitt notched a career-best eighth-place showing in his substitute role for Brian Vickers at Michael Waltrip Racing. Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman rounded out the top ten.
David Ragan, who ran as high as fifth early in the race, finished two laps down in 18th in his first drive filling in for Kyle Busch in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for the KOBALT 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the first race of a three-week West Coast swing.
RESULTS: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500; Atlanta Motor Speedway; March 1, 2015
- Jimmie Johnson
- Kevin Harvick
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- Joey Logano
- Matt Kenseth
- Martin Truex Jr.
- A.J. Allmendinger
- Brett Moffitt
- Brad Keselowski
- Ryan Newman
- Aric Almirola
- Carl Edwards
- Paul Menard
- Kasey Kahne
- Casey Mears
- Danica Patrick
- Regan Smith
- David Ragan
- Trevor Bayne
- Justin Allgaier
- Sam Hornish Jr.
- David Gilliland
- Alex Bowman
- Clint Bowyer
- Greg Biffle
- Kyle Larson
- Michael McDowell
- Brendan Gaughan
- Michael Annett
- Tony Stewart
- Mike Bliss
- Josh Wise
- Joe Nemechek
- JJ Yeley
- Jeb Burton
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Cole Whitt
- Denny Hamlin
- Austin Dillon
- Jamie McMurray
- Jeff Gordon
- Ron Hornaday
- Landon Cassill