NASCAR & Auto Racing

Jimmie Johnson impresses, dominates in Atlanta victory

Jimmie Johnson reacts after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sunday, March 1, 2015.
Jimmie Johnson reacts after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sunday, March 1, 2015. AP

Together, Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have won nearly 70 races in NASCAR’s premier series.

They’ve won six series championships, including a NASCAR-record five in a row (2006-10), in their 13-plus years as a driver/crew chief combination.

Yet after all of that, there are times like in Sunday’s Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway where one – or both – sits in awe of the other’s performance.

“Today I think we both impressed one another. It just showed maybe how rough last year’s performance was,” Johnson said, referring to his career-low 11th place in the series standings.

“It is pretty wild after all these years we’re able to do that and still impress one another, but we did it today.”

At the end of a rain-delayed 325-lap race Sunday, Johnson picked up his first victory of the 2015 season with a comfortable lead over runner-up Kevin Harvick.

The path to Victory Lane, however, was anything but easy.

After Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet failed to pass prequalifying inspection Friday, he was forced to start 37th in the 43-car field.

His performance between the start of the race and NASCAR’s competition caution on Lap 27 caused Knaus to sing his driver’s praises over their team radio and again after the race.

“When he’s on, he’s switched on, the car is in his comfort zone and it’s amazing what he can do with a race car,” Knaus said of Johnson.

“It was so much fun watching those guys the first 25 laps. I mean, … that was awesome. We’re talking three-wide up at the top, down to the bottom, going through the middle.

“It was just fantastic.”

And that was just the first part of the race.

The qualifying miscue left Knaus with no good choices for a pit stall for the race, so Johnson had to work extra hard to make up positions on the track.

It seemed he spent an eternity trying to get around Carl Edwards, but after he cleared that hurdle, Johnson’s car powered right to the front.

There was a matter of keeping ahead of Harvick, who actually led the most laps in the race (116), and outdueling Harvick and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final restart with 14 laps remaining.

“My car was just bad fast. I had a blast racing with” Harvick, Johnson said. “He was awfully strong. I think track position there at the end set things in place.

“We had the restart we needed to, cleared (Earnhardt) and off we went.”

Johnson took the lead for the first time on Lap 198 and led 92 of the final 128 laps.

“To fly through the field like that, to feel those sensations in the car, the car create that much grip, be that friendly, be able to work traffic from my standpoint was surprising,” Johnson said.

“I’m sure from (Knaus’) standpoint, sitting on the box watching me pass two to three (cars) a lap, was impressive as well.”

Thanks to NASCAR’s changes to its Chase format implemented last season, Johnson’s win all but ensured he will have an opportunity to battle for a record-tying seventh championship.

Punching that ticket so early in the season for a team that only seems to get better is likely not a good omen for the competition.

“I just know we’re going to continue to work and do the best we possibly can. That’s the vintage No. 48 methodology,” Knaus said. “If you win, you just put your head down, keep digging, try to get the next one.

“Just because we won today doesn’t mean we’re going to go to Vegas and knock it out of the park. I think we have the ability to, but I don’t think there are any givens by any stretch.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter