Jimmie Johnson continued his recent domination of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Texas Motor Speedway Saturday night, rallying after a late pit stop for a victory in the 19th annual Duck Commander 500.
Johnson, the six-time NSCS champion, took the lead on Lap 321 of 334 when he drove under and past Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick exiting the dogleg of Texas' high-banked, 1.5-mile quad-oval. The final 14 laps featured a battle between Johnson and Harvick, the reigning series champion, who finished second despite scraping the Turn 4 wall on Lap 331.
Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Pro Services Chevrolet SS, finished 1.107 seconds ahead of Harvick and his No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS. Johnson, of Hendrick Motorsports, posted his 72nd career victory in 478 NSCS starts.
"The end of the race was nutty," said Johnson, who said he woke up sick Saturday morning and addressed the media post-race through a scratchy voice. "Those last three pit stops with the varied tire strategies, our car wasn't handling like it did when we were leading. The third one (on Lap 310), our car was really, really good and I was able to work our way forward. The No. 4 was having trouble with the No. 1 (of McMurray) and slid up…and I thought I had it under control. Just a lot of great racing; the (worn-out) surface of this racetrack allows that to happen."
Johnson scored his fifth win at TMS and third in his last six starts, but his first victory in the spring event. Johnson earned his first win of the season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile layout to TMS, in the second race on the schedule.
"I think the tracks with high-wear and bumps…I think the surface fits my style and Chad's style and what we do together," Johnson said in reference to crew chief Chad Knaus.
"This is a racetrack that falls into Jimmie's liking," said Knaus, still sporting his Victory Circle Stetson. "Do we always race at night (here) in the spring? We've run very, very well here in the spring race so I think it was just circumstances that we hadn't been able to pull it off previously. Nothing specific."
Johnson pitted with most of the lead pack during the race's eighth and final caution period on Lap 310, when Knaus played it safe with a call for four Goodyear tires. Four drivers—McMurray, Kyle Larson, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr.—opted for right side tires only. Johnson exited pit road in seventh after Larson was penalized for driving through too many pit boxes.
Johnson moved into third on Lap 317, behind leader McMurray and Harvick. Johnson completed his charge to the front on Lap 321, with Harvick taking second and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also passing McMurray. Earnhardt moved around Harvick on Lap 326 for second before Harvick returned the favor on Lap 329. Harvick then lost momentum on Lap 331 when he slid and scraped the wall in Turn 4 but still managed to maintain second. By then, Johnson was headed to the white flag.
Earnhardt, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, finished third in his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS. Joey Logano, last year's Texas spring race winner and the reigning Daytona 500 champion, finished fourth in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford Fusion. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 NSCS champion and Logano's Team Penske shopmate, finished fifth in the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford.
"I had the car I anticipated I would have," said Earnhardt, who scored his 15th top-10 finish in 26 races at TMS. "We made some good adjustments. We seemed to have a good pattern of what was working for us and I think by the end of the race we had our car as good as we had it all night.
"I like racing here. I think it was a good show. It was raining debris out there for a while and we needed some green-flag runs to get some of the track position back that we were having trouble keeping. Finally the rain shower of debris ended and we were able to finish the race."
Johnson led on nine occasions for a race-high 128 laps to become the third driver to record wins in the spring and fall races at Texas, joining Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards, both of Joe Gibbs Racing. Harvick, a two-time winner this season for Stewart-Haas Racing, led nine times for 96 laps.
Harvick's desire to get his first win at TMS in 25 starts was evident on Lap 314, when he nudged the rear bumper of Logano's car and moved him out of the way while battling for third.
"Yeah, it’s fine," said Harvick. "Like the No. 22, you knock them out of the way and that’s the chance you take when you block." Harvick setted for his 13th top-10 finish in those 25 TMS starts and his seventh top 10 in 2015.
Logano classified Harvick’s move as "hard racing," then admitted he was blocking. "It's the end of the race. I blocked him and he got into me," Logano said. "I get it. Early in the race that's not acceptable. End of the race, we're racing for the win. I'd do the same thing."
Harvick exited Texas with a 25-point (306-280) lead over Logano in the points standings, with Truex, driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Visser Precision Chevrolet SS, third and 40 points out of the lead after a ninth-place result.