Jimmie Johnson raises his arms after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star race late Saturday night in Concord, N.C.
CONCORD, N.C. — It’s not often a race car driver intentionally cruises slowly at the back of the field.
Jimmie Johnson did it for roughly 60 laps Saturday night, and it earned him a cool $1 million payday.
Johnson used a calculated strategy — he drove hard for the first and last segments, and coasted for the three in between — to join Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only three-time winners of NASCAR’s All-Star race.
The five-time champion won the first 20-lap segment of the Sprint All-Star race, then deliberately faded to the back for the next three 20-lap segments at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His plan was to keep the No. 48 Chevrolet out of trouble, then make his play for the win in the fifth and final segment.
“We did a strategy that we thought was best for our team,” he said.
It certainly was, even if it was the antithesis of what race car drivers do for a living.
But it worked for this year’s new format, which guaranteed the winners of the first four segments would be the first four drivers down pit road for a mandatory stop before the 10-lap sprint to the finish. Johnson’s win in the first segment meant he was guaranteed to be the first driver down pit road, and he had the first stall — the reward for his Hendrick Motorsports team winning Thursday night’s Pit Crew Competition.
His race, after winning that first segment, was simply to beat everyone else off pit road. Johnson raced Matt Kenseth down the lane, and edged him across the line.
He then needed a clean and quick restart, which he executed to perfection, to pull away for the win. This win comes a week after his Darlington Raceway victory gave Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup win.
“Man, I don’t want this week to end,” Johnson said.
He celebrated by picking up team owner Rick Hendrick, who climbed halfway through the window of the Chevrolet for Johnson’s celebratory lap. It was Hendrick’s seventh All-Star race win.
“He said come pick me up, and once I got to him, he didn’t want the ride,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘No, no, I came to get you, Get on the car.’ It was great to take him around.”
It didn’t look very comfortable — or safe.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in racing,” Hendrick said. “I thought I was going to be a busted watermelon.”
Brad Keselowski, winner of the third segment, had no chance to catch Johnson over the closing 10 laps. The final segment was the shortest by 10 laps, but Keselowski didn’t think it mattered.
“I don’t think it was going to make a difference if it was a hundred laps at the end; Jimmie was just that fast,” Keselowski said. “You can’t really steal any of his thunder on that. I was doing all I could to get by, but wasn’t meant to be.”
But Keselowski, who won the third segment, wasn’t all that disappointed.
“It’s all about the restart,” Keselowski said. “The high line on the restart just wouldn’t go. I don’t know if I would have been able to do anything, but I would have liked another shot. We got beat by a five-time champ and two-time All-Star winner, so I think we’re doing pretty good. We didn’t have enough to pull it off.”
Kenseth, winner of the second segment, finished third. He had some tense moments after teammates Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle had engine failures — Biffle’s exploded into a giant fireball — and initially wasn’t all that comfortable following Johnson’s lead of running around the back until the final 10 laps.
“I watched what the 48 did. They won the first one, so they didn’t race until the last 10,” Kenseth said. “They seem to know what they’re doing, pretty smart. We watched that, kind of hung back. There wasn’t any reward for racing up through there. You knew you were coming on pit road second.”
And after losing the race off pit road to Johnson, and the restart, too, Kenseth knew he couldn’t catch the winner. It was Kenseth’s fifth top-five finish in 12 All-Star races.
“For me, you got somebody as fast as him out front, there was no way I was going to have a shot in 10 laps,” Kenseth said. “Ten laps is kind of short, but yet the fastest car was out front. It was hard to beat that.”
Kyle Busch finished fourth and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the fourth segment and advanced into the All-Star race by winning the qualifying race earlier Saturday night. Busch, the pole-sitter, wasn’t surprised by the finishing order.
“It was exactly like everybody thought it would be; Anybody who wins the first segment will win the race,” Busch said.
BRISCOE GIVES PENSKE INDY 500 POLE:
INDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske’s strategy beat Michael Andretti’s team by inches Saturday — 9.168 inches to be exact.
In the closest pole duel in Indianapolis 500 history, Team Penske sent points leader Will Power onto the track with two minutes left in the Pole Day shootout — a shrewd move that prevented three Andretti drivers from taking one last shot at the pole and preserving the No. 1 starting spot for Ryan Briscoe
It was a remarkable finish on a wild afternoon.
Briscoe was the surprise winner with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph. He completed the 10-mile qualification run 0.0023 seconds quicker than James Hinchcliffe. The previous record was set in 1970 when Al Unser edged Johnny Rutherford by 0.01 seconds over the four-lap qualifying run.
“My name will go down forever for something that I won here at the Indy 500,” Briscoe said after claiming his first Indy pole after narrowly missing in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
This one will go straight into the record book.
How close was the battle on Indy’s historic 2.5-mile oval?
Everybody had an answer. When Hinchcliffe left the post-race news conference, Briscoe held his fingers about an inch apart and explained it was that close.
Hinchcliffe knew better.
“It’s a gust of wind, it’s a shadow over a part of the track,” Hinchcliffe said, before holding up his name card and explaining that was the distance. “I’m going to lose a little bit of sleep at how small the margin was to Ryan.”
Eventually a series spokesman came in and blurted out the actual distance right down to the thousandth of an inch.
Nobody knows how to play this game better than Penske and he proved it again Saturday.
The iconic racing owner has won five of the last seven poles at Indy and extended his own Indy record to 17 poles. Briscoe is the 11th driver to win a pole for The Captain, and it comes one week before Penske celebrates the 40th anniversary of his first career Indy win 1972. He’ll get a shot at win No. 12 here May 27.
As usual, Penske didn’t rely on conventional wisdom.
Penske’s three drivers — Briscoe, three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and Power, the points leader — spent most of this week just trying to crack the top 10 of the speed charts.
Some around Gasoline Alley thought the only IndyCar team to win a pole or a race this season was sandbagging.
Maybe it was. When Castroneves arrived at the track Saturday morning, it didn’t take him long to top 227 mph in the early morning practice, and once qualifying began, it quickly became apparent this would be a two-team race between Penske’s drivers and the resurgent Andretti team.
Still, most thought the battle would be waged between Castroneves and Marco Andretti, Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay or some combination of the four.
It turned out to be Hinchcliffe who created the most tension for Briscoe, who started putting his gloves back on after Hinchcliffe ran a 227.009 warm-up lap.
When Hinchcliffe’s first qualifying attempt in the shootout ended just short, Briscoe pumped his fists and started trading high-fives with crew members. The scene played out about one hour later when the track was closed.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been here and I’ve been in both those seats before and the next thing I know, Helio goes out and goes 1 mph quicker than everyone,” Briscoe said. “I’m just glad it’s my time.”
Penske made sure of it.
With only minutes left in qualifying, Power took one final shot at earning his first Indy pole. He wasn’t quick enough to claim it, he stayed on the track long enough to protect Briscoe.
“It’s just that sort of place,” Power said. “I think in 2010, Helio punched out a megatime, I think 28.0. Where did that time come from, you know?”
This time, Briscoe turned the tables on his teammate and the rest of the Indy field.
And it was Andretti’s team that made the big splash.
After last May’s debacle in which Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti nearly missed making the race, Mike Conway failed to qualify and Ryan Hunter-Reay only got back into the field by jumping into one of A.J. Foyt’s car, Andretti Autosport rebounded by taking three of the top four starting spots and putting the most pressure on Briscoe.
“There’s three Andretti’s in the top four, you tell me?” Hinchcliffe said when asked if Michael Andretti’s team is ready to make this championship a three-team race.
The replacement for Patrick in the Go Daddy car is starting second, the middle of Row 1 with a qualifying speed of 226.481. Hunter-Reay will start on the outside of Row 1 after going 226.240, and Andretti will start on the inside of Row 2 with a speed of 225.456. Power and Castroneves close out Row 2.
Rookie Josef Newgarden, from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was the slowest of the shootout qualifiers at 224.037 and will start seventh. He’s the highest qualifying rookie since Danica Patrick was fourth in 2005.
Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso took the green flag, and then pulled into the pits before completing a full qualifying run during the shootout.
“I know we aren’t the quickest right now, but I really think we have the quickest car in the field,” said the first Tennessee native to qualify for the 500.
And after plenty of questions about whether the new compressor covers would give Honda engines an advantage over Chevrolet, Newgarden wound up as the only Honda in the first three rows.
Fisher’s other driver, rookie Bryan Clauson, crashed on his fourth qualifying lap and didn’t get another chance to qualify. He’s expected to take another shot Sunday when the final nine spots in the 33-car field are filled. Clauson drew the ninth spot in the qualifying line.
There were some notable absences from the front of the field, too.
Team owner Chip Ganassi has won four straight IndyCar championships, but failed to get any of his four cars into the shootout. In fact, none of the cars even made a second attempt Saturday.
“We’re not where we need to be to qualify for the pole,” two-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti said, about 30 minutes before the first qualifying segment ended. “My situation with the 50 car, we’re not even as quick as some of the other Honda runners. There’s a bit of head scratching going on. We’ve tried a lot of different things to make it.”
But the grand finale came down to Briscoe, the man once a target of Patrick’s ire, and Hinchcliffe, who was trying to join Alex Tagliani as the only Canadians to win Indy’s pole.
Briscoe won it — barely.
“If we had to go, I was ready to go,” said Briscoe, who was sitting in his car when qualifying ended. “I felt like we could have done the same again.”