Johnson earns 76th career Cup win in OT in Atlanta
Hampton, Ga. — Jimmie Johnson smoked his tires crossing the finish line, celebrating another win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Then he realized what it really meant.
Johnson stuck his hand out of the No. 48 car, holding up three fingers.
It was his little tribute to the Intimidator.
Johnson used pit strategy and a late yellow to claim the 76th victory of his career Sunday, pulling even with the late Dale Earnhardt on the NASCAR career list.
Only six drivers have won more.
“This is special for sure,” said Johnson, who began his Cup career shortly after Earnhardt was killed in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “There was a big void in my mind not having a chance to race against him. I was literally a handful of months away from having the opportunity. To tie him today, for me personally, gives me a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt.”
Johnson won the race in overtime, crossing the line under yellow after the only wreck of the day. In a poignant touch, teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the runner-up.
“If he’s gonna tie that record, I’m certainly glad I got to run second,” Junior said. “I think my dad would’ve thought the world of him.”
Kevin Harvick led 131 laps, more than anyone else, but ceded the lead after he made his last green-flag pit stop nine laps after Johnson. The No. 48 car made a quicker stop and wound up with about a 14-second lead, then watched it fade away as Harvick gave chase on newer tires.
Harvick was about 5 seconds behind when Ryan Newman cut a tire and spun on the front stretch with three laps to go, bringing out only the second yellow flag of the race. With overtime looming, everyone came to the pits for new tires. Johnson returned to the track still leading, and the victory was his when that crash on the backstretch took out four cars.
Johnson credited crew chief Chad Knaus for calling the early pit stop, a strategy that allowed him to get past Harvick.
“It was definitely a gutsy call,” Johnson said. “The 4 car (Harvick) was awfully tough. It was going to take strategy to get by him.”
For Harvick, it was another Atlanta heartache. He spun his tires on the final restart and wound up a disappointing sixth, hardly indicative of the way he ran most of the race.
Harvick has led more than 100 laps in four of his last five races at the 1.54-mile trioval, but he hasn’t won here since the spring event in 2001 — in just his third race after taking over at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt’s death.
The cars set a blistering pace in the first test of a new aerodynamic package designed to promote more competitive racing. The first 210 laps were run under green before a yellow came out for debris on the track.
After the restart, Harvick and Martin Truex went back and forth, exchanging the lead several times before Harvick started to pull away. It was a thrilling display, but in the end it didn’t matter.
Harvick lost the lead in the pits, allowing Johnson to claim his fifth Cup victory in Atlanta.
Kyle Busch, who posted the fastest time in qualifying but had to start from the back of the field after his car failed inspection, rallied to take third — just ahead of his brother Kurt, who inherited the pole after his sibling’s misfortune.