Fuel gamble helps Johnson to first victory of season
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Sometimes the slowest car wins the race.
With crew chief Chad Knaus beseeching driver Jimmie Johnson to save fuel in the final seven laps of Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the two-time defending Cup champion nursed the No. 48 Chevrolet across the finish line 7.002 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer, who also gambled on fuel.
Johnson completed the final lap at a relative snail's pace -- 31.19 seconds -- in full conservation mode.
The victory returned Hendrick Motorsports to Victory Lane after an eight-race hiatus and gave the two-time defending Cup champion the 34th win of his career -- and second consecutive at Phoenix. Denny Hamlin ran third, followed by Carl Edwards, who rallied from a pit road penalty to claim the fourth spot.
Mark Martin, who surrendered the lead to Johnson when he came to the pits for two tires and fuel on Lap 302, finished fifth, followed by points leader Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch.
Johnson's margin of victory was the largest since Martin Truex Jr. won the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover by 7.355 seconds in front of Ryan Newman on June 4, 2007.
After all the other contenders save Bowyer had pitted for fuel in the closing laps, Knaus instructed Johnson on Lap 304 to "Pit this time."
After a brief discussion, they changed their strategy. "Back up your pace half a second a lap," Knaus radioed to his driver. "Screw it. We'll go for it."
Knaus spent the remainder of the race slowing Johnson down, ultimately telling him to back his pace down three seconds a lap, because none of the drivers behind had time to catch up.
"Put it in neutral!" Knaus ordered as Johnson rolled through the final two corners.
"I'm good," Johnson answered. "I've got good fuel pressure."
As he approached the finish line, Johnson screamed, "We're going to win this."
Johnson led 120 of the 312 laps. Only three other drivers -- Earnhardt (87), Martin (68) and polesitter Ryan Newman (37) -- led the race, the fewest since the Siemens 300 at New Hampshire (July 25, 2004) produced three different leaders.
Johnson conserved his fuel so effectively that he had enough left for a celebratory burnout, but he ran out of gas on the backstretch during his victory lap.
The victory moved Johnson from sixth to fourth in the championship standings, 99 points behind Burton.
News and Notes
• The start of the race was delayed for more than 16 minutes to accommodate the rain-delayed Major League Baseball game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, which FOX also televised.
• Engine failures wiped out both front row starters. Newman fell out after 134 lap, and second-place starter Elliott Sadler followed with a blown motor on Lap 161. Newman finished 43rd, Sadler 41st.
• Comment of the race from 23rd-place finisher Kurt Busch: "My car's so tight it wouldn't turn at Talladega."