BROOKLYN, Mich. — In years past, Michigan International Speedway and Jimmie Johnson never truly had a stable relationship.
There was the time in the Irish Hills when Johnson blew a tire with two laps to go. There was the time when engine failure relegated Johnson to watching the bulk of another Sprint Cup race from the infield. And there was another time when another engine blew out, with less than six laps left in a race that otherwise appeared to be a lock.
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Rick Hendrick, the owner of Johnson’s race team, could tell you about all those times. So could Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Johnson probably wouldn’t want to go into detail about all those messy squabbles in the complicated affair.
On Sunday, however, Johnson and the track made some amends. The six-time Sprint Cup champion took advantage of a cycle of pit stops across the field in the race’s final 40 laps to win the Quicken Loans 400 and earn his first career win at MIS.
“To have everything so fast and so good, you want it to last forever,” said Johnson, who has won three of the last four Sprint Cup races. “We know that it won’t, but it’s just a good time to sit back and reflect and enjoy it.”
Prior to Sunday, Johnson was 0-for-24 at MIS. Even in the final 10 laps of Sunday’s race, with a handful of seconds between him and Kevin Harvick, one thought dogged at Johnson.
“We had a good lead and that allowed me to take care of my stuff,” said Johnson, who finished ahead of Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, and Kasey Kahne. “I heard ‘10 to go’ and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been there before with a lead.’ I heard ‘five to go’ and thought, ‘I’ve been there before. And didn’t win.’ Taking the white with the lead and I didn’t make it back. I really wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around.”
Then, with about 200 yards left before the checkered finish line at MIS, one more thought crossed Johnson’s mind.
“I knew if the car exploded, that I’d still slide across the finish line and that it didn’t matter,” Johnson said.
“That is finally when I relaxed and let it go.”
When the pit cycle ended, Johnson led the 43-driver field with nine laps remaining. He unseated Harvick, the pole winner and the driver many considered to be the favorite in Sunday’s race.
“The Hendrick cars are probably the best where it takes power to run,” Keselowski said. “These tracks are certainly one of those, and Kevin Harvick, his team is fastest week in and week out.
“I thought Kevin was probably the car to beat there, and the yellow sequences, it’s kind of strange how that played out and cost him a shot at it.”
In a brief post-race meeting with the media, Harvick was succinct in how his lead disappeared.
“The car was fast,” Harvick said. “It just wound up on the wrong side of all the strategy. We finished second, and that’s it.”
Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief, took to Twitter less than an hour after the race.
“I made a mistake not pitting earlier in the race that ended up costing us the race,” Childers posted.
Even Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, was realistic about the gravity of late-race strategy.
“Maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one,” Knaus said. “We’ve got to continue to improve our product so by the time we get to the Chase we’re where we need to be.”
Still by the 50th lap, the Quicken Loans 400 had the feel of a business-as-usual race. Save for two crashes in the first 10 laps, there wasn’t much that was overwhelming about the race, other than Jeff Gordon’s outside move on Harvick to take the lead on the 18th lap.
Gordon held that lead for 24 laps, and the race lead changed hands 14 times before Johnson took his third lead on the 153rd lap. Twelve laps later, he went to pit road for four tires, part of a cycle of drivers looking to make their in-race changes.
“[Knaus] made that call and got out on the track and just going off the tone of his voice and what he was asking me to do with the car, and he kept asking me to save my tires in case there was a caution,” Johnson said. “I knew we were good on fuel. So that gave me a lot of optimism.
“Once we had our four tires on and fuel in our car, if the caution came out, I still think we were golden. We had enough to go the distance whereas everybody else was short. Chad saw an opportunity and really let that develop and took great advantage of it.”
When Johnson retook the lead with nine laps left, it begged the question: Would Johnson make it? Or would something else ridiculous happen to keep him from reaching the winner’s circle?
Johnson gave a definitive answer.
“We’ve always talked about winning here and we’ve been so close,” Johnson said. “As those laps wound down at the end, I was just wondering what was going to happen. Fortunately, nothing did.”