By Jeff Wolfe
Jimmie Johnson can’t seem to do anything wrong these days.
And after Saturday night’s Sprint Cup All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he had a million reasons to confirm it. Johnson won his third Sprint All-Star Race and took home the million dollar prize. He had help from his pit crew, which after winning the pit crew contest Thursday, allowed him to have the first pit box.
Then after winning the final ten lap segment of the five-segment, 90-lap race, he got it right again. This time, he picked up team owner Rick Hendrick and took him for a ride down the frontstretch on the way to Victory Lane. It was Hendrick’s owner-leading seventh All-Star victory.
“He said ‘come pick me up’,” Johnson said of the radio conversation with Hendrick after taking the checkered flag. “Once I got to him he didn’t want the ride. ‘I’m like no, no, I came to get you, get on the car.’ It was great to take him around.”
What has to be considered a great week for Johnson included him winning the first 20-lap segment. That victory allowed him to choose the first starting position in the final 10-lap segment. That first pit box also helped him as the drivers had to do a stop-and-go pit stop before the final segment. Even though Johnson spun his tires exiting his pit box, he beat second segment winner Matt Kenseth to the line at the end of pit road.
“The race car was so amazing,” said Johnson, who also won at Darlington last week to give Hendrick his 200th career win as an owner. “I put it around the top to go for the lead. I just let it ride around the top and got the lead. Then we were smart from there to make sure we got it right so we would be good in the end.”
Johnson was too good for third segment winner Brad Keselowski on the final restart. He pulled away on the first lap and Keselowski could never mount a challenge.
“It’s all about the restart,” Keselowski said. “I was hoping to get another yellow to get another shot on Jimmie. You could see all night the high line on the restart just wouldn’t go. I don’t know if I would have been able to do anything with him, but I would have liked another shot. I thought I could do something with him in the first lap. We might have been a touch faster, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Kenseth, who appeared to spin his tires a bit on the final restart, ended up third and Kyle Busch was fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fifth in the non-points race.
While Earnhardt Jr. didn’t challenge for the lead in the final ten laps, he spent a lot of the night at the front of the field. First, he had to finish in the top-2 in the Sprint Showdown to make the Sprint All-Star Race. But, that wasn’t an issue as he led all 40 laps of the Showdown. A.J. Allmendinger, who had to go to the pits on the first lap because of a flat tire, rallied to edge Jamie McMurray to finish second and reach the All-Star Race. Also, Bobby Labonte won the Sprint Fan Vote to make the all-star race.
But Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t finished winning after the Showdown. He led 19 of the 20 laps in the fourth segment, meaning he led 59 of 130 laps he ran on the night. He hopes that’s a good sign of things to come in Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
“The race car was good,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We didn’t adjust on our car because it was pretty quick all night and all day yesterday (Friday). You just need to start on the front row at the end. I’m proud of the effort tonight. We’ve good a good race car. We’ll probably bring this one back next week.”
Johnson will also be back and certainly emerged as a favorite next week on a track where he’s had nine victories, including the three All-Star wins. Johnson tied Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most all-star wins.
There were no yellow flags for accidents and the only two cars in the 23-car field that did not finish were Roush Fenway Racing teammates Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards due to engine trouble. Rounding out the top-10 were Kevin Harvick in sixth followed by Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.
It was evident early in the night that Johnson’s engine and car was going to be strong.
“He started sixth, I believe, and drove to the lead in 20 laps,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s probably a pretty good indicator of the strength of his car. I don’t believe he passed anyone that was not good. We’ll just leave it at that.”
“He passed Kyle, I think Denny (Hamlin), maybe Harvick, Newman. Those aren’t slouches that he passed, and he passed them in 20 laps. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of the strength of his effort. Whether that’s the car or driver, I’ll let you all figure that out. That’s a pretty good indicator he was the guy to beat all night.”
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the 53rd running of the Coca-Cola 600. Pre-race coverage begins on FOX at 5:30pm EDT, with race coverage following at 6. The green flag is scheduled to fall at approximately 6:16pm EDT.
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