Jimmie Johnson stretches fuel to win in Phoenix
While the rest of the leaders were pitting for fuel during the closing laps of the race, Johnson was able to stretch his fuel load and not stop. He took the lead with eight laps to go and coasted across the finish line for his second straight win at PIR and first win of 2008.
Johnson took his first checkered flag of the season 7-seconds ahead of fellow fuel mileage gambler Clint Bowyer.
Forty-nine-year-old Mark Martin, now a part-time driver in the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8, battled at the front with its former driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., for a lot of the 312-lap race on the mile oval.
And it appeared Martin had his first win since 2005 locked up after he passed Earnhardt for the win on lap 272 and began to pull away, building leads of more than a second. But, with the end in sight, Martin was called into the pits on lap 301, giving up the top spot to Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.
With crew chief Chad Knaus telling him to keep conserving gas and that he had a big enough lead to slow down and save more, Johnson stayed on track and stayed in front to the end.
"I ran out of gas on the backstretch,” Johnson said. “We’re back. We’ve been working very hard to get back. I couldn’t be more proud of the folks back at Hendrick Motorsports.”
"We were getting really good mileage all day, especially on the long run," said Knaus. "We didn't have the capacity we wanted, but we had the mileage we wanted."
Denny Hamlin, who did pit for fuel in his Toyota followed Johnson's Chevy and Bowyer's Chevy across the line for third with Carl Edwards' Ford and Mark Martin's Chevy rounding out the top five.
Jeff Burton finished sixth with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who led a large part of the race, seventh.
Earnhardt Jr. led 87 laps but he was passed by Martin on lap 272 of the 312 circuit race and then had to rally back after his late race stop for fuel.
Martin was disappointed, but said, "I'm just really, really proud of this team. We just about pulled that one off tonight.''
He said he might have been able to get to the finish like Johnson and Bowyer.
"I saved a lot of gas, probably more than they knew,'' he said. "You can't stop if somebody else stays out.''
It was the 34th career win for Johnson, who had 10 of the Hendrick team's 18 victories last season, including a win here last fall.
Martin Truex, Jr., Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch rounded out the top ten.
Johnson's margin of victory was the largest since Martin Truex Jr. won the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover by 7.355 seconds over Ryan Newman on June 4, 2007.
After all the other contenders save Bowyer had pitted for fuel in the closing laps, Knaus instructed Johnson on Lap 304 to "Pit this time."
After a brief discussion, they changed their strategy. "Back up your pace half a second a lap," Knaus radioed to his driver. "Screw it. We'll go for it."
Knaus spent the remainder of the race slowing Johnson down, ultimately telling him to back his pace down three seconds a lap, because none of the drivers behind had time to catch up.
"Put it in neutral!" Knaus ordered as Johnson rolled through the final two corners.
"I'm good," Johnson answered. "I've got good fuel pressure."
As he approached the finish line, Johnson screamed, "We're going to win this."
Johnson led 120 of the 312 laps. Only three other drivers -- Earnhardt (87), Martin (68) and polesitter Ryan Newman (37) -- led the race, the fewest since the Siemens 300 at New Hampshire (July 25, 2004) produced three different leaders.
Johnson conserved his fuel so effectively that he had enough left for a celebratory burnout, but he ran out of gas on the backstretch during his victory lap.
The victory moved Johnson from sixth to fourth in the championship standings, 99 points behind Burton.
Notes: The start of the race was delayed for more than 16 minutes to accommodate the rain-delayed Major League Baseball game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, which FOX also televised. . . Engine failures wiped out both front row starters. Newman fell out after 134 laps, and second-place starter Elliott Sadler followed with a blown motor on Lap 161. Newman finished 43rd, Sadler 41st. . . Comment of the race from 23rd-place finisher Kurt Busch: "My car's so tight it wouldn't turn at Talladega."
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has a rare week off before returning to action at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, April 27.
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