Jimmie Johnson pulled into victory lane after his late-race gamble paid off to win the rain-delayed Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway.
Johnson, so dominant on mile-and-a-half tracks, held off Kevin Harvick as the clock struck midnight heading into Sunday. They were chased across the line by Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon after a dramatic final few laps.
Most of the leaders had been conserving fuel after pitting with 58 to go, right on the upper end of the pit window, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got into the wall with 12 laps left. Johnson was among those who pressed their luck by staying on the track, while Harvick went in for right-side tires and fuel, and Martin Truex Jr. got a splash of gas.
“It just dawned on me: We’ve won two races, we’re locked in the Chase, points don’t matter. We’re going for the win,” Johnson said. “It was just sort of a gut feeling, split-second.”
Johnson built a lead on the restart with six laps left, but Harvick sped around Earnhardt on his fresh tires down the front stretch, setting his sights on the lead.
“They had the most raw speed,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Harvick bobbled just slightly at one point on the back stretch, though, giving Johnson a little more space. The six-time series champion maintained it the rest of the way to win for the third time this season and his third race at Kansas Speedway.
“The 48 and 88 didn’t have the speed, and they gambled and had enough cars in between us that we didn’t have enough laps to get around them,” Harvick said. “It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong. You know half of them are going to come in and half are going to stay out.”
Harvick still extended his points lead over Truex heading into next week’s All-Star race at Charlotte. Johnson is third in the standings as he chases another title.
“In some ways we fought really hard to get to victory lane, but it’s also fun to win gambling,” Johnson said. “We haven’t really gambled to win one.”
Truex led a race-high 95 laps, but his pit decision proved costly. Without fresh tires, one of the strongest cars in the field faded on the final restart and finished ninth.
“Really hate when it comes down to fuel mileage. It seems like I’m always at the wrong end of that deal,” he said. “It would have been fun to see whether we had anything for him.”
Joey Logano stormed to a top-five finish despite two pit-road penalties.
The first came just before a band of rain passed through, dousing the track and forcing a delay of 2 hours, 16 minutes. The other came when Logano entered pit road with it closed, dropping him from sixth to the back of the line with 83 laps left.
Matt Kenseth was next in sixth, followed by Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Ryan Newman rounded out the top 10 with interim crew chief Todd Parrott calling the shots.
Richard Childress Racing learned this week that its final appeal of penalties for altering tires during a race at California had been upheld, and that Newman would be without usual chief Luke Lambert and two other crew members for a six-race period beginning with Kansas.
One of the bright spots all night was the heady driving of 18-year-old Erik Jones, who made his first Sprint Cup start in the No. 18 while Kyle Busch continues his recovery from a broken leg.
Jones spent most of the night near the front, even passing his idol Gordon with a daring move in front of the grandstand. But a bobble of his own doing with 72 laps left sent him sliding head-first into the wall, and Jones wound up finishing the race 25 laps down.
“I learned a lot, racing up front, racing with these guys,” said Jones, who was running in the top 5 when he wrecked. “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.”