After a disappointing start to the season at Daytona last Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports rolled into Atlanta for the first intermediate track race of the season and showed just how strong they could be with three of their four cars bringing home top-10 finishes.
Jimmie Johnson led the way for the organization, taking the lead on the final round of green flag pit stops and holding off all comers to score his fifth win at Atlanta, as well as his 76th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win, tying him with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on the all-time wins list.
The win was déjà-vu from 2015 as Johnson was able to take over the lead late in the race last season to score the victory as well.
“It was just a great team effort. The No. 4 (Kevin Harvick) car was awfully tough and it was going to take some strategy to get by him. When he told me to whip it as hard as I could there, I just felt like I was going to take too much life out of the tires. But, it worked. And I got rolling around the top and got to where I got this Lowe’s Chevy in Victory Lane. I’m so happy for Hendrick Motorsports and for everybody at Chevrolet,” Johnson said.
With Johnson tying Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list, he noted how much of an honor it was to be able to accomplish that milestone in his career.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 28, 2016
“It’s such an honor. With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who shares the same shop with Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports, also was able to rebound at Atlanta after a disappointing finish at Daytona. After starting 17th on the day, Earnhardt quickly broke into the top-10, where he would remain throughout the remainder of the day. On the final restart, Earnhardt was able to make his way to second behind Johnson, beating Kyle Busch to the line in a photo finish.
“I loved it. We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast. I had some good races there on the track with the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun. And I post old pictures online all the time of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s and that’s when racing was racing. That’s when it was good. That’s what they saw today. So, I’d like to thank the Nationwide guys. We had a great car. It was fun to drive,” said Earnhardt.
Earnhardt also made mention of Johnson tying his late father with 76 wins, saying: “It was awesome, I didn’t even — we talked about it. I told him on a couple occasions that when he tied daddy, he’d better say something cool, and he’d better tell them that it’s awesome for him to tie him, because I know Jeff had the flag and all that, so that was awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that. I knew this day was coming, but I didn’t know it until we got out of the car. I’m glad if he’s going to win and tie that record, I’m certainly glad that I got to run second today.”
In his first start at his hometown track in the No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports, Chase Elliott did not let the local fans down as he was able to bring home his first top-10 finish of his Cup Series career. Though he started the day in 24th, the youngest member of the Hendrick stable was able to make his way through the field and held steady in the top-10 for the majority of the day, crossing the line in eighth place when the race ended.
“Just really proud of our effort, and most importantly finishing this week. Last week was a bummer for sure, and I think a big goal today was just try to run 500 miles and try to stay on the lead lap, and really proud that once the green flag dropped we were able to move forward and gain some ground. Friday night didn’t go as well as we were hoping, so kind of had us in a hole there to start and didn’t give us the best pit road selection. I messed up there on Friday. So I was proud that we could move forward. Pit stops were solid, and it wasn’t a perfect day, but it was a day we can build on and try to get better,” Elliott said
“It’s definitely special to be here at Atlanta and have a strong run. I’m very happy about that, and definitely a very special feeling to walk out before the race and to see the support in the stands of a lot of people that are close to — this is close to home for me and a lot of people around here supporting our race team, so that was really cool. We’re excited to try to get on to Vegas and most of all just take what we had today and try to improve on it. I think we’re working hard, and hopefully we can get in the right direction.”
The fourth member of the Hendrick Motorsports team, Kasey Kahne, finished 23rd on Sunday after struggling with the new low downforce package throughout the race.
Image: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images