Johnson gambles way into winner’s lane

Pit stop that didn’t happen help was key

McClatchy Newspapers

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The pit stop that never happened propelled Jimmie Johnson to Victory Lane in Saturday night’s Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

It was the second straight win at the track for Johnson, who won the Checker Auto Parts 500 during the Chase for the Championship last November en route to his second straight NASCAR Cup title.

His victory also ended the drought for Hendrick Motorsports drivers, who hadn’t won a race in eight tries in 2008 after coming off a season where they dominated, claiming 18 of 36 races. "We’re back!" Johnson said. "We’ve been working very hard to get back and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone at Hendrick Motorsports."


Saturday night’s race evolved into a gamble of fuel mileage.

When leader Mark Martin pitted for a splash of gas and right-side tires with 10 laps to go, Johnson stayed on track and assumed the lead, nursing his fuel-starved No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet around the mile oval while other contenders — Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. also pulled in for fuel, with some taking two tires.

"Slow it down, slow it down, slow it way down," Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus pleaded with his driver over the radio as the final laps wound down.

Only Clint Bowyer followed Johnson’s strategy and stretched his final tank to the end, but he was a good 10 seconds behind Johnson with five laps to go.

Meanwhile, Johnson wasn’t slowing down enough to satisfy his crew chief, so Knaus radioed Johnson a "little white lie," telling him that Bowyer had pitted and that Johnson’s lead had grown to 20 seconds.

Did the lying help? "Yeah, my instinct was to step on the gas pedal," Johnson said.

Pole sitter Ryan Newman had the early hot rod, leading the first 30 laps, but he dropped back in the field and eventually lost a front seal on his motor, sending oil spewing on the track and sending cars sliding and crashing through the slick on lap 133.

Edwards finished fourth, Martin was fifth, Burton sixth and Earnhardt seventh. Truex, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.

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