Jimmie Johnson claimed a hard-fought victory over Kevin Harvick in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon, his 71st win in 473 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts and his fourth career victory at Atlanta.

"This thing was just bad fast," said Johnson, who had to work his way forward from 37th place on the grid following problems with the technical inspection process that prevented him setting a qualifying time on Friday. "I knew within about two sets of corners when the race started we were going to have an awesome day.

"This does a lot for us. We feel really good about coming here and having this kind of showing. I think what we did here we can take to a lot of the racetracks ahead," he suggested. "It takes pressure off in some ways. We don't have the questions of 'Are you going to win this year?' ... It's nice to dodge that. We'll have to win again in six to eight weeks or else those questions will come around [but it] buys us a little bit of a reprieve!

"I had a blast racing with [Harvick]," Johnson added. "He was awfully strong today. I think track position there at the end just kind of set things in place. We had the restart we needed."

"Jimmie ran great today," admitted Harvick, who had dominated the middle spell of the race and had looked firmly on course to repeat his Saturday Xfinity Series win until Johnson showed up. "It was a lot of fun racing with him. It was a good race there as we got to the middle part of the race."

See full race results and championship standings

The second round of the 2015 Cup season had got off to a delayed start with the track needing to be dried after overnight rain, and the conditions continued to be cold and misty well into the afternoon although further rain delays were avoided. Pole winner Joey Logano led the field to the green flag and the Penske #22 led for 83 of the first 86 lap with brief single-lap interruptions during rounds of pit stops which took place under the first three cautions of the race - a planned competition caution to check for conditions on lap 25, a caution for debris from Austin Dillon's #3 Richard Childress Racing car on lap 48 following a left tyre issue, and then a yellow on lap 61 for Dillon spinning in turn 2 with another tyre problem.

During this spell, Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick had been using the time to work his way back through the field, after he had lost his front row starting position following an enforced engine change following Saturday's practice session. He finally took the lead for the first time on lap 87, shortly after the restart and just before Landon Cassill's engine blew to bring out the fourth caution of the day. Harvick was able to keep the lead through the ensuing round of pit stops and spent the next 41 laps out in front.

A round of pit stops that began on lap 138 saw the lead briefly pass through the hands of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth before Harvick wrested back control once again. A debris caution on lap 175 saw Hamlin win the race off pit road, with Harvick sluggish at the green flag which left him battling with Jimmie Johnson for second place. Once they were up to speed, Harvick and Johnson soon passed Hamlin and Johnson then risked a close encounter with the wall to make the pass and lead the race for the first time on lap 198.

Johnson was able to press home his advantage and pulled out a one second lead over Harvick, but the next round of green flag pit stops enabled Harvick to leapfrog the #48 and go to the front again with a hundred laps remaining in the race. Behind the evenly-matched pair, Johnson's Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up to third ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Carl Edwards and Penske pair Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

A debris caution on lap 253 allowed Johnson to once again get the upper hand over Harvick in the race off pit road, but the restart on lap 257 saw a major accident when a big spin for Hamlin resulted in the #11 making contact with Ryan Newman. However it was Jamie McMurray and Jeff Gordon who bore the brunt of the aftermath, with both the #1 and #24 cars heavily damaged.

"I didn't see the #11 spin out there," McMurray admitted. "I was trying to pass the #31 [Newman] on the bottom and I honestly thought I got hit by the #31. I had to watch the replay to see that the #11 had lost it on top and came down. I don't know if he clipped the #31 or if he clipped me. I didn't see any of that coming. That was kind of out of the blue. You just try to get all you can on the restarts and he just got loose."

In Gordon's case, the four-time Cup champion took a heavy impact with an unprotected part of the concrete wall in a worrying echo of the Daytona Xfinity Series accident in which Kyle Busch sustained a broken leg and foot, but fortunately the fates were kinder to Gordon than they had been to Busch and he climbed out without injury.

"I saw the #11 going sideways," Gordon reported. "I had him cleared. I stood on the gas and went by him; but I guess he might have clipped the #1 and it turned the #1 back into me. After that I was just along for the ride. It looks like maybe the #31 came down in trying to avoid the #11 and got into the #1 and then he clipped me in the left rear and sent me down the back straightaway.

"It wouldn't have been too bad except that I found that one spot where there's no SAFER barrier," he added. "I can't believe it. That's amazing to me. Anyway, hopefully soon that will get fixed. It was a pretty big impact."

At the restart on lap 263, Johnson found himself vying for the lead with his team mate Earnhardt, as Harvick dropped back several places and then had to fight hard to make up the lost positions. All the time Johnson was pressing home his advantage by gradually pulling out a two-second lead over Earnhardt at the front.

A caution for Cole Whitt's engine blowing up on lap 298 came just after a round of green flag pit stops, but most of the leaders opted to come back onto pit road again anyway for one final top-up and set of fresh tyres. Johnson once again beat Harvick in the race off pit road, followed by Earnhardt, Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski, while Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer opted to stay out and assume the lead. They were accompanied by Brett Moffitt, who was having a strong run substituting for Brian Vickers in the #55 Michael Waltrip Racing car ahead of Vickers' return to active duty next week at Las Vegas following heart surgery over the winter.

Moffitt struggled at the restart, which held up the cars behind him including Harvick and allowed Johnson to jump ahead of Kenseth. But more seriously was the sudden engine cylinder problem experienced by Bowyer, who slowed suddenly and was rear-ended as a consequence by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: "I was committed to the top and got in the brakes and got in the back of the #15, which was down on power I guess," said the Roush Fenway Racing driver. "And then a lot of smoke and somebody was in front of me as I was still on the brake and went ahead and ended our day."

That triggered a big pile-up as cars ploughed into him and mayhem ensued, with Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Joe Nemechek and Kyle Larson among those caught in the fall-out that required a nine minute red flag to clear up. The majority of leaders decided not to pit again before the restart, although Keselowski and Moffitt went against the flow. Johnson still held the lead as the race resumed, and even though he spun his wheels when the green flag came out he still had enough speed to stay ahead of Earnhardt, while Harvick was quick to pick up third place followed by Kenseth.

A final 15-lap sprint to the chequered flag ensured, with Johnson pulling away from the field and building up a near-two second lead in the time available. Harvick demonstrated that he had what was at least the second best car on the track and was able to pass an ailing Earnhardt for second on lap 320, while Kenseth's older tyres meant that he wasn't quite able to hold on to fourth ahead of pole sitter and early dominant leader Joey Logano.

"I just got behind on one restart there, then I got stuck behind the #55 [Moffitt] on the restart when I stayed out," rued Harvick. "Then never really made it back up through there. All-in-all it was a good day for our Jimmy John's/Budweiser team and we'll go to the next one."

"It was frustrating," said Earnhardt of the closing laps. "The car wasn't doing what we wanted. We improved and got better and better, I thought we might be able to keep up with Jimmie. I don't know if we could have been able to make a run on him but we ran over something on the race track and knocked the whole grill out of it and it ploughed after that and the #4 got to us."

"We had a decent Shell/Pennzoil Ford and my guys on pit road were amazing, every time I came on pit road they had some fast stops," noted Logano. "We raced hard and raced up toward the front all day. Those Hendrick cars are fast, and obviously the #4 car, but the other guys would just take off and leave me. I did everything I could to maintain on restarts and be aggressive and that's where we ended up."

"It's good to finish fifth with the day we had, it was a massive struggle," contributed Kenseth. "We were just off most the day - kind of on and off - and then there when we finally got our lap back to restart 12th or 13th with a few laps to go and we were trying to restart in the front and hold on to what we could and it turned out to be a good decision."

Behind the top five, Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. rode an impressive late surge to sixth ahead of AJ Allmendinger, Brett Moffitt, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman.

"Good run, we definitely needed that to start off the year," said Truex. "It felt good. Really good car on the long runs and every restart it just seemed like we kept getting in the wrong lane. We had guys wrecking in front of us and getting loose in front of us and spinning their tyres. We had to pass a lot of cars all day. It seemed like it was the same guys all day long. In the end we ended up in a good position. it was a good run for us. Hopefully we can continue to build on the momentum and build on this team and keep getting better."

"This is truly amazing," said Moffitt of his guest outing in the #55. "We showed good speed all weekend long ... I kept learning how to be more aggressive on the restarts and use other people's air to benefit me. I can't thank Michael Waltrip Racing, Toyota and Aaron's enough for this opportunity. Definitely learned a lot out there. Wish I could be in the car more often!"

Only three more cars - those of Aric Almirola, Carl Edwards and Paul Menard - finished on the lead lap. Danica Patrick finished in 16th place just ahead of her SHR team mate Regan Smith who is standing in for the suspended Kurt Busch in the #41 car. Coincidentally Smith was one place ahead of David Ragan, who was himself standing in for Kurt's injured brother Kyle in the #18 JGR entry.

"I was really thrilled," said Ragan. "The first 100 laps of the race, our M&M's Crispy Camry was fast, had speed and track position means a lot at any race and as we fell back a little bit and I think it was a snowball effect. We just really probably were a little behind on our adjustment and that's probably just my inexperience with these guys and being a little timid on making a few adjustments.

"As the track rubbered up at the half way mark of the race, we were just way too loose, so we had to take some pretty big swings to get back, but I was happy at the end of the race," he summed up. "We had some good speed, but we had lost too much ground. All in all, a good weekend. We learned a lot, brought the car back in one piece, but we can run better than that. I felt like we had a good, solid top-10 car and things just didn't shake out."

Sunday's victory means that Johnson is now all-but assured a berth in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup play-offs later in the year. In the current championship standings, Johnson moves up to second place ahead of Harvick and Earnhardt and is now just one point adrift of current leader Joey Logano, who is also confident of a Chase place after his win in last week's Daytona 500 win.

"I think it is pretty much a lock as long as we have a smooth season," agreed Johnson of his Chase prospects. "I think if we win a second one, it is definitely a lock. But this takes a ton of pressure off."

Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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