Jimmie Johnson used a calculated strategy Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., to win NASCAR’s all-star race and its $1 million prize for the third time in his career.
Johnson won the first 20-lap segment of the Sprint all-star race, then rode around at the back of the field for the next 60 laps. His plan was to stay out of trouble and make his play for the win in the fifth and final segment.
The new format this year set it up so that 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 No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team winning Thursday night’s Pit Crew Competition.
The race was then just to beat everyone else off pit road, and Johnson did by edging Matt Kenseth across the line.
He then had a great restart, and pulled away to become just the third driver — joining Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon — to win three all-star races. Johnson’s other wins were in 2003 and 2006.
This win comes a week after his Darlington Raceway victory gave Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup win, and Johnson celebrated by picking up team owner Rick Hendrick, who climbed halfway through the window of the Chevrolet for Johnson’s celebratory lap.
“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.”
Brad Keselowski, winner of the third segment, had no chance to catch Johnson over the closing 10 laps.
“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.”
Kenseth, winner of the second segment, finished third and was followed by Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the fourth segment and had advanced into the all-star race by winning the qualifying race earlier Saturday night.
With most of the NASCAR world focused solely on Charlotte and Saturday night’s all-star race, the Nationwide series has the Iowa Speedway in Newton all to itself. As if Ricky Stenhouse Jr. needed any more of an edge at Iowa.
Stenhouse won both Nationwide races at Iowa’s .875-mile oval in 2011, beating Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards in May and getting shoved across the line by Edwards in August after blowing his engine just yards from the checkered flag.
But neither Edwards nor Keselowski is running in Sunday’s race. In fact, the only Cup regular in the field will be Kurt Busch, leaving Stenhouse as the clear favorite at a track where he picked up his first and second career wins.
Stenhouse, the defending series champion and current points leader, will start third in Sunday’s race. Elliott Sadler will start from the pole, followed by Sam Hornish Jr.