Jimmie Johnson, whose resume is already pretty impressive, added another laurel to his list of accomplishments Saturday night (May 19) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The five-time Sprint Cup champion not only took home a payday of over $1 million, but he became a three-time winner of the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Johnson joins Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (1987, 1990 and 1993) and Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997 and 2001) on the list of drivers who have won the event three times.
“It means a ton to me… Those are two of the greatest drivers that have ever been in a stock car,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt, Sr. and Gordon. “I want to set my goals high, and I want to be considered one of the best to sit in a stock car, and the only way you can do that is by winning big races and piling up those stats.”
Johnson, whose previous all-star race wins came in 2003 and 2006, won the first 20-lap segment to guarantee him the lead spot in the 10-lap, all-out sprint final segment. After that, it was like a pleasure cruise as Johnson made frequent pit stops and just tried to drive clear of trouble to save his car for the finish. The strategy worked.
“I was able to get to the lead in that first segment and really set our night in the right direction,” Johnson said. Everybody knew that, if you could win that first segment, you could control the night, and we were able to do that starting sixth, so it was pretty awesome.”
Brad Keselowski finished second in the Saturday-night race and Matt Kenseth ran third. Keselowski almost sounded awed by Johnson’s drive.
“He passed Kyle (Busch), I think Denny (Hamlin), maybe (Kevin) Harvick. (Ryan) Newman. Those aren’t slouches that he passed, and he passed them in 20 laps,” the second-place finisher summed up the night. “I think that’s a pretty good indicator of the strength of his effort. Whether that’s car or driver, I’ll let you all figure that out. That’s a pretty good indicator he was the guy to beat all night.”
NASCAR changed the format of the Sprint all-star event for this year. The night’s event is divided into four 20-lap segments and a final 10-lap dash for the checked flag. The winners of each of the segments are the first four drivers to head down pit road for a mandatory stop to set up the sprint for the finish. The Sprint All-Star Race features the winners of the first 11 races this season, race winners from last season, series champions from the last 10 years and the winner of the Sprint Showdown, a 40-lap race for drivers who don’t qualify for the may event by the other criteria.
After taking the checkered flag, Johnson picked up car owner Rick Hendrick, who won his seventh all-race as owner. With Hendrick hanging out of the car window, Johnson began his victory lap. It was a recipe for disaster from the start.
“First gear on these mile-and-a-half tracks is pretty tall. We’re running 50, 60 miles an hour in first gear. That’s as slow as I could go in first gear,” Johnson recalled. “I had my arm around Rick’s leg, trying to hang onto him. I could feel the wind pulling on him…”
“Like a big sail,” Hendrick interjected.
The situation was made worse when Hendrick got his foot caught on the dash during the celebratory cruise.
“That was the dumbest thing I've ever done in racing,” said Hendrick. When the car stopped, Johnson and crew members worked to extricate Hendrick.
“When we stopped, you couldn’t get your foot off, had to take the steering wheel off,” Johnson told his team owner. “Three of us trying to monkey your leg out of the car.”
Hendrick kept his humor about him. “I’m surprised I didn’t get called to the hauler.”
The Sprint Cup Series resumes next weekend with the Coca-Cola 600, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.