HAMPTON, Ga.—Coors Light Polesitter Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick dominated the early and middle stages of Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway—before Jimmie Johnson decided to crash the party.
Johnson didn’t take the lead in the second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of the season until Lap 198 of 325, but from then on, his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was the class of the field, leading six times for 92 laps in winning for the fourth time at Atlanta and for the 71st time in his career.
For the second straight event in NASCAR’s premier series, Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second and third, respectively. Logano ran fourth, followed by Matt Kenseth, who capitalized on a late track-position play by staying out on old tires.
Johnson surged into the lead after a restart on Lap 305, starting fourth and charging past three drivers—Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Brett Moffitt—who had stayed out under caution for Cole Whitt’s blown engine.
After Johnson took the top spot, a massive nine-car wreck in Turn 3 on the restart lap slowed the field for the 10th time. NASCAR red-flagged the race for 9 minutes, 1 second, after which Johnson led the field to a restart on Lap 312, with Kenseth beside him in the outside lane.
Johnson parried a bid for the lead from Earnhardt and quickly pulled away, ultimately crossing the finish line 1.802 seconds ahead of Harvick, who passed Earnhardt for the runner-up spot on Lap 319.
Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Moffitt, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman completed the top 10. Moffitt was driving the No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota in lieu of Brian Vickers, who is recovering from offseason heart surgery. Vickers is scheduled to return to action next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Before he could get to the front of the field, Johnson had obstacles to overcome. Along with 12 other cars, the No. 48 Chevrolet didn’t get through pre-qualifying inspection on Friday in time to post a speed in time trials. Consequently, the six-time premier series champion started 37th on Sunday.
The starting position toward the back of the grid also meant an awkward pit stall selection in front of Carl Edwards and behind Joe Nemechek. Johnson lost positions on pit road until Nemechek fell off the lead lap and the No. 48 Chevrolet got past Edwards’ No. 19 Toyota on the race track.
“We had a great race car, and unfortunately the way qualifying went (Friday), we didn’t have a good pit stall pick, and it took us a long time to get in front of the No. 19 (Edwards),” Johnson said. “Once we did that, we were able to utilize our awesome pit crew; get the stops done and race for the win and get the job done today.
“Just very, very thankful. They (the team) surprised me today. We weren’t that good (Saturday in practice), and they really dug deep and figured out what I needed in this race car and gave me an awesome Lowe’s Chevrolet.”
With the victory, Johnson is all but assured of remaining the only driver to have qualified for every Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup since the inception of the playoff format in 2004.
“I think it is pretty much a lock, as long as we have a smooth season,” Johnson said. “I think if we win a second one, it is definitely a lock. But this takes a ton of pressure off.”
Harvick qualified second but started from the rear after blowing an engine in Saturday’s practice and replacing it. With a banzai run to the front of the field, however, Harvick took the lead for the first time on Lap 87 and held the top spot six times for a race-high 116 laps.
But Harvick lost track position when he spun his tires in the outside lane on a Lap 257 restart and never got back to the lead. The coup de grace to the reigning series champion’s chances came on the Lap 305 restart when he was trapped behind Moffitt in the inside lane.
“I had one bad restart there where I spun the tires on the outside, and we just never recovered from that one,” Harvick said. “And then we got behind the No. 55 (Moffitt) when he was kind of shooting for the moon there to go on the restart—and he just didn’t go.
“And then we got passed again. But, all in all, it was a great day.”