HAMPTON, Ga. — Jimmie Johnson used pit strategy to grab the lead and won an overtime race under yellow at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, earning his 76th victory to tie the late Dale Earnhardt on the career list.
Kevin Harvick led 131 laps, more than anyone else, but ceded the lead after he made his last green-flag pit stop nine laps after Johnson. The No. 48 car made a quicker stop and wound up with about a 14-second lead, then watched it fade away as Harvick gave chase on newer tires.
Harvick was about 5 seconds behind when Ryan Newman spun on the front stretch with three laps to go, bringing out only the second yellow flag of the race and forcing overtime. Everyone came to the pits for new tires and Johnson returned to the track still leading. The victory was his when a crash on the backstretch – the only wreck of the day – took out four cars.
Johnson stuck three fingers out the window – Earnhardt’s car number – on his victory lap. He never got to race the Intimidator, who died on a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said. “I had to throw a three out the window to pay respects to the man.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Kyle Busch back to the line to take second place, a poignant finish on the day that Johnson pulled even with his father.
“If he’s going to tie that record, I’m certainly glad I got to run second today,” Junior said.
Johnson credited crew chief Chad Knaus for calling the early pit stop, a strategy that allowed him to get past Harvick. The No. 48 Chevrolet came to the pits six laps ahead of everyone else.
“It was definitely a gutsy call,” Johnson said. “The 4 car (Harvick) was awfully tough. It was going to take strategy to get by him.”
For Harvick, it was another Atlanta heartache. He spun his tires on the final restart and wound up a disappointing sixth, hardly indicative of the way he ran most of the race.
Harvick has led more than 100 laps in four of his last five races at the 1.54-mile trioval, but he hasn’t won here since the spring event in 2001 – in just his third race after taking over at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt’s death.
The cars set a blistering pace in the first test of a new aerodynamic package designed to promote more competitive racing. The first 210 laps were run under green before the first yellow finally came out for debris on the track.
After the restart, Harvick and Martin Truex went back and forth, exchanging the lead several times before Harvick started to pull away. It was a thrilling display, but in the end it didn’t matter.
Harvick lost the lead in the pits, allowing Johnson to claim his fifth Cup victory in Atlanta.
Kyle Busch, who posted the fastest time in qualifying but had to start from the back of the field after his car failed inspection, rallied to take third – just ahead of his brother Kurt, who inherited the pole after his sibling’s misfortune.