CONCORD, N.C. — It’s not often a race car driver intentionally cruises slowly at the back of the field.
Jimmie Johnson did it for roughly 60 laps Saturday night, and it earned him a cool $1 million payday.
Johnson used a calculated strategy — he drove hard for the first and last segments, and coasted for the three in between — to join Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon as the only three-time winners of NASCAR’s All-Star race.
The five-time champion won the first 20-lap segment of the Sprint All-Star race, then deliberately faded to the back for the next three 20-lap segments at Charlotte Motor Speedway. His plan was to keep the No. 48 Chevrolet out of trouble, then make his play for the win in the fifth and final segment.
“We did a strategy that we thought was best for our team,” he said.
It certainly was, even if it was the antithesis of what race car drivers do for a living.
But it worked for this year’s new format, which guaranteed the winners of the first four segments would be the first four drivers down pit road for a mandatory stop before the 10-lap sprint to the finish. Johnson’s win in the first segment meant he was guaranteed to be the first driver down pit road, and he had the first stall — the reward for his Hendrick Motorsports team winning Thursday night’s Pit Crew Competition.
His race, after winning that first segment, was simply to beat everyone else off pit road. Johnson raced Matt Kenseth down the lane, and edged him across the line.
He then needed a clean and quick restart, which he executed to perfection, to pull away for the win. This win comes a week after his Darlington Raceway victory gave Hendrick Motorsports its 200th Cup win.
“Man, I don’t want this week to end,” Johnson said.
He celebrated by picking up team owner Rick Hendrick, who climbed halfway through the window of the Chevrolet for Johnson’s celebratory lap. It was Hendrick’s seventh All-Star race win.
“He said come pick me up, and once I got to him, he didn’t want the ride,” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘No, no, I came to get you, Get on the car.’ It was great to take him around.”
It didn’t look very comfortable — or safe.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in racing,” Hendrick said. “I thought I was going to be a busted watermelon.”
Brad Keselowski, winner of the third segment, had no chance to catch Johnson over the closing 10 laps.
Kenseth, winner of the second segment, finished third.
Kyle Busch finished fourth and was followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the fourth segment and advanced into the All-Star race by winning the qualifying race earlier Saturday night. Busch, the pole-sitter, wasn’t surprised by the finishing order.
“It was exactly like everybody thought it would be; anybody who wins the first segment will win the race,” Busch said.