Johnson gives Hendrick milestone victory at Darlington
By Jeff Wolfe
Jimmie Johnson was counting the laps.
Chad Knaus was counting fuel drops.
Team owner Rick Hendrick was waiting to count one more win for his team.
They each did their part in helping those numbers add up to a victory for Johnson and the 200th career win for Hendrick Racing Saturday night at Darlington Raceway. It was Johnson’s 56th career win, but only the first of this season. And even going into the final lap, with a comfortable lead over Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, Johnson knew there were no guarantees on the 1.36-mile oval in front of 63,000 fans.
“I was nervous, definitely nervous,” Johnson said of his fuel situation. “Then even when I came around to get the white (flag), I had a nice gap, and Chad was still asking me to be smart and save some fuel if I could. I’m like, what? Its the end of the race. But, there was some concern about fuel, for sure.”
There also had been concern as to when Hendrick would be able to celebrate win No. 200 that would leave him 68 behind Petty Motorsports for all-time wins by a team. Hendrick’s last victory also came from Johnson in Kansas last fall. But, it had gone 16 races without a win since then, a bit of slump for what is arguably the top team in the sport.
“I think in all the years I’ve ever raced, I know when I’ve had four cars, to have four cars that run as good as these cars have run every week, to have something happen …,” said Hendrick, whose first win as a team owner came from Geoff Bodine in 1984 at Martinsville. “I mean, we had oil pump issues, we’ve had cut tires, I mean, just things that were out of our control. Then cautions coming after you’ve dominated the race.
“It just looked like that, you know, we were stuck. I literally said the other day, I don’t believe we can go half a year, run that many seconds, lead that many laps, looked like all the bad luck was coming at one time.”
Of course, many would argue that Hendrick has had plenty of good luck over the years. Johnson won five straight Sprint Cup titles before the string was broken by Stewart last year. Jeff Gordon has won four championships as well. And it might have been a little good luck that helped Johnson to the win Saturday.
The first 172 laps of the 367-lap race were run under green flag conditions. However, when Johnson needed to save fuel in the final 60 laps, the cautions were there to help. Johnson was so concerned about the fuel that the in-car camera on the FOX broadcast showed him flipping the fuel injection switch on and off during yellow flag laps.
However, Knaus and Johnson knew it was gamble they had to take, one that Stewart took, too, because once they were at the front of the pack. At a track like Darlington, position on the circuit is far too precious to give away in the final 100 laps.
“Yeah, Chad told me on the radio we made our bed and had to lie in it on the strategy,” Johnson said. “I thought about sitting here answering that question about being the first guy with enough fuel to go the distance and track position being everything. It really did turn out to be that way.”
It turned out that four of the eight cautions in the race came in the last 59 laps. Johnson knew they were needed for him to make it to the end.
“We caught some cautions that helped,” said Johnson, who led a race-high 134 laps and gave Hendrick Motorsports its 14th win at Darlington. “Then we just had a really fast racecar where, you know, I could try to save fuel going down the straightaway, but not using a lot of gas, not use much brake, and just fly through the corner. The car handled so well, it allowed me to save more fuel.
“But I still was really nervous with the 14 (Stewart) behind me. He’s been the guy week after week that can go the distance. I was trying to pace myself off of him. It worked out.”
Stewart almost didn’t go the distance this time. He had fuel issues on the final restart with two laps to go. That caused him to lose second place to Hamlin, but he did have enough fuel to make it to the finish.
“I thought that we may have a shot at it if he (Johnson) spun the tires again, but we ran out of fuel coming off of four,” Stewart said. “It didn’t run all the way out of fuel, but it laid down enough that it didn’t run a hundred percent going down into Turn 1. Once we got into one, we got the fuel to the pickup and we just lost our spot doing it and it took away our opportunity to try.”
Some post-race shots were taken between Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman’s pit crews. Busch’s spin caused the final caution of the night and also collected Newman. When Busch came in for new tires, he did a burnout on the way out of the pits, including through Newman’s pit box, where some crew members were still over the wall after Newman had pitted as well. Both Newman and Busch were called into the NASCAR hauler after the race.
Busch appeared frustrated on his radio after a blown tire caused his spin and eliminated a chance at a good finish. He did end up 21st on the night.
A much less controversial finish was the 31st by Danica Patrick in her Darlington debut. She finished six laps behind Johnson, being passed by Johnson for the first time on lap 27. He noted it was more difficult to pass her later in the race.
“She looked like she was fast at the end of the race,” Johnson said. “It took me a few laps to get by her. It looks like she did a good job and ran well.”
Following Johnson, Hamlin and Stewart in the top-10 were Kyle Busch, Martin Truex, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano.
The next race is a non-points event for the Sprint Cup Series, the Sprint All-Star Race. Coverage starts with the Sprint Showdown at 7 p.m. Saturday night on SPEED. The All-Star Race will follow roughly 40 minutes after the Showdown.
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