SONOMA, Calif. – When a caution flag waved with 12 laps remaining in Sunday’s race at Sonoma, it was decision time.
Leading the race, Jimmie Johnson stayed on the track. He was joined in that decision by just four other competitors – one of whom was teammate Jeff Gordon.
The No. 24 team’s decision moved Gordon from 20th all the way to third for the ensuing restart.
“I was just taking some risk on that last pit stop,” Gordon explained. “We didn’t have anything to lose at that point.”
Johnson, meanwhile, was hopeful that a buffer of a handful of cars would hold off those with fresh tires from catching him when the race went green with seven laps remaining.
“I saw there were a bunch of cars between myself and the first guy on (new) tires. I felt pretty good about things, and then after about a lap-and-a-half, I wasn’t feeling so good about things – they were there quickly,” Johnson said.
Within two laps, Johnson had been caught – and despite leading a race-high 45 laps, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s ProServices Chevrolet SS finished sixth.
“I was just surprised how fast they got through traffic and got to my bumper. Tires were definitely the call, but we had a strategy that we were going to stick to,” he said. “If we came back tomorrow, we’d still run the same strategy. We played it perfectly. We were one caution away from it working out just right.”
Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne were among the competitors to head to pit road during the final caution of the afternoon to take fresh tires.
“Oh yeah, you don’t race for points anymore so no reason to stay out there for track position,” Earnhardt said of the No. 88 team’s decision. “Come in and get them tires and have fun.”
That’s exactly what he and Kahne did, racing neck-and-neck to ultimately finish seventh and eighth, respectively, just behind Johnson.
“Me and Dale ended up side-by-side and we were real equal in speed,” Kahne recalled. “I had a run on him and went for him into (Turn) 11 and broke too late and ended up skidding into him, but we both made it out and didn’t lose a spot -- thankful for that.”
All four drivers felt they could’ve recorded slightly better finishes had a few things – including the timing of caution flags – gone their way.
“I thought we had a better finish brewing, but just the way the cautions fell didn’t really work out for us,” Earnhardt said. “I had a lot of fun racing out there with everybody. A lot of tempers out there, but I was smiling the whole way. It was a good time.”