NASCAR heads to Las Vegas next weekend, but today in Atlanta, @JimmieJohnson proved that a gamble can pay off anywhere.
The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 started off with a lot of anticipation, being the first 1.5-mile race with the new 2016 low-downforce package. The package was hoped to bring back tire conservation, loose racecars, and “good ole racing”, and that is exactly what it did.
The first 210 laps of the race were run without any caution flags. @mattkenseth appeared to have the strongest car throughout a majority of the first part of the race. The No.20 Toyota was out front for 47 laps, and led the field onto pit road for a set of green flag stops. The race turned upside for him however, as through a series of miscues; including not timely obeying a improper fueling penalty, Kenseth ended up finishing two laps down in 19th.
@KevinHarvick then emerged as the new dominant car in the field. The No.4 Chevrolet was able to get through the corners really fast on the bottom line, something most cars weren’t able to do.
The first caution of the race came out on Lap 211 for debris on the backstretch. The field got restarted cleanly, and Harvick and @MartinTruex_Jr battled back and forth for the lead as they pulled away from the rest of the pack.
Johnson was running around third for a majority of the last run, and on the final green flag pit stop, put their gamble into play. Crew chief Chad Knaus called the No.48 car onto pit road earlier than the rest of the front runners. The strategy, called “short-pitting”, would give Johnson fresher tires, and allow him to run faster lap times and erase the deficit to the leaders before they made their stops. Not only did this move erase the deficit, but once the leaders cycled back out after the green flag pit stops, Johnson had over a 13-second lead over Harvick.
For the final thirty laps of the race, it was a dogfight to see if Harvick could catch Johnson. He knocked the deficit down to 6-seconds, but it seemed as if it was going to be too little too late for Harvick. Then, in typical unpredictable racing fashion, a caution came out with 3 laps to go as @RyanJNewman blew a tire and spun out on the front stretch.
On the pit stops during the caution, Johnson’s crew did what they needed to do, and got the No.48 car back out on track in first. Now it was all up to the driver to hold the field off for the final two-lap dash.
On the restart, Harvick wasn’t able to get a good start, which gave Johnson the lead headed into Turn 1. As the field made its way down the backstretch, they crossed the newly added “overtime line”, which is the line NASCAR uses to determine how the race will end. If the caution comes out before the field crosses the line, the race will be restarted. If they cross the line and then the caution comes out, the race would be over.
As Johnson came storming over the overtime line in the lead, a four-car wreck ensued behind him, causing the caution to come out, and the race to become official.
Johnson’s win was his second in a row at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It also was his 76th career win, tying him with the late great Dale Earnhardt.
“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said. “With all the chaos at the end of the race and the crash and the overtime and wondering how it all works these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down and had to come by and throw a 3 out the window to pay respects to the man.”
@DaleJr was able to make his way through the overtime fiasco, and brought home a solid second-place finish.
“We were sliding around, driving the hell out of them cars,” said Jr. after the race on FOX. “I had a blast. I had some good races there on the track with the 2, the 18, a bunch of guys. It was so much fun.”
It was a 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports, something that team owner Rick Hendrick was very pleased about. Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Edwards, Harvick, Truex Jr., Elliott, Keselowski, and Stenhouse Jr. rounded out the rest of the top-10.
It is now time for everyone in NASCAR to grab their sunscreen and sunglasses. Next week is the first race of a three-week West Coast Swing. First up is Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday, a track where Harvick will look to redeem himself for today’s race at a track where he is the defending race winner.