By AMANDA VINCENT
Jimmie Johnson became a repeat winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race for the second-straight win after using a strategy of pitting early during a late-race cycle of green-flag pit stops to get out ahead of Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps for the second-straight year at Atlanta.
The win was Johnson’s fifth at AMS, making Atlanta Motor Speedway the sixth track at which the six-time Sprint Cup champion has more than five wins. It also was his 76th-career victory, tying him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list.
“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt’s record. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to ‘the man.’ There’s a huge void in my career that I never had da chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”
Harvick restarted next to Johnson on the front row after a caution with three laps to go for Ryan Newman’s blown engine. But while Johnson maintained the lead, Harvick lost several spots on the restart and wound up sixth after leading a race-high 131 laps.
While drivers including Aric Almirola, David Ragan, Landon Cassill and Ryan Blaney wrecked on the final lap, Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved past Kyle Busch just before the checkered flag to finish second and give Hendrick Motorsports a runner-up finish. Busch finished third after starting last.
“I loved it,” Earnhardt said. “We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast. I had some good races there on the track with the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the No. 18 (Busch) and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun.”
Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five.
Johnson got out front after pitting on lap 276, the first driver to pit during the final cycle of green-flag stops. Harvick pitted nine laps later. With the benefit of running those nine laps on new tires, Johnson had a lead of more than 14 seconds over Harvick. Harvick was able to trim his deficit to between six and seven seconds before the yellow flag for Newman’s engine.
“Definitely a gutsy call,” Johnson said. “It was just a great team effort. The No. 4 (Harvick’s) car was awfully tough, and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When he told me to whip it as hard as I could, there, I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires, but it worked. And I got rolling around the top and got to where I got this Lowe’s Chevy in victory lane. I’m so happy for Hendrick Motorsports and for everybody at Chevrolet.”
Kurt Busch started the race on the pole and led the way until Matt Kenseth took over on lap 64. Kenseth continued to run up front until a pit miscue on lap 121 during a cycle of green-flag stop. He was penalized for improper fueling when his gas man placed a wrech on the deck lid of his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. As crew chief Jason Ratcliff argued his case with a NASCAR official on pit road, Kenseth continued making laps and went one lap too far, running a lap unscored by NASCAR before hitting pit road to serve his penalty. As a result, he wound up two laps down.
“I got black-flagged for some type of pit road penalty and didn’t know it and pitted the lap they told me to do a pass-through, but I guess they must have been — I’m assuming they were black-flagging us before that and they pulled our card, so I never heard anything about it or at least saw the flag or anything, so I came when they told me to come, and I guess they must have penalized us a couple laps or something. I don’t really know,” Kenseth said.
After Kenseth’s trouble, Harvick took command of the race, generally with Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. in tow. Truex was the only driver to pass Harvick on the race track before Harvick’s bad restart in the closing laps.
Truex finished seventh, while Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the top-10.
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