HAMPTON, Ga. – A week after a disappointing go in the Daytona 500, Hendrick Motorsports recovered strong in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta (Ga.) Motor Speedway.
A bold call from crew chief Chad Knaus saw Jimmie Johnson short pit during the final green flag stops giving him a 10-second plus advantage over race dominator Kevin Harvick. Johnson was able to maintain a healthy lead until Ryan Newman lost a tire with two laps remaining igniting the event’s second caution and sending the teams to pit road.
Johnson was able to fend off Harvick, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr on the restart to score his 76th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time series win list.
“Special for sure,” Johnson said of tying the NASCAR Hall of Famer. “Gosh, it’s hard to I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr is something I’m very, very proud of. I didn’t have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today there’s been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity. So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something it’s a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I’m very proud of.”
Earnhardt who scored his first top-five finish of the season and delivered a Hendrick Motorsports 1-2 finish utilizing the new lower downforce aerodynamic package. His finish was a welcomed sight across NASCAR nation after exiting the “Great American Race” from a crash 31 laps from the finish.
The Kannapolis, North Carolina native credited the new rules package to bringing the race back into the driver’s hands which included a 211 lap green flag run.
“I was surprised that nobody had any tire issues, but you saw us all start to short pit very soon,” Earnhardt explained. “None of us run to the fuel run. I think that’s great for the sport that we have the tires that are falling off and the cars that are challenging to drive. You don’t want cars that are easy to drive. You don’t want to look at the guy beside you and think, he ain’t got the talent I’ve got but he’s got the same opportunity because the cars are so easy. Everybody thinks they’re the best driver out there, so you want to make the cars as challenging as possible so you take that out of the equation, and it just comes down to talent.
“You’ve got to still have a pretty good race car and we had a good car today, but I love that the cars are harder to drive. I think all the drivers wanted that and I think all the drivers will get out of it after today, even the ones that didn’t run good, and say this is the right direction to go. This is a unique racetrack, and we run from the apron to the wall, so you’re not going to have debris laying around on the track for NASCAR to find and for cautions to develop as often as you will at other racetracks because we keep that track pretty clean by running on it and using every inch of it. So I love it. The race played out naturally.”
The 41-year-old jumped 17 spots in the series standings sitting 18th overall, now 33 points behind leader Kyle Busch.
Chase Elliott in his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for the retired Jeff Gordon bounced back from an early race incident in the Daytona 500 to score a career-best eighth in his seventh Cup start.
“Just really proud of our effort, and most importantly finishing this week,” said Elliott. “Last week was a bummer for sure, and I think a big goal today was just try to run 500 miles and try to stay on the lead lap, and really proud that once the green flag dropped we were able to move forward and gain some ground.
“Friday night didn’t go as well as we were hoping, so kind of had us in a hole there to start and didn’t give us the best pit road selection. I messed up there on Friday. So I was proud that we could move forward. Pit stops were solid, and it wasn’t a perfect day, but it was a day we can build on and try to get better.
The 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion jumped 15 positions in the standings to 21st, forty points from Busch.
“Happy with how we finished versus last week,” added Elliott. I made a lot of dumb mistakes these past two weeks, and I was just happy that we could finish. But like I said, a lot of room for improvement. I need to do a better job, lost a lot of time in a lot of different aspects today, so you’ve got to look at that stuff and see where you can get better and look as it as a day to try to improve on.”
While three Hendrick Motorsports automobiles were able to deliver three top-10 runs on Sunday, teammate Kasey Kahne finished a disappointing 23rd a week after being the top scoring car for the organization last weekend in Daytona.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Hendrick Motorsports can carry the speed to the other intermediate tracks on the circuit – Earnhardt he expects a similar race in Las Vegas next weekend.
“I mean, that track has got some crazy bumps getting into Turn 1, and with this low downforce and the slower, hopefully, should be a lot slower corner speeds, I think it lends itself to running the high side, which I really love, so hopefully we can get up on that top and make some time up there and have a lot of fun in 1 and 2,” NASCAR’s most popular driver explained.
“That really works well because the billboards shade that corner just like they do here and you can get in that shade in that cooler temperature surface and find some speed and grip without beating your tires up. Three and 4 doesn’t really have a sure fire top groove but it has worked well there in the past. I’m looking forward to going there. That place is getting wore out and that makes it more fun. We should be hanging on. These things are quite a handful. Last year’s cars were a handful at Vegas, so getting down into Turn 3 real loose, real hard to get down into the bottom. I’m looking forward to that challenge. It’s a whole new ballgame now.”
Hendrick Motorsports has been championship material since nearly their inception in the sport and without blinking, the organization is already in the 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Any hesitation that the Sprint Cup powerhouse won’t carry the speed throughout the season on 1.5-mile tracks is nothing more than a bad dream. A dream that will likely never come true.