Jimmie Johnson successfully defended the checkered flag in Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, notching his fifth win at the venue and the 76th victory of his career.
It was a remarkably clean race that featured only three caution flags. The first was for debris on Lap 210, per Fox Sports: NASCAR on Twitter, and the second on a Ryan Newman blown tire with three laps remaining to force overtime.
The first yellow flag offered a seven-lap reprieve, and the Newman-induced caution thickened the plot in what would have been a runaway win for Johnson, who managed to hang on after the restart.
Here is a look at the top finishers from Sunday's action:
|Place||Driver||Seconds off Lead|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||0.557|
|7||Martin Truex Jr.||1.629|
|10||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||4.976|
An eventful finish saw Johnson's chief challenger, Kevin Harvick, fail to capitalize on a fortuitous situation by fading on the final restart. That was followed by a big crash, which brought the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 to an abrupt end.
Chicken Bone Alley noted how Johnson paid tribute to Dale Earnhardt Sr. in tying him for seventh on the all-time Sprint Cup wins list:
Sunday's showcase required even more patience, stamina and determination from drivers than usual because of the relentless nature of the race. Stiffening the challenge was the layout in Atlanta, which featured laps lasting less than 30 seconds.
Harvick seized control for the majority of the middle of the race, but Martin Truex Jr. began to battle back and continued to trade the lead with his adversary. After finishing second in the closest Daytona 500 in history last week, Truex did his best not to be denied Victory Lane this time around.
For Truex it once again wasn't meant to be, though, as Johnson added yet another win to his remarkable resume.
ESPN's Bob Pockrass noted how the restart actually may have hurt Harvick's bid to top Johnson:
Kevin Harvick said he just couldn't get going in the top lane on the restart, which is typical for Sprint Cup in Atlanta. #nascar— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) February 28, 2016
During the final green-flag pit stops, Johnson opted to go in early for reinforcements—with 49 laps remaining, per Pockrass—and counted on keeping his big lead before Harvick or anyone else could catch him. The bold strategy by the legendary Hendrick Motorsports driver paid off in a big way.
The Orange Cone applauded Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, for the late-race tactics:
That's the intangible in this equation: Knaus pitted early knowing he would force Harvick into overextending the tires. Brilliant.— The Orange Cone (@TheOrangeCone) February 28, 2016
Matt Kenseth had led for 47 laps toward the beginning of the race but was penalized for improper fueling and lost two laps, per NASCAR.com.
Worst for Kenseth was the fact he wasn't informed he needed to return to the pits to remove an illegal tool placed on the rear of his No. 20 Toyota Camry. Jeff Gluck of USA Today logged the exchange between Kenseth and the spotter:
Kenseth: "I didn't know we had any kind of problems! Nobody told me."— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) February 28, 2016
Spotter: "They were down there arguing it for you."
The black flag cost Kenseth any hope of coming out on top in Atlanta. He had the makings of a good bounce-back effort after being nudged out of the lead on the last lap of the Daytona 500 by eventual champion Denny Hamlin, but unfortunately hard luck struck a second time.
In addition to Johnson's triumph, Hendrick Motorsports had a fine day overall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran steady toward the front all afternoon en route to a second-place finish, while the rookie successor to Jeff Gordon, Chase Elliott, notched a top-10 finish as well.
It was only appropriate to see Earnhardt perform at a high level as his teammate tied his father in the record books.
Next up on the NASCAR Sprint Cup slate is the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. There will be no shortage of storylines surrounding some of Sunday's most notable drivers.
Not only is Harvick the defending champion, but Johnson is the most prolific driver in the race's history with an unmatched four victories. Kenseth has also won in Las Vegas three times, so he could well make up for a couple of recent disappointments his next time out.
Johnson had plenty to say about "The Intimidator" after reaching the aforementioned milestone, per NBCSports.com's Jerry Bonkowski:
It is such an honor. The chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime, I kind of lost sight of that (tying Earnhardt). I remembered on my victory lap, coming down, I had to throw a 3 out the window to pay respects to the man. There's a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.
Fox Sports: NASCAR showed the tribute Johnson carried out as he celebrated the landmark win:
"Congrats to my friend and teammate [...] on tying my father today in Cup wins. Proud to have ran 2nd on this momentous occasion," wrote Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Twitter.
Elliott also felt fortunate to be a part of the history, tweeting, "Great effort today, very proud to be apart of this group of guys. Brought an a awesome car for me. Somethin to build on!"