Jimmie Johnson extended one of his best-ever starts to a NASCAR Sprint Cup season as he chalked up his third win of the season with victory in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night.

Click: Full NASCAR Sprint Cup race results from Kansas Speedway.

Actually, make that Sunday morning: despite the race starting ten minutes early in response to unfavourable local weather forecasts, the race still ended up suffering a two and a quarter hour red flag stoppage for rain just before it reached the 100-lap mark. The race didn't get back underway again until 10pm. By the time the drivers finally got to complete the remaining laps and the chequered flag came out after a full 400 mile race was at last safely in the books, it was already past midnight and everyone involved was very tired indeed.

Everyone except the driver and crew of the #48 who were high on the adrenalin of elation as Johnson made his third appearance in victory lane in 2015 adding to previous wins so far at Atlanta and Texas Motor Speedway. It's the six-time champion's 73rd victory in 482 Cup starts and his third win in 18 races at the 1.5-mile Kansas track. The result also gave Johnson his 200th top-five finish and 300th top ten of his career.

"Just very proud of the team and the effort that has gone into it, we have great race cars," said Johnson as he celebrated in the early hours. "Just a long hard night of racing and fighting for track position, once we got up front we were able to hang on the final eight or nine laps.

It was a great comeback for Johnson, who had been disappointed with a poor qualifying performance on Friday evening that meant he had started the race from 19th place. While there are far wore places to have to mount a comeback drive through the field than Kansas, it certainly hadn't filled him with optimism coming into the race.

"I wish we would qualify a little better on Friday's that would make life a lot easier for us," he admitted. "I think experience helps. You just shrug it off. We are trying so hard to get our qualifying under control. We put a huge effort into it again. To be 19th was just ... really stunk. It wasn't any fun."

The problem with starting in the middle of the field is the risk of getting involved in an accident while trying to get to the front, and that very nearly happened to Johnson when a brush with his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and nearly lost control coming out of turn 4 on lap 5.

"I guess the #88 got close behind me and just him being that close took the air off my spoiler and the car just turned sideways," said Johnson. "I felt like I was fine catching it, but a lot of times you will over-correct and turn it back into the outside wall. Somehow I didn't do that. I was very happy to have my dirt background and keep that thing straight and going in the right direction."

The team eventually exonerated Earnhardt for the incident and determined that the problem was a faulty roof flap that had popped open and destabilised the #48's aerodynamics. That was quickly set right and there was no further damage to the car, but it did put Johnson on the back foot and he soon came close to being lapped by early race leader Martin Truex Jr.

Johnson and team mate Jeff Gordon were fortunate to be spared that ignominy by a caution for Jeb Burton spinning out off turn 4 on lap 94, and minutes later the yellows turned red for the onset of rain and the cars were brought down pit lane to park and wait for the weather front to pass over and the Air Titans to do their thing.

Even though things improved for the #48 after the hiatus Johnson still managed to lead only once, for ten laps in total, beginning on lap 258 when he and his crew chief Chad Knaus made the decision to stay out under the ninth and final caution resulting from Ricky Stenhouse Jr scraping the wall in turn 2. Long time race leaders Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. were among those to come down pit lane; Truex took fuel only while the rest opted for two tyres, but Johnson and two of his Hendrick team mates Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon along with Stewart-Haas Racing's Kurt Busch all decided to gamble on staying out despite the performance disadvantage they would have against those cars on older rubber.

In the end, Harvick was able to charge back into second in the six laps remaining when the green flag came out, but he ran out of time and was still half a second behind Johnson when they crossed the finish line.

"I could tell [Chad] was having a hard time making the decision," said Johnson of the critical decision to stay out under the final caution. "I'm kind of running through the events in my mind: we have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race, let's gamble. Let's go for it. Sure enough it paid off.

"A few more laps I think the #4 would have had me, he was awfully strong," he admitted of Harvick's run to the front. "Obviously being on right side tyres would have been an advantage for him."

"Just in a bad spot leading the race there," said Harvick of his own call to come left him with too much track position to recover in the remaining laps. "Those guys didn't have anything for us on speed, they were just doing what they had to do on track position wise and then move all over the racetrack to try to get the air off your car," he added

Earnhardt and Gordon held on for third and fourth place to make it three Hendrick cars in the top four; Kasey Kahne dropped out of the top ten after being among the cars to come down pit lane for tyres before the final restart.

"I'm proud of Jimmie and he did a great job," said Earnhardt. "I was real jealous of that lane he had - I think I could have done a better job than he did with it on that first lap. I couldn't believe we still hung with him coming back with five to go or whatever.

"I thought he would have took off with that outside groove," Earnhardt said, having overcome early initial handling problems with the #88 to finally hit the sweet spot late in the race. "I sure was jealous where he was restarting. Congratulations to him, the #48/#88 shop, all the guys they did a great job. We thought we had a good car and we about screwed it up. We finally figured it out and all the guys back home gave us the tools to get it done."

"It was a really solid top-five finish there," contributed Gordon. "I'm really proud of that. That was not easy. Track position meant so much and we had it and then we lost it and it was nice to get it back there at the end and get a decent restart and finish fourth."

After leading for the initial stage of the race through to the scheduled competition caution on lap 25, pole sitter Joey Logano fought back from two pit lane penalties - one for his crew jumping over the pit wall too soon, the second when Logano came in under a caution before pit lane was was declared open - to clinch fifth place ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing's Matt Kenseth.

"We just did a terrible job of executing this race," sighed Logano. "We made mistake after mistake. Whether it was me on pit road or everything we did it seemed. We had a fast race car and that is what saved us. Execution was not very good tonight and we all just have to raise our game a little bit and understand why we made mistakes and clean it up going forward."

Logano's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski finished seventh with Kurt Busch not able to sustain his position in the closing laps in the same way that the Hendrick contingent had; Truex also lost out with his fuel-only call when he got boxed in at the restart which meant that he crossed the line in ninth despite leading a race-high 95 laps during the night.

"Well, if we got two tyres we would have come out sixth," explained Truex after the race. "That would have been a pretty good starting spot to be in. But you never know how these things are going to play out. I hate fuel mileage racing because of that.

"It is disappointing to run that good all night and finish wherever we did, but at the same time it's nice to run like that," adding that he wasn't about to blame his crew chief Cole Pearn for the strategy call that cost him a shot at a race win. "Cole got kind of put in a bad spot there at the end. I told him to keep his confidence up because he has done a good job all year long. We are going to get one. We just have to keep digging."

It was a mixed night at best for the JGR squad. While Kenseth succeeded in getting a sixth place finish, he also suffered a spin on the backstraight on lap 130 that contributed to Tony Stewart getting rear ended by Brett Moffitt in the #34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, the impact pitching the #14 car into the wall. The net result was an extension to Stewart's miserable start to the 2015 season with a 39th place finish.

Kenseth's team mates were even less fortunate: despite coming into the race with high hopes and leading for a dozen laps during the middle part of the race by staying off pit lane under a caution, Carl Edwards ended up in 20th place a lap off the leaders after being forced to pit for a vibration, while Denny Hamlin's race ended when he crashed out on lap 208 on the frontstretch. Hamlin had only just come back out on the track after pitting to take care of damage sustained minutes earlier in a messy four-wide battle.

"I know I'm going to get asked about the Denny Hamlin deal," said Earnhardt who was one of the other cars involved in that incident. "We were four-wide there and I thought I was where I was supposed to be, but there was not enough room for two cars on the outside of me. My fault - everyone else's fault I think.

"I hate it for Denny because it ruined his car and ruined his night," he added. "The #41 [Kurt Busch] kind of got me tight off the bottom and then went four-wide. I was sitting there with the #41 there and them guys were coming off the wall and ran into us. It was just a mess."

Hamlin's new team mate Erik Jones had a generally impressive official Sprint Cup d?but standing in for Kyle Busch in the #18 but was then pressured by a looming Johnson into a mistake that put him into the wall in turn 4 on lap 196 which he admitted was entirely down to him.

"I learned a lot, racing up front, racing with these guys," said Jones, who was running in the top five when he crashed out. "Just got loose and lost it. All my fault. Guess I have to go back and figure it out. But I'm ready to do another one, I hope I get another shot at it."

Jones' predecessor in the #18, David Ragan, also had a bumpy night in his first outing for Michael Waltrip Racing in the #55 car when he ended up in the wet grass after contact with Josh Wise on lap 120. That left him with front-right damage and an eventual 33rd place finish after going four laps down.

With his third win of the season, Johnson has now won more races so far in 2015 than anyone else and becomes an absolute lock for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup in the autumn, providing he continues to meet the basic eligibility criteria. Kevin Harvick is the only other driver to win more than one race so far this season and the SHR driver also has a huge lead in the championships with 46 points in hand over Martin Truex Jr. who is currently in second place, albeit just two points ahead of Johnson.

The other drivers to have effectively clinched a place in the Chase via a race win are Penske pair Keselowski and Logano, JGR duo Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, and Harvick's SHR team mate Kurt Busch, along with Johnson's fellow Hendrick runner Dale Earnhardt Jr. thanks to his win last week at Talladega.

Next week the drivers head to NASCAR's home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway, for the non-championship Sprint All-Star Race. The following weekend they will return to Charlotte for the Coca Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, the longest race of the season, which is held on the same day that the Indianapolis 500 takes place in Indianapolis.

See full race results from Kansas Speedway and current Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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