Jimmie Johnson was in the lead and holding his breath, not because of daunting competition, mechanical implications or tire issues. No, it was because this was at Michigan International Speedway where the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has been very competitive but has had nothing significant to show for it.
But MIS finally got scratched off the short list of five Sprint Cup tracks Johnson had yet to post a win. On Sunday he garnered his 69th career Sprint Cup triumph and first in the Irish Hills in the Quicken Loans 400.
It took 25 attempts, peppered with bunches of near misses, before Johnson racked up his series-leading third victory this season at the track that has rebuffed him for a myriad of reasons. He has had fuel issue shortages four times while in a strong position to triumph at MIS, and on three other occasions experienced engine failures when the finish line was just up the road a piece.
“We’ve figured every way to lose this race but today we were able to get it done,” Johnson said after his 450th Sprint Cup Series race.
“We had a good lead so that allowed me to take care of my stuff,” Johnson said. “With 10 laps to go I’ve been sitting here before with the lead. With five to go I’ve been there before and didn’t win. I’ve taken the white flag and didn’t make it back (to the finish line). I wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around the track. About 200 yards before the finish line I knew that if the car exploded I’d still slide across the finish line and it wouldn’t matter. That’s finally when I relaxed and let it go.”
It was Hendrick Motorsports’ fifth consecutive victory, the third time it has accomplished the feat, with Johnson winning three of the last four Sprint Car Series races.
Johnson’s margin of victory was a strong 1.214 seconds over runner-up Kevin Harvick, who was followed by Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Harvick led a race-high 63 laps, but got caught in a strategy battle concerning tires and fuel in the latter stages of the race that didn‘t go his way, but still managed to post his 11th top-10 finish in 27 races at MIS. It was his seventh top-10 finish this season.
“I mean the car was fast, we just wound up on the wrong side of the strategy,” Harvick said. “We finished second and that’s it.”
The crucial strategy for Johnson came with 35 laps remaining when crew chief Chad Knaus called his driver in under green-flag conditions for a four-tire change when two-tire changes appearing to be a more popular option for better track position.
Johnson left the pits in 16th place, but all of his closest competitors had yet to pit for a final time. They took two tires and sometimes none, just topping off their fuel tanks, but it allowed Johnson to pass all of them and take the lead for good with nine laps remaining.
“We were really in a win-win situation because all of those other guys had to go to pit road to make it to the end,” Johnson stated. “Once I got an idea of how the race was unfolding I knew we were in the catbirds seat and we were able to take advantage of it.”
Knaus said he knew there were going to be opportunities to play the strategy game Sunday.
“We also knew we had a fast race car and you could maybe overcome strategy that maybe somebody else would play,” he added. “We were fortunate enough to have a very fast race car and hit the strategy correct at the right time, and obviously put it all together for a solid run.”