DARLINGTON, S.C. – Despite a plethora of late-race cautions, Jimmie Johnson dominated Saturday night’s event at Darlington Raceway and captured the 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson now owns 56 career victories and ranks eighth on the all-time list.
On Saturday, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Kobalt Tools Chevrolet gambled on pit strategy as the race concluded. Johnson didn’t pit, despite five cautions in the last 67 laps, so he never had to give up that coveted front-row spot. But that decision put a premium on fuel conservation, and Johnson continually flipped the switch on his engine during the yellow-flag periods to make it to the end. With the win, he improves to fifth in the driver standings.
Johnson, who led a race-high 134 laps at Darlington, improves to fifth in the driver standings. Teammate Kasey Kahne, who finished eighth in his No. 5 Rockwell Tools Chevrolet, joined Johnson as a top-10 finisher. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took 17th, while Jeff Gordon was scored 35th.
When it comes to NASCAR’s modern era (1972-present), Hendrick Motorsports leads all Sprint Cup teams in wins (200), top-five finishes (818), top-10s (1,352) and pole positions (181). Hendrick is NASCAR’s all-time leader in poles and top-10s, while ranking behind only Petty Enterprises in Cup wins. The Petty team recorded 268 Cup victories in more than half a century of competition. Hendrick Motorsports’ first season was 1984.
Johnson opened Saturday’s race from the outside pole position and within the first 44 laps, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Kobalt Tools Chevrolet was challenging Greg Biffle for the lead. Lapped traffic thwarted Johnson’s effort, but enabled Kahne to creep up on the No. 48 Chevrolet. Kahne slipped into second a couple laps later. Meanwhile, Gordon cracked the top 10 in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet by Lap 22, and Earnhardt continued his forward march from the 24th starting spot.
Green-flag pit stops began on Lap 47, and Kahne became the leader when Biffle made a stop. One lap later, Kahne stopped for four tires, fuel and adjustment, and Johnson took the lead. Kahne returned to the track in the third position, and Johnson was running fourth.
Johnson, sticking with the same groove, continued to stalk Biffle as the laps unfolded. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet opted to pit one lap ahead of Biffle, and when green-flag stops cycled through, Johnson was the new race leader, a position he held for 72 circuits.
Gordon maintained his position inside the top 10, despite picking up a Darlington stripe on Lap 43, and was running eighth. Earnhardt, who started 24th, drove his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet through the field. By Lap 90, he reported to his team that his car was improving, but needed to be tightened up, particularly as the track went from daytime to night-time conditions.
Johnson maintained the lead, even through another round of green-flag stops, and told his team that his car was improving. By pitting one lap ahead of second-place Biffle, Johnson even stretched his lead to two seconds on the field and lapped the majority of the field. By Lap 162, just 13 cars were running on the lead lap, including Johnson, Kahne and Gordon, who were running inside the top 10.
Johnson held the lead all but one lap until Lap 180, which is when the field restarted after the caution flag was issued for debris in Turn 2. When the green flag was waved, Johnson couldn’t hold his momentum from the inside lane and was passed by Kyle Busch. But within eight laps, the driver of the No. 48 Chevy was back in the picture, and he resumed the lead on Lap 189.
Misfortune struck the No. 24 team on Lap 193, when Gordon cut a tire. The caution flag was waved two laps later, and the field hit pit road. During stops, Kahne’s No. 5 team opted for two tires and left as the leader among those teams that traveled pit road.
Kahne lined up on the outside of the front row for the restart with Johnson in 10th, Gordon in 12th and Earnhardt in 13th. When the green flag dropped on Lap 200, Kahne used the high line to slip past leader Denny Hamlin, who didn’t pit during the yellow-flag period. Kahne quickly extended his lead among the field running in his No. 5 Rockwell Tools Chevrolet.
Within five laps, Gordon cut a second tire. This time he hit pit road without bringing out the caution, but after a quick assessment on pit road, the No. 24 team opted to go to the garage for further review. Gordon, who now ranks 24th in the driver standings, was scored with the 35th-place finish.
Earnhardt, who spent most of the race working with his team on the handling of the No. 88 Chevrolet, benefited from the third caution of the race. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet was the Lucky Dog recipient on Lap 230, and he was set to restart 15th.
Kahne entered pit road during the caution as the leader, but lost six spots after his team had a mishap during the stop. He restarted seventh next to Johnson, in eighth. On the restart, Johnson climbed to sixth and moved into the third position after green-flag stops. During those stops, Earnhardt picked up a bonus point by leading the field on Lap 281.
The field was shuffled yet again with 70 laps to go when the caution flag was issued for a spin in Turn 4. Johnson asked his team for adjustments and maintained the third position, while Kahne picked up two spots on pit road and was set for the restart running in sixth.
With 64 laps left, Johnson lined up third, Kahne sixth and Earnhardt in 13th. The driver of the No. 48 Chevy immediately slipped into second-place and began tracking leader Martin Truex Jr. when the fifth caution flag was waved on Lap 306.
The Hendrick Motorsports teammates employed varying strategies during the stop -- Johnson’s team opted to stay out during the stop; Earnhardt pitted for fuel only, and Kahne’s team took four tires and fuel.
Johnson, on the restart, gunned it from the outside lane and passed Busch easily to take the lead with 56 laps to go. Johnson and Busch battled fiercely, swapping spots. But Johnson, who didn’t pit prior to the restart, still had the advice from crew chief Chad Knaus ringing in his ears – Save fuel. So the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet backed off just a bit.
When the caution flag was thrown two laps later, the No. 48 team maintained its position on the track because the leaders didn’t pit. Earnhardt, meanwhile, stopped for four tires and another splash of fuel.
With 48 laps to go, Johnson lined up inside the front row and battled Busch again for the lead. Five laps later, Johnson was the race leader, and the No. 48 team agreed not to pit on an ensuing caution period. On the final restart, Johnson lined up on the front row, Kahne started ninth and Earnhardt lined up 10th.
The Hendrick trio restarted before a final caution period set up the green-white-checkered flag finale. Johnson, without pitting yet again, held on to win the 200th Cup event for Hendrick Motorsports.