The Lowe’s Chevrolet was, like everyone else on Sunday, low on downforce in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Jimmie Johnson used the new package – as well as some crafty pit strategy – to grab the lead from Kevin Harvick to win for the first time in 2016 and fifth time at Atlanta.
“Just such a great team effort,” Johnson said. “The [No.] 4 car [Harvick] was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When [crew chief Chad Knaus] told me to whip it as hard as I could there I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. It worked. I got rolling around the top and got to work.”
Knaus was surprised more drivers didn’t pit earlier in the final 50 laps.
“Obviously we were monitoring his lap times very closely,” Knaus said. “We knew that once we got above 20 laps into it the laps really leveled off pretty well. So I was kind of surprised those guys didn’t come earlier than what they did.”
With win No. 76 in his 15-year Sprint Cup Series career, Johnson ties NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for seventh on the all-time wins list. It’s a record Johnson says is an honor.
“It is such an honor,” Johnson said. “With the chaos in the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it 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 No. 3 out the window to pay 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 him.
Appropriately, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second, nipping Kyle Busch shortly before a crash on the backstretch, which involved David Ragan, Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney and Landon Cassill, ending the race under yellow.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver praises the new low-downforce package, saying his No. 88 Chevrolet was “hard, hard, hard to drive.”
“I loved it,” Earnhardt said. “I know fans probably thought it was a boring race but we were sliding around, driving the hell out of them cars. I had a blast. I had some good races there on the track with the [Nos.] 2, 18 and a bunch of guys. It was so much fun.
“We had a great car, fun to drive. Hard, hard, hard to drive. I’m glad we didn’t have a ton of restarts today because sometimes those don’t really show the true ability of the car. You get lucky on some restarts and sometimes you don’t depending on the lane you’re in.”
A restart is just what put the nail in the coffin for a second Atlanta win for Harvick. The dominant driver of the day – leading a race-high 131 laps despite an early flat tire – he was the victim of Johnson’s sly pit move, having to cut down a 13-second gap to Johnson before Ryan Newman blew a tire going into Turn 1 to set up overtime.
Restarting second, Harvick got a tap from Martin Truex, Jr., which ended his run at Johnson.
“We had issues [in] about the last three runs,” Harvick said after finishing sixth. “I had to just start driving the car different just required a little bit different handling. Then a slow pit stop got, we got way behind. The [No.] 48 was way out front and I had to drive the car really hard and got the right rear [tire] burnt up.
“Don’t worry about how fast you are in practice make sure it drives good.”
Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing were, no surprise, a threat for the victory on Sunday. Matt Kenseth was the lead dog for 47 early laps before a controversial pit road penalty earned the No. 20 car a black flag. He fell two laps down and would never recover, finishing 19th.
Restarting third in the race’s final restart, Busch failed to catch Johnson for the lead, finishing third for the second consecutive week. After his pole speed was disallowed, he made his way through the field after starting 39th.
Carl Edwards also grabbed a top 5 for JGR in fifth while Truex finished seventh, trading the lead spot numerous times with Harvick throughout the 500-mile race on Sunday afternoon.
“The restart at the end is really what killed us,” Truex said. “We got too loose in the last two runs of the race. Kind of lost touch with the [Nos.] 4 and 48 there. That restart, we were really in the wrong spot. Harvick didn’t get going which is so typical of this place on the outside. I decided to try to help push him and I should’ve just made it three wide. That was not the best move I could’ve made.”
In what was an impressively clean day in Atlanta, the 500-mile race saw just two cautions in 316 laps.
Despite improvements in qualifying, Roush Fenway Racing, for the most part, didn’t show that top-5-to-10 speed they hoped. However, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. was a top-10 contender all day, finishing 10th in his No. 17 Ford.
Rounding out the top 10 is pole-sitter Kurt Busch in fourth, with rookie Chase Elliott in eighth, who earned his first top-10 finish in his Sprint Cup Series career. Brad Keselowski finished ninth for Team Penske.
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