CONCORD, N.C. – Surrounded by throngs of microphones and recorders, Jimmie Johnson suddenly darted away from his No. 48 Chevrolet at the sound of an engine rumbling through the pits.
The six-time Sprint Cup champion wasn’t running away from the reporters who still had questions about his third-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson was running toward the driver he and everyone else couldn’t catch Sunday night – Martin Truex Jr.
“He was too damn fast not to” congratulate, Johnson told reporters with a laugh after returning from high-fiving the Furniture Row Racing rival.
Few could relate to the dominant victory by Truex, who led 392 of 400 laps – a NASCAR-record 588 miles led. But if anyone had some perspective, it was Johnson, a four-time winner of the Coke 600 who led 334 laps at Charlotte in a May 2004 victory.
“It just means so much to the team,” Johnson said. “It’s a long night. It’s hard to stay that good for that long, and that’s something they’ll savor for weeks to come. It is so tough to start in the day and end in the night and have everybody covered like they did.”
Though he lost the runner-up slot to Kevin Harvick late in the race, Johnson might have mounted the strongest challenge to Truex’s No. 78 Toyota. On the final Lap 345 restart, Johnson briefly took the lead, but Truex led the final 55 circuits on the 1.5-mile track.
“I had to give him something for being a good sport,” Truex said with a laugh. “I just wanted to give him a taste of what it might feel like to lead this thing.”
Johnson said it did feel as if Truex “was playing with us. He was so fast. I would flatfoot (turns 1 and 2) and have a nose on him, and he would drive right back by me.
“He just drove by me on the straightaways. His car was just very strong. There were many times I thought I’d get close, then he’d pick the pace up a couple of 10ths (of a second). I think he had plenty of speed on his side and could really control the race, which is such a neat position to be in; I’ve been very fortunate to be there in the past. I hope to get a car we can control the race like that in the future.”
Johnson, who has seven wins at Charlotte but none better than 17th in his previous three stars, found some solace in having more speed.
“It just drove really good all night long,” he said. “I could drive the car, it wasn’t driving me. The last two times we’ve been here, I’ve been hanging on, so I think we’re going the right way with the race cars.”
Truex and his team already are there, having also led the most laps on the 1.5-mile ovals at Texas and Kansas. He hadn’t scored a top-five finish, though, since a runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500, and that made his win popular among peers, Johnson said. Brad Keselowski also congratulated Truex on his way to victory lane.
“I think from a fan and garage perspective, he’s been so close (to a win),” Johnson said of Truex. “I just think Martin is really well liked. I know in the garage area, he’s just a good dude. Very happy for him.”