Brooklyn, Mich. — Jimmie Johnson can finally cross off Michigan International Speedway as a track he had never won on during a brilliant career, which so far includes six Sprint Cup championships and a pair of Daytona 500 victories.
Johnson, 38, topped the field on the two-mile super speedway at MIS, known as NASCAR’s fastest track, winning the Quicken Loans 400 Sunday for a series’ best third win of the season.
“We had figured out every way to lose this race (in past years at MIS) and today we were able to get it done,” said Johnson with a huge smile, a far different emotion than the last dozen years.
“For so many years, my Dad was here and I wanted to win this race with him here. I know he’s up in upper Michigan with my two brothers racing off-road trucks so Dad, we did it finally, and as a father, what an awesome day. It tickles me deep and I’m so proud to be here.”
Johnson won the race in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet by 1.2 seconds over Kevin Harvick to give Hendrick Motorsports its fifth straight win. Jeff Gordon started the run with a win at Kansas Speedway May 10, followed by Johnson’s consecutive wins at Charlotte and Dover and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Pocono last weekend.
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski finished third, followed by Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne.
Johnson had been close to winning at MIS several times before, including five years ago during the June race when he ran out of fuel on the final lap. In last June’s race, he trailed eventual winner Greg Biffle by 1.5 seconds with three laps left when he cut a tire.
Johnson was on a different pit strategy than Harvick and most of the field. He gave up the lead to pit under green flag conditions with 36 laps to go and was running 15th, 28.7 seconds behind Kurt Busch with just over 20 laps left when Busch, Harvick and all the other frontrunners were forced to also pit under green to give Johnson the opportunity to take the lead on Lap 191 and hold it the rest of the way.
Still, Johnson had to hold his breath until seeing the checkered flag.
“I had a good lead, so that allowed me to take care of my stuff,” Johnson. “When I heard five to go, I’ve been there before and didn’t win.
“Taken the white with the lead and didn’t make it back, so I really didn’t take anything for granted on that final trip around, and about 200 yards before the finish line I knew if the car exploded I would still slide across the finish line and win so that’s when I finally relaxed and let it go.
“It’s very cool to hear it (first-time winner at track) and believe me, even at 69 wins I still cherish them all. It is not easy to win in this sport and I’m just thankful for the opportunity to be with Rick (team owner Hendrick) and with Chad (crew chief Knaus) and Lowe’s, you look at the synergy of that, we’ve all been together for this entire ride with the 48 and it’s special each time we win.”
It was the first time Johnson has been called first-time winner since winning at Bristol and Sonoma in 2010.
Hendrick was pleased for Johnson, especially after being all-so close before.
“It’s good to see Jimmie after leading so many laps here close the deal because we’ve run out of gas, broke motors, blown tires with I think a couple of times coming off of (Turn) 4 and losing it so for him to be able to finish it off today was really good,” Hendrick said. “And, again to keep the streak going, get five, that’s great. This was a great race and it just played out like we needed it to play out. All of our cars ran well.”
Johnson’s teammates Kahne (fifth), Gordon (sixth) and Earnhardt (seventh) all had top-10 finishes with Gordon leaving MIS with the points lead, 15 ahead of Johnson and 23 in front of Dale Jr.
While Johnson was thrilled with the outcome, the same can’t be said for Harvick who started from the pole after setting a track record with a qualifying run of 204.557 mph. He led a race-high 63 laps, giving up the lead for the final time on lap 148 while pitting.
Harvick, who competes in the No. 4 Budweiser for Stewart-Haas, also competes with Hendrick motors.
“The car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of strategy,” Harvick said. “We finished second and that’s it.”
When asked about the power of the Hendrick motors — five of the top seven drivers competed with them — Harvick replied: “I think it’s pretty obvious, self-explanatory, good question,” then walked out of the press conference.
Keselowski felt Harvick was the driver to beat.
“You’re really at the mercy of every yellow at the end and where they fall,” said Keselowski, talking of the eight caution periods. “I thought Kevin was probably the guy to beat today and probably he feels that way too I imagine, and the way that yellow fell just completely killed him. It’s just the way it is.”
Yes, one of the cautions hurt Harvick more than others. He gave up the lead on lap 148 to pit under green and the yellow flag came out one lap later for debris.
The race started with multiple crashes in the opening laps. In fact, the first full lap under green flag conditions didn’t take place until Lap 12.
On the initial lap, Brian Vickers lost control of his No. 55 Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota in Turn 3 and crashed, also causing severe damage to Travis Kvapil’s car.
After the restart, the field again failed to finish a lap when Kyle Larson, Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. were involved in a crash. Larson bounced back to finish eighth.
Vickers was making his first start in the Sprint Cup series at MIS since 2011, getting his first taste of the track since it was repaved prior to the 2012 season.
The top five finishers
1. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet
2. Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet
3. Brad Keselowski, Ford
4. Paul Menard, Chevrolet
5. Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet