And once again, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team crashed through the door and right into victory lane.
Perhaps it seems so unusual because in a great many of Johnson’s 73 Sprint Cup Series victories, he has simply dominated his competition with the fastest car.
But if there is one distinct trademark of Johnson’s NASCAR success, it’s the ability of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to turn the mere prospect of an opportunity into an unlikely victory.
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They did it again Saturday night in winning the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, a race that wasn’t concluded until the early morning hours of Sunday because of a two-hour, 17-minute rain delay.
“It was very unexpected to be here right now,” Knaus said after the race. “Obviously, I think we had a little bit of good fortune on our side for sure.”
For much of the race, Johnson struggled to keep pace with race leaders Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., but a caution with 11 of 267 laps remaining offered one last chance to alter the outcome.
There was no way the No. 48 was going to let this slip by.
“The weekend wasn’t turning out or developing the way that we would have liked it to for sure, but the good thing about this team is it always strives to do better,” Knaus said. “We worked really hard on the race car after qualifying to figure out what we needed to do to try to get the car better for Jimmie.”
When many of the lead-lap carschose to pit on that final caution, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon elected to remain on the track while Harvick, Truex and the rest took fuel or tires, or both.
That handed the race lead to Johnson with 10 laps remaining – the first time he had led the race.
You give the No. 48 team an opportunity to win in the last 10 laps of a race and think it won’t be squandered?
Johnson maintained his lead after a chaotic restart and spent the final three laps holding off a hard-charging Harvick with fresh tires.
The win is Johnson’s third this season – the most of any driver – and his 73 career wins is three short of Dale Earnhardt Sr., who ranks seventh all time.
“I felt like we were a top-two or -three car, but I didn’t have enough time up there in the top two or three to know where I stood against (Truex) and (Harvick),” Johnson said. “But we gambled with our pit call and had just enough time to get to the finish line before (Harvick) on his new tires could get to us.
“It was just well played. In some ways we fought really hard to get to victory lane, but it’s fun to win one gambling. We haven’t really gambled before and won, not to my knowledge.”
Gambling may not be a frequent “go to” option in Knaus’ playbook, but the No. 48 has never shied from maximizing the opportunities presented it.
The team has been one of the best over the past decade at turning troublesome-handling cars into race-winning ones by the end of the race. The team is also good at maximizing pit-road strategy, although it has struggled at times with fuel-mileage races.
Even with 73 wins and six series championships, Johnson still finds himself in instances on the track where the outcome remains in doubt.
“It’s easy for even the successful teams in the sport to have confidence waver over the course of a weekend, over the stretch of time, over the course of a year, whatever it might be,” he said.
“It comes in and out, and honestly we live and die by the NASCAR timing and scoring, and the last time we were on track, it’s all you have to live off of. The last time we were on track we were 19th.
“Once the race got going, I felt like my car was more stable than others that I was around. Once I could get a little gap of clean air, I could put down a couple good laps and I could hear that on the radio.
“I knew that if we could ever get there that we could be competitive.”
It took until the final 10 laps in a race stretched over two days, but once again he was right.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
Top 5 Finishers
1. Jimmie Johnson, Chevy
2. Kevin Harvick, Chevy
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevy
4. Jeff Gordon, Chevy
5. Joey Logano, Ford
Top 5 Points
1. Kevin Harvick, 437
2. Martin Truex Jr., 391
3. Jimmie Johnson, 389
4. Joey Logano, 375
5. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 360