Jimmie Johnson answered all questions about his readiness to contend for a sixth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title with a dominating performance in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Johnson held off hard-charging Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checkered-flag finish set up by Jeff Gordon’s blown engine on Lap 265. Johnson beat Kahne to the finish line by .548 seconds in a race that went five laps past its scheduled distance of 267 laps.
The victory was Johnson’s second of the season, the 55th of his career and the 20th in 74 career Chase races. He left Kansas tied with Rusty Wallace for eighth on the all-time Cup win list.
Brad Keselowski came home third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who salvaged a top five despite falling a lap down earlier in the event.
Edwards retained the lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by one point over Kevin Harvick, who salvaged a hard-fought sixth-place finish. Johnson moved closer to the top of the standings, leaving Kansas in third place, four points behind Edwards.
With his third top five in four Chase races, Keselowski is fourth, trailing Edwards by 11 points with six races left in the Chase. Kenseth is fifth, 12 points back.
“We’ve been knocking on the door all year long,” said Johnson, who led 197 laps. “We’ve got beat in some cases, and we’ve beat ourselves in others. … We did our part, and we’ll just see if we can do it six more times.”
So is a sixth title in the cards?
“We’re doing the right things,” Johnson said. “You just don’t know. Sure, this is a huge, huge step in the right direction, but in six races a lot can happen. So I don’t want to get overly excited. We’ve got to go out there and race for this thing.”
Indeed, Johnson had to race for the win on Sunday. When Gordon’s engine exploded, it wiped out a two-second lead. On the restart on Lap 271, Johnson surprised Kahne by hitting the gas early, and Kahne spun his tires trying to regroup. The advantage Johnson gained on the start proved decisive.
“On that restart, Brad kind of gave me a nice push, but I couldn’t really get to (Johnson),” Kahne said. “I thought maybe, getting into (Turn) 3, I would go high, and he kind of entered in the middle and creeped his way to the top. I just really didn’t have a shot at them there.”
A caution for debris on Lap 205 ended a green-flag run that began with a restart on Lap 89 and included two rounds of green-flag pit stops. Before the yellow flew, Johnson had built a lead of more than 12 seconds over second-place Tony Stewart, and Edwards, Chase co-leader entering the event, had fallen one lap down in 16th position.
Edwards got his lap back, however, when Landon Cassill’s spin through the tri-oval grass on Lap 220 brought out the fourth caution. Edwards got a free pass back to the lead lap as the highest-scored driver one lap down. Pit stops under the yellow with 47 scheduled laps left took fuel conservation out of the equation and allowed the top drivers to race all-out for the win.
Notes: The victory was the 199th for Hendrick Motorsports. … The win also gave Chevrolet the 2011 manufacturer’s championship, assuming a Chevrolet will start each of the final six races. … A slide through his pit stall under the final caution cost Stewart dearly. After running in the top five most of the afternoon, Stewart fell to 15th at the finish and is seventh in the standings, 19 points behind Edwards. … Johnson’s 197 laps led are his highest total for a single race at a 1.5-mile speedway other than Charlotte.