CONCORD, N.C. _ He dominated practice. He dominated qualifying. And at the end of the night the right team was celebrating in Victory Lane. Clearly driving the best car all weekend long, Jimmie Johnson was able to give crew chief Chad Knaus the one thing he wanted his entire career – the perfect weekend.
Leading five times for a total of 92 laps, Johnson moved past teammate Jeff Gordon with 13 laps to go to take the top spot. Once he cleared the No. 24, Johnson set sail toward the checkered flag. Coming to the line to score the win, Johnson keyed the radio saying, “You have got to be kidding me!” Celebrating atop the pit box, Knaus thanked his driver, telling him, “We just completed the biggest goal in my life, just so you know.”
This weekend the Lowe’s No. 48 simply owned the competition. Blistering fast in opening practice, record-breaking fast in qualifying, backing it up twice on Friday and proving it was no fluke Saturday, Johnson and the No. 48 team showed why they appear headed to their fourth straight title. Making it even more special, Johnson and Knaus were able to score the victory in the final race in the Lowe’s car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which will be renamed next year.
The win was Johnson’s third in the last four races and was enough to propel him to a 90-point lead in the standings heading into Martinsville next week.
Even though Johnson dominated the weekend, he did not exactly dominate Saturday night’s NASCAR Banking 500. In what proved to be a very competitive race, five cars led the field for 45 laps of more. A rash of cautions late stacked up the field for a number of double-file restarts, and with less than 20 laps to go Jeff Gordon popped up and looked to take the victory from his teammate.
Restarting to the outside of the No. 48, Gordon was able to hang with Johnson and pin his car to the bottom of the track. After Johnson bobbled a bit in Turn 4 Gordon took the advantage, but it did not last long. With a great run off the corner, Johnson moved under the No. 24 with 13 laps to go.
“I knew he was going to be tough,” Johnson said of racing with Gordon on the final restart. “He got by me and I was pretty nervous. He had the outside and I needed it to clear him. The restarts before him on the bottom I was able to get by him, but he got a great restart on that last one and I really had to earn it.”
While Gordon gave Johnson trouble late in the going, it was Kasey Kahne who looked to be in line for his fourth win at Lowe’s. Leading twice for 67 laps, Kahne’s No. 9 Budweiser Dodge hugged the high line to open up a seven-second lead at one point. A blown engine by the No. 13 of Max Papis erased that lead when oil was laid down on the backstretch.
Hitting pit road for his final stop, Kahne’s pit crew gave him a good stop, but Johnson’s crew did as well. The 48 crossed the timing line ahead of Kahne by a matter of inches.
On all but the final restart, Johnson was able to power past Kahne and hold onto the top spot. “I thought the 9 had this thing in the bag,” Johnson said in Victory Lane. “Then from the last pit stop on when it came to the restarts we had what we needed for five or six quick laps. This baby was fast. It worked.”
“I’ve always had a problem when I start off the front row this whole year with restarts,” Kahne said. “I just spin my tires. I try not to give it throttle to spin my tires and I get pushed from behind.”
Passed by Matt Kenseth with just four laps to go, Kahne was forced to settle with a third-place finish.
“The tires we took on the last stop shook and didn’t turn,” Kahne explained. “I guess that was our bad set for the night. It’s disappointing. We had the car to beat and the guy who beats everyone beat us tonight. Our car was good as anything here. We just didn’t get it done at the end.”
Scoring his second top-5 in the last four races, Matt Kenseth came on late to take the runner-up spot. The No. 17 Carhartt Ford paced the field four times for a total of 45 laps. Struggling for much of the 2009 season, Saturday night’s performance has the No. 17 team looking up.
“It’s been getting better,” Kenseth said. “I thought tonight we had a really solid night on the race track and on pit road. All of these Carhartt guys did a good job for me. We made good adjustments and it seems like maybe we’re starting to understand what’s going on a little bit more at these mile-and-a-halves and had really good track position all night, so it was a great night for us.”
A number of Chase drivers had rough outings on Saturday night including Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya, who entered the day second and third in the standings. Coming to the restart on Lap 124, the field stacked up behind Gordon. Montoya checked up to keep from getting in the back of Clint Bowyer, but Martin was not able to slow down in time and drove into the back of the No. 42, tearing off the right rear of Montoya’s car. Martin suffered slight damage and was able to limp to 17th. Montoya struggled to finish 35th, four laps down.
"Well, they all kind of went and then they checked up and I checked up and I don’t know somebody didn’t slow down and just ripped of the whole rear of the car,” a frustrated Montoya said after climbing from his car. “Then I got hit into the car in front of us. I don’t know, just one of those deals. It was weird, actually a lot of things on the race track you could see and the cautions never came out. I think they got criticized last week and I think they went too far this week. It is what it is. Whether you like it or not they are in charge.”
For the second week in a row Denny Hamlin went from contending for the win to sitting in the garage before the end of the race. Leading four times for 54 laps, Hamlin was one of the strongest cars of the night. However, a broken valve ended the No. 11 team’s night and its hopes for a title.
“It’s just a tough night for everyone at FedEx. We’ve just had a rough couple weeks, you know. The driver made a mistake last week and it cost us and this week, just a parts failure. It’s the best I’ve ever ran at this race track. Had a shot to win it, felt like. I was being so patient behind those guys, not trying to push it and not show everything I had until the very end,” a dejected Hamlin said from the garage. “We’re definitely done as far as the championship is concerned.
Carl Edwards also suffered an engine failure and dropped two spots to 10th, also out of contention for the title.
Next week the series heads to the short track in Martinsville, Va., for the sixth race of the Chase. Unfortunately for the competition, Jimmie Johnson has six wins this season and shows no signs of letting up.