KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Thanks to a brief but wild Kansas spring storm and the long delay it produced, Jimmie Johnson on Sunday became the first Sprint Cup driver to win a race on Mother’s Day since 2007.
Johnson, who is pursuing a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this season, held off Kevin Harvick over the final six laps to win Sunday morning’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Johnson’s victory – which was recorded just after midnight local time because of a delay of 2 hours and 16 minutes – was his third of the season and his third at the 1.5-mile Kansas oval.
“It was a long, hard night,” Johnson, who led just 10 laps and who spun out unassisted early in the race, said in Victory Lane. “Once we got up front, we were able to hang on.”
Reminded about what day it was when he finally took the checkered flag, Johnson said, “I just want to wish Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. My mother and especially my wife Chani (Johnson, wife), hopefully she is still awake. I wish she was here. I wish my girls were here too, but I will be home tonight and we will have some fun tomorrow.”
Harvick, who led 53 laps, finished second in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
Third was Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Fourth was another Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, while pole-sitter Joey Logano was fifth in a Team Penske Ford.
The victory was the 73rd of the six-time champion’s career. It came thanks to some late-race strategizing by teams who had cars and drivers at the front of the field.
Harvick appeared to be headed toward his third victory of the season as the laps wound down after he took the lead on a restart lap with 55 laps to go. The defending series champion had a lead of over 1 second with 14 laps to go and nobody appeared fast enough to close that gap let alone get around him.
But with 12 laps to go, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford clipped the outside wall to bring out the final caution.
Harvick and all but four others – Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon – pitted as they were iffy on fuel. Harvick also opted to take two right-side tires.
After the restart with six to go, the race became a three-driver affair as Johnson, Earnhardt and Harvick, who restarted sixth, edged away from the field.
The decision by Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus turned out to be a winner – even though they had less rubber than did Harvick. Harvick never got close enough to Johnson to take a final shot at a pass.
Johnson said the decision to not pit was a split-second, gut-feeling kind of thing and it was mostly his.
“I could tell he (crew chief Chad Knaus) was having a hard time making the decision,” Johnson said. “I’m kind of running through the events in my mind. We have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race, let’s gamble. Let’s go for it. Sure enough it paid off. A few more laps I think the No. 4 (Harvick) would have had me. He was awfully strong. Obviously being on right side tires would have been an advantage for him. We had just enough time to get this Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane. Just very proud of the team and the effort that has gone into it. We have great racecars. I wish we would qualify a little better on Friday’s that would make life a lot easier for us. We have a very fast racecar.”
Harvick said he wasn’t mad about his team’s decision to pit.
“I’ve been on the other side of this deal where the cars aren’t running good and you don’t have a chance to win,” he said. “We won a championship on pit calls and tires and everything fell our way. We’ve had a lot of things go our way and we’ve had a lot of things work.”
Harvick did insist, however, he had the faster car regardless of the outcome.
“He wasn’t that strong,” Harvick said of Johnson. “He was just trying to run right in front of our car so for those first few laps when you’re pushing like that it really takes the air off the front of the car and it gets the chatter in the front end and it snaps around. But that was the strategy they took and it worked out for them.”
Perhaps the most bummed driver as a result of the finish was Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. His No. 78 Chevrolet was clearly the fastest on the track for the vast majority of the race. It led a race-best 95 laps.
But his team felt it needed to pit for fuel during the final caution. On the restart, it became obvious they had made the wrong call.
Truex finished ninth.
“We should have either stayed out or took new tires,” Truex said. “We probably did the worst thing you could have done there with just staying out and getting gas only because we ended up being the last guy with no tires. Everybody else behind us had two and they ate us up on the restart.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Race – SpongeBob SquarePants 400
(19) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, $243726.
(6) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267, $239300.
(17) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267, $157225.
(11) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 267, $173786.
(1) Joey Logano, Ford, 267, $168933.
(18) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 267, $146251.
(3) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267, $144906.
(8) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 267, $110215.
(4) Martin Truex Jr., Chevrolet, 267, $122060.
(15) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 267, $126340.
(14) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267, $130401.
(7) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267, $123348.
(9) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 267, $120106.
(29) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 267, $120548.
(10) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 267, $121398.
(26) Sam Hornish Jr., Ford, 267, $113410.
(2) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 267, $100865.
(22) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 267, $94465.
(24) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 266, $110323.
(5) Carl Edwards, Toyota, 266, $83265.
(21) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 266, $119798.
(28) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 266, $122226.
(43) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 266, $81590.
(20) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 266, $92765.
(35) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 266, $95398.
(32) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, 266, $95873.
(27) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 265, $91890.
(40) Josh Wise, Ford, 265, $83590.
(41) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 265, $83290.
(25) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 265, $102087.
(30) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 265, $124415.
(38) David Gilliland, Ford, 263, $90115.
(23) David Ragan, Toyota, 263, $106629.
(39) Brett Moffitt #, Ford, 263, $80690.
(34) Cole Whitt, Ford, 263, $78970.
(31) Michael McDowell, Ford, 262, $78765.
(37) JJ Yeley(i), Toyota, 262, $78561.
(42) Joey Gase(i), Ford, 262, $73402.
(16) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 258, $96544.
(12) Erik Jones(i), Toyota, 242, $110321.
(13) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, Accident, 205, $79330.
(33) Jeb Burton #, Toyota, Rear Gear, 153, $57330.
(36) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, Vibration, 125, $53830.
Jim Pedley – NASCAR Wire Service
Image: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images