Jimmie Johnson drove through Turn 3 of Kansas Speedway during the final caution of Saturday’s SpongeBob SquarePants 400 with less than 10 laps to go, looking in his rear-view mirror at the field behind and waiting to hear the voice of crew chief Chad Knaus.
“Sometimes you can tell what the masses are going to do, if they’re looking at pit road or not,” Johnson said. “Usually Chad gives me some indication early in Turn 3 what he’s going to do, and he didn’t really say much, so I knew he was thinking hard, and I could see most guys were favoring down and trying to find their way onto the apron.”
Finally, Knaus came over the radio and asked Johnson what he wanted to do.
“It just dawned on me,” Johnson said.
The No. 48 Lowes Chevy had won two races already and was locked in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Points didn’t matter.
The team could do something they weren’t used to through many of his 72 previous career wins.
“Man, I feel like gambling,” Johnson replied.
It was a “split-second decision” that kept his car on the track as all but four cars peeled off to pit road and led to career win No. 73.
“At that point I felt like I was pretty lonely and it wasn’t going to work out,” Johnson said. “(Dale Earnhardt Jr.) stayed and I think Chad was trying to be optimistic and fill me full of some sunshine, ‘oh, a few stayed out.’ I only saw one stay out. And then four lined up behind me.”
Those cars that did not pit were Earnhardt, the No. 41 of Kurt Busch and the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon.
“From our standpoint, we were in a unique situation because (Kevin Harvick) and (Martin Truex Jr.) were actually really close on fuel, we were not,” Knaus said. “We were well within our window. So we wanted to stay out.”
Johnson was fortunate not just to be in the position to gamble, but also to be in the race.
Knaus said they made a “significant amount of changes” to the No. 48, which started 19th and survived getting sideways on Lap 6 in Turn 3 as Johnson avoided wrecking into Earnhardt and an early exit. From there Knaus implemented changes to the ride height, chassis, air pressure, and of course, pit calls.
After the last green flag, the final six laps were a carbon copy of the race at Texas Motor Speedway in April. Johnson led the way as Harvick, with a better car on two fresh tires, wheeled his way into the top three to fight Earnhardt for a chance to challenge Johnson. Once Harvick got past Earnhardt, he went after Johnson, but as in Texas, ran out of time.
That left Johnson to run out of gas during his burnout and once in victory lane, awkwardly call his wife Chandra on Face Time in the early hours of Mother’s Day as he celebrated a Sprint Cup record 23rd win on 1.5-mile tracks.
“I thought my wife might have been asleep and then I caught her on Face Time in victory lane,” Johnson said. “She was not so happy to be on face time and other people looking in the phone.”
Despite not having the best car Saturday night, Johnson has claimed four wins in the last seven races at 1.5-mile tracks, with Harvick taking the other three. Now the series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track where Johnson, now third in points, has earned seven career wins in 27 starts.
“I feel like it’s weighted more towards the performance of the car than what the driver does,” Johnson said of Kansas Speedway, where he has three wins. “(At) Texas, Atlanta, some of the tracks where it’s more abrasive, I think it does back into the driver’s hands a little bit more, the way you drive the car, the way you work the tires, you can over abuse them, you can just run the tire off the car there and a lot of the responsibility falls on the driver.
“But on the big tracks, aero, balance, the engine performance, the small details that separate our team from others, that’s where you find that tenth of a second that puts you in the winner’s circle.”