AVONDALE, Ariz. —Ignore that talk about Hendrick Motorsports slipping into the pack.
Jimmie Johnson, the two-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, gave Rick Hendrick’s powerhouse team its first win of the year Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway.
“We’re back,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working very hard to get back. I couldn’t be more proud of the folks back at Hendrick Motorsports.”
But despite leading a race-high 120 laps on the mile oval, this one wasn’t secure for the No. 48 Chevrolet until crew chief Chad Knaus gambled on going the last 80 laps without stopping for gas.
When the leaders began diving onto pit road for a splash of gas to get to the end of the Subway Fresh Fit 500, Johnson was in third place, just behind leader Mark Martin and runner-up Denny Hamlin, and not too far ahead of Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Hamlin’s team was the first to blink, pitting on lap 297. Martin was next, driving onto pit road and giving the lead to Johnson on lap 302.
Only Clint Bowyer, running in the top 10 most of the evening, stayed on track with the leader the rest of the way. But Bowyer never got closer than the final margin of 7.002 seconds—most of the front straightaway.
Meanwhile, Knaus was talking Johnson home, begging him to slow down a little more each lap to preserve fuel. He even fibbed a little to his driver to reinforce his words.
“You’re 20 seconds ahead,” Knaus said. “Don’t worry. Slow, slow.”
Johnson said his instinct was to step on the gas.
“The white lies he was telling me were even more helpful,” Johnson said. “When he says something, I might think about it for a split seconds, but I believe him every time.”
Knaus had a good idea with about 40 laps to go that his driver could get to the end if he watched his fuel. But he did have a few doubts near the end.
“When all those guys around us pitted, I told Jimmie, ‘We’re getting ready to pit here in a couple of laps,”’ Knaus said. “He came on the radio and he said, ‘Can we make it?’ At that point, when he said that, you know, I really took notice of where everybody was at on the racetrack. I was like, ‘Well, yeah, I guess. You know, let’s go for it.’ “
Johnson had enough gas to do a quick burnout after taking the checkered flag and then ran dry as he tried to make one more celebratory lap.
Bowyer was the only other driver to gamble.
“We were probably about a seventh- or 10th-place car all night,” the Richard Childress Racing driver said. “But, you know, things worked out. … I knew how much I was saving out there. I was pretty sure I saved enough.”
The two most disappointed drivers were the 49-year-old Martin, now a part-time driver going for his first victory since 2005, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man he replaced in the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc., Chevrolet.
After Johnson fell back into the pack with an ill-timed pit stop midway through the race, Martin and Earnhardt took turns in the lead before making late gas stops that cost them.
Martin thought he had saved enough gas.
“I saved a lot of gas, probably a lot more than they knew,” he said. “We just had a spectacular car there at the end of the race. I didn’t have to run it hard.”
Earnhardt is still looking for his first win with his new Hendrick team.
“I don’t know if we could have made it,’ he said. “I don’t know when we stopped, or how much (gas) I was burning a lap. I can’t do the math. I just do what I’m told. We did the right thing. We can’t run out and finish out of the top 10. I’m not frustrated.”
Hamlin, who also stopped, wound up third. He was followed by Edwards, Martin, series points leader Jeff Burton and Earnhardt. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick driver, ran in the top 10 late in the race and finished 13th.
“I’m happy for Jimmie and I’m happy for Hendrick,” said Gordon, bouncing back from last place a week ago in Texas. “They’ve turned things around. They’ve done some testing and done some work and it’s paid off. We’re hoping to go down that same road in the next couple of weeks with some testing we’re doing, too.”