HAMPTON, Ga. – With less than 50 laps remaining in Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the No. 48 team had a decision to make.
From Lap 80 onward, Jimmie Johnson generally found himself in the top three – but other than seven total laps as the leader in the middle portion of the race, he couldn’t get past the two competitors ahead of him.
“We were really just kind of stuck in third, so we needed to try to figure out a way to get to the front and get the lead,” No. 48 team crew chief Chad Knaus explained.
Based on the pattern throughout the race, it seemed that the leaders would head to pit road for a cycle of green-flag pit stops with approximately 40 laps remaining in order to get fresh tires.
So with 49 laps to go, Knaus made the call – come to pit road.
“It was a gamble for sure -- we hadn't gone that far yet on a set of tires,” the crew chief said. “We could have easily just hung out and finished third, but we weren't going to pass those guys, so we had to do something.”
The idea was to come to pit road before the rest of the pack – not too early, because the tires had to last the remainder of the race. But not too late, because if it was too close to the typical window, the leaders simply would have followed the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS to pit road.
“We've talked a lot that we want to be aggressive, so I knew when he pulled me to pit lane that we were going to be on the early side,” Johnson explained. “And then I made lap after lap after lap and no one else was on pit road, and I was like, ‘Are we going to two-stop it from here? What's going on?’ I didn't realize how aggressive he was willing to be.”
As it turned out, it was just the right amount of aggression.
"I think the gamble that Chad made puts it in a special category."Jimmie Johnson
When the leaders began heading to pit road nine laps later, Johnson jumped to the race lead, ultimately building a 10-to-11-second lead.
From there, it was up to Johnson to hold off the second-place driver.
“Being the hunted, it's just a weird position to be in,” Johnson said. “You just know he's coming. You're staring in the mirror and wondering where he's at.”
With approximately 10 laps remaining, the lap times of Johnson and the second-place competitor leveled out, and Johnson felt comfortable managing the gap once again.
Of course, a late-race incident put the potential victory on hold as the event went to overtime.
“Unfortunately that dang caution came out, but the guys had a great pit stop, we got out there and Jimmie get a heck of a restart and was able to bring it home,” Knaus said.
As Johnson put it, “it all worked out.”
The trip to Victory Lane marked the 76th win of Johnson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, tying him with Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time list.
And the way he got there made it all the more memorable.
“I think the gamble that Chad made puts it in a special category in the fact that we were able to hold on and get there,” said Johnson, who called it a "gutsy" decision. “And then obviously the fact that it's my 76th and tying Dale, I don't know if it's bigger than my first win, but it's right there with it.
“This is a very, very special and meaningful day.”