The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion took the lead for good on Lap 191 after a cycle of pit stops and cruised to the checkered flag at Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 to end a 24-race drought here.
“We’ve figured out every way to lose this race and today we were able to get it done,” he said after getting out of his No. 48 Chevy.
Johnson had encountered heartbreak several times when leading late here and admitted he was nervous as he dashed through the final few laps.
“About 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I’d still make it across the line,” he said with a chuckle, “so that’s when I finally relaxed.”
Johnson pitted on Lap 165 and took on four tires and enough fuel to finish the race, which was green the rest of the way. Anyone close to him pitted later and left Johnson comfortably ahead as Hendrick Motorsports captured its fifth straight Sprint Cup series race.
“We were really in a win-win situation,” said Johnson, who led 39 laps and jumped to second in the Sprint Cup points standings behind Gordon. “Those guys had to come to pit road to make it to the end.
“Once the strategy unfolded, we knew we were in the catbird’s seat.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus said the team had an extra ace in the hole.
“We knew there was going to be some opportunities to play some strategy today,” he said. “We were fortunate to have a fast racecar and hit the strategy correct.”
The car was the same the team used to win Johnson’s first race of the season at Charlotte.
Pole sitter Kevin Harvick, who led a race-best 63 laps, was second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne.
Johnson’s win capped a stellar day for HMS, which saw all four Chevys in the top seven thanks to Kahne and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who were sixth and seventh.
Johnson became the series’ first three-time winner and picked up his 69th career Sprint Cup victory. He’s finished first in three of the series’ last four races and jumped from fourth to second in the series points standings, 15 points behind Gordon.
Harvick was especially fast on restarts during the first 150 laps of the race but got caught in a series of green-flag stops that dropped him to second. He did little to hide his frustration.
“The car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of the strategy,” he said.
Harvick had the fastest car on the track for most of practice and set a new track record to earn the pole.
The pit strategy chess game forced several other contenders farther back in the field, including Joey Logano, who led the field for 15 laps before being passed by Harvick on Lap 141.
The race wasn’t quite a lap old when Brian Vickers brushed the Turn 4 wall, then spun before collecting Travis Kvapil near the entrance to pit lane. Rookie Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. brought out another caution on Lap 6 when they made contact near Turn 2.
Casey Mears and Brett Moffitt tangled in Turn 4 on Lap 115 and Aric Almirola and Denny Hamlin spun in the same place on Lap 122 to bring out another caution. The race was yellow-flagged eight times for 36 laps.
Hendrick Motorsports has firm hold of series standings
BROOKLYN, Mich. - The 2013 Quicken Loans 400 was a forgettable day for Hendrick Motorsports.
A year made all the difference.
Jimmie Johnson drove his No. 48 Chevy to his first career win at Michigan International Speedway and Hendrick teammates Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. landed in the top seven.
The finishes sent the team to next weekend’s stop at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway with the top three spots in the Sprint Cup series standings. Gordon retained his lead, but it’s just 15 points better than Johnson, who jumped from fourth to second with the victory. Earnhardt remained third, 38 points behind Gordon.
“This was a great win for a lot of reasons,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “It was great to see Jimmie, after leading so many laps here, finally close the deal.
“All our cars ran well. We’ve been kind of clicking here lately.”
A win at Sonoma would give HMS six straight series wins for the first time since 2007.
And the good news just kept coming: Six of the top eight finishers were powered by Chevy engines developed by HMS. Brad Keselowski was third for Ford’s best finish Sunday and admitted the rest of the teams in the series probably will be looking ahead at HMS the rest of the way.
“We all have a little bit of work to do,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious the Hendrick engines are way ahead of us.”
The day was especially sweet for Kahne, who was dinged on Lap 6 but made his way back and took his first lead on Lap 183 before having to pit a few laps later. His fifth-place finish was just his fourth top-five performance this season and his best since he was third at Kansas on May 10.
Johnson had HMS’s best finish last spring when he ended the race 28th. Earnhardt, Gordon and Kahne all left early because of crashes or engine problems.