Jimmie Johnson’s bad luck seemed to come to an end Sunday night. The driver, who once seemed unbeatable, returned to his old form at Charlotte Motor Speedway Sunday night winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600. It was his first win of 2014, his first in 13 races and his seventh, but first since 2009 at the famed 1.5 mile track.
After leading the most laps Johnson passed Matt Kenseth with 9 laps to go and went on to a 1.2 second win. The only drama in the closing laps came with two laps to go when Kevin Harvick passed Kenseth for second while Johnson cruised to his first win of the season, his seventh at Charlotte and the 67th of his career.
“Obviously it’s great to win and we are very happy to win here,” Johnson said. “Just stoked for the night. Very good race car. We raced up front all night long and that last restart let us bunch up to those guys on two (tires) and our four (tires) were able to prevail.”
Kenseth held on for third, Carl Edwards was fourth and Jamie McMurray fifth.
Starting from the pole, Johnson dueled with Brad Keselowski before breaking free at the start of the race. Danica Patrick moved up by lap 3 and took over second from Keselowski. Clint Bowyer caught Patrick on lap 13 and got by sending Patrick to third. Johnson’s lead at that point was just over two seconds.
Green flag stops started on lap 45. Kasey Kahne came in from the top five but was blocked by another car and had to pass through without making a stop. Johnson came in on lap 49 and when the stops cycled through he was still leading by nearly a full second over Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Kenseth.
Johnson began to lap the field and by lap 70 only 20 cars were on the lead lap. Harvick caught Johnson on lap 75 and using a slower car as a pick was able to make the pass and stretch out his lead to nearly a half second. By lap 81 the lead was just over a second.
A second round of green flag pit stops began on lap 92. Harvick came in for this stop from the lead on lap 96. Johnson came in a lap later.
When the cycle completed, Harvick remained in the lead by over four seconds over Johnson. By lap 104 there were only 10 cars on the lead lap. Three laps later the first caution came out for debris allowing for another round of stops for the ten cars on the lead lap. Harvick led off pit road, followed by Johnson, Bowyer, Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Nine cars took the wave around putting them back on the lead lap.
The green came out on lap 113 and Harvick was able to jump out to the lead ahead of Johnson. Bowyer, Kenseth and Jeff Gordon dueled for third. Bowyer was able to take over the spot and Gordon fell into fourth.
Those cars who had taken advantage of the wave around started to need stops and those began on lap 146. The second caution came out on lap 148 for debris again. Only a few of the wave arounds had come in for stops so most were able to pit with the leaders.
Harvick was first off pit road, followed by Johnson. When the green came out Johnson was able to go to the lead followed closely by Harvick.
The third caution came out on lap 163 when David Gilliland lost a tire and careened into the turn 2 wall. Keselowski elected not to pit and took over the lead. Bowyer led those who did pit and lined up second with Brian Vickers and Kenseth; all took only two tires.
Green flew on lap 168 and with clean air, Keselowski was able to pull ahead of Bowyer.
Harvick soon moved into third and was moving forward. Bowyer gave up his position on lap 184 for an unscheduled stop after he reported a vibration. The team changed right side tires and send him back out; he rejoined the field in 18th. Two laps later Bowyer reported that he still had a vibration and came down and got left side tires; he fell to 27th.
Harvick finally caught and passed Keselowski for the lead on lap 192, by lap 199 the halfway point his lead over Johnson, who had taken second a few laps after, was 2.5 seconds.
Keselowski finally pitted on lap 207; Harvick’s lead then was 3.3 seconds up front.
A round of green flag stops started on lap 214. Patrick began to report that the engine in her Chevy was losing power on lap 219.
The fourth caution came out on lap 222 for debris on the backstretch. Several cars decided to stay out and when the field sorted out, Earnhardt Jr. led, Vickers was second, McMurray was third with Tony Stewart fourth.
Earnhardt jumped out to the lead while McMurray passed Vickers and was soon right behind Earnhardt.
The biggest crash and the fifth caution of the night happened on lap 235 when Marcos Ambrose spun exiting turn 4; he set off a multicar that involved Josh Wise, Landon Cassill, and Patrick. All suffered varying degrees of damage but were able to continue. Earnhardt pitted while the seven behind him stayed out leaving McMurray in the lead, Kenseth second, Harvick third and Johnson fourth.
McMurray led to the green on lap 240. After a challenge from Kenseth, McMurray was able to move out to a clear lead. Harvick moved into second, Kenseth settled into third. Harvick came in for his stop under green on lap 263. McMurray came in for his stop on lap 271 handing the lead to Kenseth.
The sixth caution came out on lap 273 when Kurt Busch’s lost the engine in his Chevy. After finishing sixth at the Indy 500 earlier in the day, Busch finished in the garage.
The leaders came in for stops, but Johnson was in the lead thanks to the luck of being on pit road for a green flag stop when the yellow came out. Kenseth was first off pit road and lined up second, Gordon third.
Green came at lap 282 and Johnson leapt to the lead with Kenseth in close pursuit. For the first time all night Joey Logano was in the mix and fighting Kenseth for second.
Patrick’s engine expired on lap 286 bringing out caution seven. When the pits opened, the top runners stayed out as only those at the tail end of the lead lap pitted. Johnson once again led to the green on lap 293 but Kenseth on the outside was able to move past and down in front for the top spot. The two soon broke away from the pack. It only took a few laps before Johnson and Kenseth was contesting the lead.
After dropping to 13th Earnhardt pitted on lap 310 and soon the hood went up. A lap later, Johnson got by and retook the lead from Kenseth. By lap 322 Johnson had moved out to just over a half second lead.
Green flag pit stops started on lap 329. Kenseth came in from second on lap 330; Johnson came in a lap later. Keselowski took the lead and stayed out until lap 344 before pitting. The pit stop cycle completed with Johnson back i8n the lead with a near two second lead over Kenseth.
Keselowski began to report a vibration and on lap 357 pitted under green.
Kenseth pitted from second on lap 373; Logano and Johnson followed. The rest of the leaders soon came in behind them. After the stops, Carl Edwards who had pitted laps before but had enough fuel to go all the way, held the lead by 9 seconds. On lap 379 though all the fuel mileage strategy was for naught as Alex Bowman’s car lost an engine bringing out the eighth caution. Edwards pitted along with Keselowski, Vickers, Harvick and Logano. Gordon, Kenseth and Johnson stayed out. Gordon had got only two tires on the previous stops while Kenseth and Johnson had taken four.
The green came out with 17 laps to go. Kenseth shot to the outside of Gordon and to the lead. A lap later his lead was almost a second. Behind him the top five began to mix it up; Edwards with four tires was soon in fourth and looking for more. Harvick though looked strongest and dove by Edwards and Gordon for third. Johnson was trying to reel in Kenseth with 10 laps to go.
With 9 laps to go, Johnson and Kenseth got side by side; they banged fenders and Johnson was able to move away and eventually on to victory. Johnson said later he wasn’t sure he would get around Kenseth.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Johnson said. “Chad (Knaus) made me think I could get to the No. 24 (Gordon), but the No. 99 (Edwards) was up there and that is who he was afraid on the radio I wouldn’t be able to run down.”
“Sure enough we were able to catch a caution,” he added. “I think the No. 27 and No. 99 had to pit. When the No. 20 (Kenseth) got away I thought ‘man I’m not going to be able to run him down.’ I saw him missing the bottom tight in (Turns) 3 and 4 and I thought ‘okay I’ve got a little something for him.’ And was able to get by with a few laps to go.”
Vickers was sixth, Gordon seventh, Paul Menard was eighth, Kyle Busch ninth and Keselowski held on for tenth. For Johnson the win comes after the first part of the season when some questioned if he could ever win again.
“In winning, it doesn't matter who you are,” Johnson said. The No. 4 car has had that momentum this year. They've been able to go out and execute and show a lot of speed and win. Hopefully this 48 is heading that way and we can get those other people thinking about us.”
Jeff Gordon continues to lead the points over Matt Kenseth with Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. fifth. Johnson is sixth, Logano seventh, Vickers eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ryan Newman tenth.
The next stop for the NASCAR Sprint Series is next Sunday at Dover International Speedway in Dover Del.