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It might have been Memorial Day weekend in the United States, but Sunday night turned into a celebration of reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson who was on irresistible form in the Coca-Cola 600 marathon night event on his way to victory circle for the first time in 2014.
"It's great to win and we are very happy to win here especially in the backyard of Hendrick Motorsports," he said. "Just stoked for the night. Very good race car. We raced up front all night long."
It's Johnson's 67th victory in 447 Cup starts and his seventh at Charlotte Motor Speedway, more than anyone else in series history. It's his fourth win in the Coca-Cola 600 - the championship's longest race of the year - putting him just one behind Darrell Waltrip who has claimed victory five times in the event.
It also extends Johnson's run of consecutive seasons with at least one victory to 13, and ends the muttering from those who had been worrying about Johnson's win 'drought' and wondering why the six-time Cup champion was waiting so long to win a race in 2014, especially now that the new Chase format puts such a high premium on victories in deciding the line-up for the title play-offs.
"There are more people fretting about things than myself," he said, pointing out that it had only been 11 races in 2014 before tonight. "It's great to win, but believe me - and I promise you - all the hype and all the concern and worry, that was elsewhere. That wasn't in my head; there are plenty of voices in my head, I'm not going to lie! We've had great races and we've had opportunities there in front us and had stuff taken away. And we've had bad races; I have to be honest about that too."
Although Johnson started on pole position and led for 164 laps, the win was by no means a sure thing and he faced plenty of competition from Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth in particular. Johnson led for most of the opening 75 laps, but was then passed by Harvick after getting blocked by lapped traffic. With the exception of pit stops, Harvick was then in charge through to lap 149, with the #4 setting such a furious pace that by the time of the first caution on lap 108 for debris only ten cars remained on the lead lap, with a number of big names - including Harvick's own Stewart-Haas Racing team mates Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick - now a lap down.
20 cars stayed out under that first caution in order to get a lap back under the 'wavearound rules', which included eight cars restored to the lead lap along with Jamie McMurray who had been in the lucky dog position for the free pass. Those able to stick with the pace of Harvick and Johnson included Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, who had recovered from back spasms on Saturday night to start the race although the Hendrick team still had Regan Smith standing by in pit lane in case an in-race substitution proved necessary - which it didn't.
Johnson reclaimed the lead after a second debris caution on lap 148 but a new yellow for David Gilliland hitting the wall in turn 2 on lap 164 allowed Brad Keselowski to take over at the front for a spell, until Harvick moved back into position on lap 191. The #4 was still out in front when a new caution for debris was signalled on lap 223, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed off pit road to pick up the lead at the restart ahead of Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray and Tony Stewart who did likewise. McMurray proved the strongest of the group and assumed the lead on lap 237 following a caution for a multi-car wreck triggered by Marcos Ambrose getting too high and spinning out, causing knock-on accidents behind him involving Landon Cassill, Brian Scott, Josh Wise and Danica Patrick.
McMurray's lead continued until he pitted on lap 271, which is when Kurt Busch's dreams of completing 'the double' went up in smoke as his Chevrolet engine expired on him, 126 laps shy of the full race distance. Busch had earlier finished an impressive sixth in the Indianapolis 500 and then taken a 93 minute trip via helicopter and private jet to get to Charlotte in time for the Coca-Cola 600, although he missed the mandatory drivers meeting and had to start at the back of the field - where he was joined by his brother Kyle who had been sent there after wrecking his primary race car in practice on Saturday. (See the full story on Kurt Busch in the IndyCar channel
"Our Cup car was running okay, we clawed our way up there and caught a lucky break with one of the yellows. We worked on the car and I thought we were actually you know, right in the mix," Kurt said. "[Then] the motor blew. It acted like it swallowed three cylinders all at once, so it was real slow. It's kind of a shame. It almost symbolizes how tough it's been on the Haas Automation team. We give it our all."
His team mate Danica Patrick suffered the same fate just a few laps later when the engine in the #10 also failed: "We dropped a cylinder or lost power, then we got hit," she confirmed. "Unfortunately, we had a lot of bad luck. We weren't really as fast as we needed to be at the beginning. It's unfortunate for the whole team. It would have been great to keep the run going that we had. I think we still showed some good things this weekend. We're not going to forget about where we've been lately and running better. We'll be back to get 'em at Dover."
With Harvick dropping back after being forced to make an unscheduled stop to deal with loose tyres, Kenseth now came to the fore as the main challenger to Johnson for the race win and the two men both had spells in front. Keselowski went for a fuel strategy that saw him pick up the lead for a spell while others pitted, but Johnson was back in control of the race on lap 345 with a one second lead over Kenseth, and the pair pulled out a big lead over Gordon and Harvick in third and fourth before lapped traffic started packing them back up again. All four needed one final stop to make it to the finish, which they did around lap 375 allowing Carl Edwards to pick up the lead.
Edwards had been hoping to make it to the finish without needing another stop, but a final caution on lap 379 for Alex Bowman crashing in turn 3 meant that he opted to pit under the caution along with Logano, Harvick and Keselowski, while Gordon, Kenseth and Johnson were among those to stay out and who duelled for the lead when the track went green again. Gordon had the initial track position but he'd taken only two tyres at his most recent stop, and it showed: Kenseth proved the fastest of the trio, going around the outside of the #24 to move into the lead on lap 383 and for a moment it looked as though Johnson might not have the pace to go with him and overtake before the chequered flag.
But Johnson - of course - had timed his move to perfection and on lap 391 he was able to gently tap Kenseth off the racing line and pass the #20 on the inside, pulling away to safety while Kenseth fell prey to a surging Harvick for second place on the penultimate lap. Harvick didn't have enough time left to catch the #48, however, and after more than four hours of continuous racing it was Johnson who crossed the finish line to claim the chequered flag.
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Johnson admitted. "When the #20 got away I thought, 'Man I'm not going to be able to run him down.' [Then] I saw him missing the bottom tight in 3 and 4 and I thought, 'Okay I've got a little something for him,' and was able to get by with a few laps to go."
"We had a fast car all night," said Harvick. "Just kind of fumbled again on pit road [on lap 263.] We left two wheels loose and played catch-up the rest of the night. We've got to clean pit road up.
"Got behind, got a lap down," he sighed. "We needed a 700-mile race to get back to where we needed to be."
"That's a little bit disappointing [but] I feel like we're gaining on it," insisted Kenseth about his own evening. "They were just really, really fast tonight. [Harvick] was really fast tonight, it seemed like. There were a group of them that seemed to have a little bit more speed."
"You hate it when you can't hold on and win it. There's no more I can do about it," he added. "We were in position, I did everything I possibly could do and got beat. It's just the way it goes sometimes."
Carl Edwards held on for fourth place ahead of McMurray and Vickers, while Jeff Gordon toughed it out through the pain of his back problems to seal seventh place ahead of Paul Menard and retain the lead in the championship standings by 11 points over Kenseth.
"I had no intentions of ever getting out of that car unless I was in excruciating pain and going to cause myself long term effects," declared Gordon. "It was my job to get myself better and in position to go and run that whole race."
He added that he wasn't worried about the problem flaring up again next weekend: "Having some rest and being able to take it easy and do my normal therapy, I should be fine by Dover."
Sunday night's victory makes Johnson the tenth different driver to win a race so far in 2014 - and the new Chase format only has 15 places reserved for race winners from the first 26 races of the season. The others are two-time winners Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick together with Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. There are 14 races still to go before the Chase cut-off decides who will be competing for the 2014 Sprint Cup championship.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings