Though fans and pundits of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing seemed inordinately concerned about Johnson’s “drought,” the six-time series champion said repeatedly that a victory would come.
Sunday night it did. Driving a No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that led a race-high 164 laps, Johnson beat Kevin Harvick to the finish line at Charlotte Motor Speedway by 1.272 seconds to win the Coca-Cola 600 for the fourth time.
The victory was Johnson’s seventh at CMS, breaking a tie with Bobby Allison for most victories at the 1.5-mile track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points races. Johnson’s 67th career win, eighth most all-time, broke an 11-race winless streak to start the season, matching the longest such drought of his career.
“It’s great to win, but believe me—and I promise you—all the hype and all the concern and worry, that was elsewhere,” Johnson said. “That wasn’t in my head… We’ve had great races, and we’ve had opportunities there in front of us and had stuff taken away. And we’ve had bad races. I have to be honest about that, too.”
But Johnson also conceded that the mystique of the 48 might be back.
“Yeah, they know we’re awake,” he said. “In winning, it doesn’t matter who you are. The 4 car (Harvick) has had that momentum this year. They’ve been able to go out and execute and show a lot of speed and win. Hopefully, the 48 is heading that way, and we can get those other people thinking about us.”
Behind Johnson and Harvick, Matt Kenseth ran third, followed by Carl Edwards and Sprint All-Star Race winner Jamie McMurray. Brian Vickers, Jeff Gordon (who drove with an aching back), Paul Menard, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski completed the top 10.
Before he could nail down the win, though, Johnson had to pass Kenseth after a restart on lap 384 of 400. After taking the green flag, Kenseth opened a lead of more than one second before Johnson began to track him down.
Johnson dispatched Kenseth on Lap 392 and pulled away to a comfortable margin. Kenseth ceded second place to Harvick before he reached the checkered flag.
“You race as hard as you can for these wins,” said Kenseth, who, like Johnson, entered Sunday night’s race without a victory to his credit this season. “You hate it when you can’t hold on and win it. We were in position. I did everything I could and got beat. It’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
From Harvick’s point of view, the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team lost an opportunity to win in a car that was at least the equal of Johnson’s. Harvick brought the No. 4 Chevy to pit road on Lap 263 for an unscheduled stop to deal with loose wheels.
“Yeah, we had a fast car all night,” Harvick said. “Just kind of fumbled again on pit road. Got behind, got a lap down. We needed a 700-mile race to get back to where we needed to be. We left two wheels loose and played catch-up the rest of the night. We’ve got to clean pit road up.”
Kurt Busch’s Indianapolis 500/Coke 600 double ended early when the engine of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet erupted on Lap 273 to cause the sixth caution of the evening.
Busch finished sixth in the Indy 500 earlier in the day but completed just 271 laps (406.5 miles) at Charlotte, leaving his car owner, Tony Stewart, as the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the same-day double.
“To feel the stock car right after driving the IndyCar is a day I’ll never forget,” said Busch, who finished 40th. “I can’t let the mood here, with the car, dampen what happened up in Indy today. That was very special and it takes a big team; it takes a team everywhere. Andretti Autosport gave me a top-five car to try to win the Indy 500 with and Stewart-Haas guys gave me a good car today and the motor just went. Sometimes that happens. All in all, I'm very satisfied. I gave it my all. I trained very hard. I had a lot of people helping out. Thanks to Gene Haas, Tony Stewart, Michael Andretti and this whole group. Everyone worked hard on both sides."
When asked if the 2004 Cup champion would take another shot at performing the double, he wasn’t bashful to answer.
“I’d love to do it again. And at the same time, you’ve got to do it with quality teams. The teams really can make the big difference in all of this. And I have to thank Andretti and I have to thank Stewart-Haas.”
More than meets the eye in Sunday’s Coke 600
No doubt about it. A glance at the race report from Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway would lead you to believe that top two competitors—Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick—slugged it out for the win in the race’s two fastest cars.
Yes, Johnson led 164 of the 400 laps, and Harvick was out front for 100 circuits. Johnson picked up his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory of the 2014 season in the 12th race of the year. Harvick was 1.272 seconds behind him in second place.
Johnson started from the pole after pacing Thursday night’s qualifying. He is still the only driver to win at Charlotte from the top spot on the grid since 1998, and he’s done it three times.
Harvick started 11th after failing to take the green before time expired in the final round of knockout qualifying, but everyone in the garage and the grandstands knew Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet was lightning fast, as it has been all year.
So, yes, the best two cars Sunday night at Charlotte finished 1-2. But to assume that the race distilled into a battle between Johnson and Harvick is to ignore the complexity and intrigue that permeated the event before Johnson took the checkered flag.
First, the obvious. There were 34 lead changes among nine drivers—and that with an opening green-flag run that lasted 108 laps. Brad Keselowski led 43 laps, Jamie Mc- Murray 34 and Matt Kenseth 33, though none of the three had a car that could keep up with Johnson or Harvick on speed alone.
Nevertheless, all three of those drivers had winning chances.
Keselowski delayed his final pit stop until Lap 344, using his acknowledged talent for saving fuel to best advantage before bringing his car to pit road. From that point, Keselowski could have made it to the end of the race without stopping again.
But a mistake on that crucial pit stop ruined his chances.
“We had the strategy and very close to having the speed to win the race, and then on that late-race pit stop, we left the right front wheel loose, and that ended our chance to win,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski had to bring his car back to pit road, negating the tactic he and crew chief had devised.
“We rebounded to finish 10th, which I guess isn’t bad, all things considered,” Keselowski said. “The crew gave me a great car. I drove my butt off, but we just didn’t get it done on pit road.”
Like Keselowski, Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team came up with a strategy that put Edwards in position to win the race. Unlike Keselowski, the 99 team didn’t make a critical mistake.
In Edwards’ case, fate intervened in the form of a caution flag for Alex Bowman’s accident in Turn 3 on Lap 379, three circuits after Edwards had taken the lead with enough fuel to get to the end of the race. With the field bunched for a restart on Lap 384, Edwards was no match for Johnson or Harvick and finished fourth.
“That was probably as good as we deserved to finish, but (crew chief) Jimmy (Fennig) made that call, and I thought we were going to win it,” Edwards said.
Kenseth passed Jeff Gordon for the lead moments after the Lap 384 restart and pulled away temporarily. But Johnson, who had restarted third, gave chase, and Kenseth wasn’t able to make his car fast enough or wide enough in the closing laps to hold off the six-time champion.
Ultimately, Johnson passed Kenseth on Lap 392, and Harvick followed as the race neared its conclusion.
Accordingly, Keselowski, Edwards and Kenseth became footnotes to an event that, on paper, looked like a two-man battle between the two pre-race favorites.
But those who simply read the box score will never know how close those three footnotes came to being headlines.