In a milestone race Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson - the last driver third-place finisher Kurt Busch wanted to see win the race - took the chequered flag for the 50th time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career in the Food City 500.
Taking four tyres on his final pit stop on Lap 484 of 500, and fortuitously drawing the outside lane for a re-start on Lap 491, Johnson surged past four cars that had taken only right-side tyres and passed runner-up Tony Stewart for the lead on Lap 494.
Busch, who had led 278 laps and re-started fifth after a four-tyre call, was bottled up in the inside lane behind Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards and watched in frustration as Johnson worked past fourth-place finisher Greg Biffle and Stewart for the lead.
“We did it, boys - finally,” Johnson exclaimed after crossing the finish line.
The win was the first at the 0.533-mile high-banked short track for the four-time defending Cup champion and his third in five races this season. With 50 Cup victories, Johnson is tied Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 10th on the all-time list.
“Man, we have worked so hard for this,” Johnson said in victory lane. “I thought we were in trouble there, but those four tyres were everything, and I was in the outside lane (for the restart), which was helpful. About time, man. I'm so proud of this team. I am so proud of us setting a mark and going at it and accomplishing what we wanted to.
“We've been off here over the years. We focused on what we needed to do and got it done today."
Johnson also fired a shot across the bow of fellow competitors who might think the #48 Chevrolet team is peaking early.
“Well, we have a lot of racing left - there is no doubt about it,” he said. “But when we're winning at tracks we aren't supposed to, the boys better look out - even that #2 car (Busch) that doesn't want the #48 to win.”
Johnson's pointed reference was to Busch's “Anybody but the 48” campaign.
“I'd rather lose to any of the 41 cars out there than this 48 car,” Busch said. “I thought we had them beat. I gave it my heart today, but to come up short - it's a shame we didn't bring it home for a victory.
“I felt like we had the car to beat early on in the race, especially on the long runs - I felt like we were able to make up time. That was the weak spot for the 48 car and some of the other competitors. As the race progressed, we were there in the mix, whether it was a (pit) stop that bumped us up a spot, or whether it was a nice adjustment by (crew chief) Steve Addington, I felt like we were the car to beat.
“The only weak area that we had was just starting out on fresh tyres after a restart, and that bit us at the end.”
Kenseth came home fifth and trails leader Kevin Harvick (11th Sunday) by one point in the Cup standings. Johnson gained one position to third in points and trails Harvick by 14.
Polesitter Joey Logano meanwhile lost three laps because of early tyre problems and finished 27th, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied to finish seventh, despite a pit-road speeding penalty that sent him to the back of the field. He is now eighth in the Cup standings, 153 points behind Harvick.
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News