KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The Las Vegas race was more than two months ago, but for Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, there was plenty of gambling happening on the track at Kansas Speedway.
With 12 laps to go in Saturday night’s race – which ran into the wee hours of Sunday morning – a caution flag waved.
At that point, the teams had a decision to make: to pit, or not to pit.
“Sometimes you can tell what the masses are going to do, if they're looking at pit road or not,” Johnson explained. “Usually (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) gives me some indication early in Turn 3 what he's going to do, and he didn't really say much, so I knew he was thinking hard.”
There wasn’t much time to decide before pit road opened, so Knaus and Johnson put their heads together over the radio.
“I’m kind of running through the events in my mind,” Johnson said. “We have two wins, we are locked in the Chase, and we are here to win a race – let’s gamble. Let’s go for it. Sure enough it paid off.”
Johnson stayed off of pit road, unlike the first- and second-place cars ahead of him – and much of the field behind him.
But the decision allowed Johnson to leapfrog the two competitors into first place.
"It's fun to win one gambling."Jimmie Johnson
And he was joined in that decision by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Earnhardt moved from outside the top five all the way into second place, and Gordon jumped from 12th place to fourth.
“When we did that I felt very confident the 88 was going to stay out, I felt very confident the 24 was going to stay out,” said Knaus, who noted that unlike some of the other leaders, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS was well within its fuel window to finish the race comfortably.
As it turned out, when the race went green with six laps to go, the move was enough to earn the three Hendrick Motorsports drivers top-five finishes – and send Johnson to Victory Lane.
“In some ways we fought really hard to get to Victory Lane, but it's fun to win one gambling,” Johnson said. “We haven't really gambled before and won. Not to my knowledge. So it feels a little different and pretty cool to have that come together.”
And the gamble was even closer than expected, as Johnson laughed that after racing hard to hold off competitors down the stretch, he ran out of gas during his celebratory burnout.
“We had just enough time to get this Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane,” he said. “Just very proud of the team and the effort that has gone into it.”