Johnson second, Hendrick teammates in top 19 at Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS – Jimmie Johnson overcame starting from the back of the pack on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway to run second and track leader Tony Stewart in the closing laps. Despite a solid restart with four laps to go, and an aggressive chase, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet wasn’t able to catch Stewart. Johnson took runner-up honors and continued his ascent in the driver standings.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed Johnson in 10th to collect his second top-10 finish of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, while Jeff Gordon took 12th. Kasey Kahne, who started from the pole position, crossed the finish line 19th after being involved in an incident on the last lap.
Johnson opened Sunday’s race from a challenging position. After wrecking during Saturday’s practice session, he had to go to his backup No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet. The swap meant Johnson had to start the 267-lap event from the rear of the field, but the position appeared to be a minor stall for Johnson, who was in the leader’s rear-view mirror by Lap 83. Sixteen laps later, Johnson was the new race leader.
The driver of the No. 48 Chevy led 35 laps and mostly held his footing among the leaders. He slipped slightly during a pit stop under caution on Lap 205, when the No. 48 team took four tires and fuel while the majority of the field settled for two. The decision meant a loss of five spots for Johnson, who returned to the track in the eighth position. But within a few laps, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet had returned to the top five, and he picked up another spot after a stop on pit road a few laps later. Then, Johnson took three seconds of fuel and restarted the race fourth.
With five laps to go, Johnson lined up in second on the outside of the front row, and when the green flag dropped, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet mashed the gas. He followed leader Stewart onto the track. While another competitor was wrecking on the restart, Johnson continued to track Tony Stewart for the lead and crossed the finish line second. Johnson improves 14 spots to 23rd in the driver standings.
“With everything we went through this weekend, we will take it. Man, I wanted to win,” Johnson said. “We were close. I think we had maybe a little bit more speed, but Tony (Stewart) could really get away on those restarts through the gears a lot better than I could. I will have to look into that and see if I was doing something wrong or something else is going on there.
“Solid performance. I have to stop and make mention of what Lowe’s is doing with the disaster relief fund (Racing for Relief) and the fact we finished so well means they are going to put up a bunch of money for all the tornado victims. Myself and Hendrick Motorsports are going to match that as well. Great day in a lot of ways, wish we could have this Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet in Victory Lane, but just didn’t happen.”
Earnhardt opened the 267-lap event on a promising note, climbing from his fourth-place starting spot to lead on the first lap. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet led the first 43 laps before cycling back among the leaders three laps later.
Earnhardt led a combined 70 laps during the opening of the race, which is more than he led during the 2011 season, and he even caught a break early on pit road, which helped him maintain his spot as the leader. On Lap 45, he made a green-flag stop right as the caution flag was thrown for an accident in Turn 2. The No. 88 team hustled, and Earnhardt managed to get back onto the track before the lead car passed.
But pit strategy proved to be a dicey element on Sunday, and during a caution period on Lap 74, the No. 88 team opted for four tires instead of two. The call meant Earnhardt restarted in the middle of the pack, where he had to work his way back up. By Lap 229, Earnhardt had improved to fifth when the caution flag was thrown for debris on the front stretch. With 38 laps left, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte opted for right-side tires and fuel, and he returned to the track running eighth. As the race wound down, Earnhardt encountered a tight-handling condition on the No. 88 Chevy that made touring the 1.5-mile racetrack challenging. He finished the event 10th, and improves to fourth in the driver standings.
“The track just went past us as far as our handling goes,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t keep up with the track enough, and it cost us a handful of spots there at the end of the race. The car was really, really tight. I should have given Steve (Letarte, crew chief) a little more heads up on what was happening. But we had a good weekend. The No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet was fast all weekend. If we keep doing that every week, we’re going to be there when it counts. We’ll just keep trying.”
Kahne earned the pole position after laying down a new qualifying record at the track on Friday. Kahne toured the 1.5-mile oval in 28.35 seconds at roughly 190.456 mph to pick up his third career pole there. When the green flag dropped Sunday, Kahne maintained his position inside the top 10, which is where the driver of the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet spent most of the day. On Lap 205, Kahne was running sixth when he made a pit stop under caution. During the stop, his team experienced a lugnut issue on the right-rear tire, which delayed Kahne’s return to the track. He lined up 15th for the Lap 208 restart, and continued his climb into the top 10.
On the final lap, Kahne was running seventh when he was affected by a wrecking competitor and made contact with the wall. Kahne steered the No. 5 Chevrolet to the 19th-place finish and now ranks 26th in the driver standings.
Gordon lined up 16th to start Sunday’s race and almost immediately experienced a handling issue with his No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet. Gordon worked with crew chief Alan Gustafson and his team to dial in the No. 24 Chevrolet, and he was running seventh by Lap 67. But during an ensuing caution period, Gordon opted for four tires, which meant he restarted behind other teams that opted for two. Gordon restarted deeper in the field, and on Lap 115, he was running 25th when he reported to his team that he wasn’t happy with the handling of the car.
The No. 24 team continued to assess Gordon’s concerns, and as the race unfolded, he took the lead on Lap 178 and paced the field for two circuits. Gordon held on to finish 12th, and he ranks 17th in the driver standings.