With 68 career Sprint Cup Series victories heading into Sunday’s race, Jimmie Johnson had obviously found many ways to win.
But having earned those wins in 449 starts, he’d also learned many ways to lose, and particularly so at Michigan International Speedway where he was 0-for-24.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus played the pit-strategy game – which has bitten them many times before – to perfection Sunday as Johnson held off Kevin Harvick to win the Quicken Loans 400.
With the win at Michigan, there are only four tracks remaining on the current Cup schedule where the six-time Cup champion has not won a race – Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.
“We have figured out every way to lose this race,” said Johnson, who earned his third win of the season – the most of any driver. “And today we were able to get it done.
“I’ve been through so much here, I just kind of put my arms up in the air and said ‘Well, if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen – there is nothing I can do about it.’ ”
The 69th victory of Johnson’s career was also his third in the past four races. In a month’s time he has gone from the object of speculation regarding his lack of victories to the top seed in the Chase.
The win was also the fifth consecutive in the series for Hendrick Motorsports.
“I think it is obvious that Hendrick Motorsports produces fast race cars. They build fast engines,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter if it is Stewart-Haas, or the Hendrick organization. We’re winning a lot of races and running up front.”
No one associated with the No. 48 Chevrolet team plans to slow down anytime soon.
“The fact of the matter is I think we’ve got to be a little bit better,” Knaus said. “Last week we were a whisker away from (winning at Pocono). This weekend maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one.
“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.”
It didn’t take long for Johnson to be where he needed to be in Sunday’s race.
Harvick led the most laps (63), but late in the race he and his team tried to play pit strategy to their advantage by staying out during the seventh caution of the race along with Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth.
A debris caution on Lap 149 disrupted that plan, and after pit stops, Harvick restarted back in 10th on Lap 152 just as Johnson was taking the lead.
Knaus said he knew there were going to be opportunities to play the strategy game Sunday.
“We also knew we had a fast race car and you could maybe overcome strategy that maybe somebody else would play,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to have a very fast race car and hit the strategy correct at the right time, and obviously put it all together for a solid run.”
Every team still had to pit once more for fuel, but with no other cautions, Johnson recycled back into the lead on Lap 191 and was not seriously challenged.
“I mean, the car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of all the strategy,” a visibly frustrated Harvick said. “We finished second, and that’s it.”
It was the second time this season Harvick has led the most laps in a race, failed to win and wound up second (the other was Kansas).
Brad Keselowski finished third, Paul Menard was fourth and Kasey Kahne – who was involved in an on-track incident on Lap 7 – rallied to finish fifth.
Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth, leads the series standings and holds a 15-point advantage over Johnson, who moved up from fourth to second with his win.
After the race, Kahne was asked if his top-five run – his second of the season – would silence any critics.
“Probably not all of them. And they probably don’t all need to be silenced after one good run,” he said. “We were way too bad the first 14 or 15 races, and hopefully this will get us going and we can get strong from here and make some points up and get in the Chase.
“That’s all we can really shoot for at this point.”