In the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500, six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson repeated what he did in this race last season – won after Kevin Harvick dominated.
But this season, the win meant more, as Johnson tied “The Intimidator”, Dale Earnhardt Sr., on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series all-time wins list with 76.
“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said in his post-race interview with FOX. “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.”
Johnson reached the new “overtime line” at Turn 3 as drivers behind him began to crash. The No. 48 car passed the line before the caution came out, making the race official.
“I remembered it on my Victory Lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘3’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record. I don’t know if it’s as big as my first win, but it’s got to be right up there.”
But how did Johnson wind up in victory lane when he only led 52 of the 325 laps?
After the race went green for the first 209 laps without a caution, a piece of debris forced teams to come down pit road on lap 210. Kevin Harvick, who ended up leading a race-high 131 laps, maintained the lead as the restart commenced. But as the race winded down, with about 50 laps remaining, the No. 48 of Johnson was called to pit road by crew chief Chad Knaus. Knaus’ gutsy call to short-pit proved to be the difference in a win and a top five.
The No. 48 car got out to a 14-second lead over Kevin Harvick. Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip (FOX TV commentators), as well as fans on twitter alike, thought Harvick would be able to make up the gap in 40+ laps. But he couldn’t, as Johnson was able to manage his tire wear and led Harvick by five seconds with less than five laps remaining. But that’s when everything changed.
Ryan Newman’s spin brought out the third caution of the afternoon, setting up a final pit stop, restart, sprint to the finish, and overtime session.
Harvick started on the outside, infamous for its lack of grip, spun the tires, got bumped by the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. (who finished seventh) and could never recover. “Happy” Harvick ended up finishing sixth after dominating the Atlanta race for the third year in a row.
“We had issues about the last three runs and I had to start driving the car different, it just required a little bit different handling,” Harvick said.
His No. 4 car lost the brakes about halfway into the race, so he had to adjust to be able to drive the car feathering the throttle, and not using the brake.
“And then we had a slow pit stop there. We got way behind and the No. 48 (of Jimmie Johnson) was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear burned up. We just didn’t execute today but everybody hung in there all day, and we’ll keep at it.”
Luckily for Harvick, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads west to Las Vegas next weekend, where he wound up in victory lane after dominating there in 2015.
Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., came home in second place after capitalizing on the final restart as he ran in the top ten for most of the afternoon. Kyle Busch finished third after starting dead last (39th), Kurt Busch fourth after starting on the pole, and Carl Edwards finished fifth, rounding out the top five.
The FOHQT 500 also marked the first race in 2016 featuring the new low downforce package. And from many big name drivers, it got rave reviews.
Earnhardt Jr. was fired up about the new package and how it translated to the race track:
Today reminded me of those races I saw as a kid in the 80s & 90s. Long green runs. Slipping & sliding. Everyone driving the hell out of it!
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) February 28, 2016
Reigning champion Kyle Busch was also amped about it.
“About the two thirds mark of the race was pretty fun,” Busch said. “It was himself (Earnhardt Jr.) and Brad (Keselowski) and me that were just battling back and forth and slide jobbing one another and high lane-ing it and cutting each other off and everything, so it was pretty fun. This package lends itself to that.”
His JGR teammate, Carl Edwards, said “this is real racing,” after finishing fifth.
Most fans agreed with the drivers’ comments on this Twitter poll:
Personally, I thought today's #FOHQT500 was great, despite the lack of cautions. What would YOU grade it?
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) February 28, 2016
Some other notable finishes included rookie Chase Elliott in eighth, Brad Keselowski ninth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in tenth. Austin Dillon finished 11th, Joey Logano 12th after receiving multiple pit road violations, and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin came home 16th.
Danica Patrick finished 20th, Kasey Kahne 23rd, Ryan Blaney 25th (involved in crash in overtime), Kyle Larson 26th and Clint Bowyer 35th. With the lack of cautions, only 12 cars finished on the lead lap. At one point, there were only nine on the lead lap.
Matt Kenseth had one of the fastest cars on Sunday, but ended up finishing 19th, two laps down. The No. 20 team was penalized for “improper fueling”, as the gas man didn’t have full control over his gas can (NASCAR implemented this rule as a safety precaution).
As the penalty was issued, crew chief Jason Ratcliff pleaded their case to the NASCAR officials, but he did so for too long. Kenseth was shown the black flag with a blue stripe, meaning NASCAR was no longer scoring his laps being run. Instead of being one lap down due to the penalty, he was two laps down, and could never recover due to the lack of cautions.
“I’m gonna blow a gasket if we got black-flagged and you didn’t tell me to pit,” Kenseth said.
Although his gasket didn’t blow, a chance at a win went out the window for him.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next weekend for the Kobalt 400 (Sunday, 3:00 pm EST on FOX).