Six takeaways from NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) -- Apparently, Jimmie Johnson isn't done in NASCAR after all.
The six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion had spent much of year listening to outsiders wonder when or if he would return to Victory Lane. Those questions ended with Johnson's dominating win at the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night. That left just one query from Johnson himself: "What the hell are you going to write about?"
Maybe about how Johnson's title defense is truly underway as he goes for a record-tying seventh driver crown. This win all but locks him into NASCAR's expanded 16-team playoffs and Johnson expects it will energize his No. 48 team in the season's second half.
"We really want to heat up and win races later in the season," he said when asked if he had panicked about a drought that stretched since winning last November at Texas Motor Speedway.
"More than anything I got tired of answering the question," Johnson said. "We hold ourselves to a high standard."
There's a great chance Johnson could get on a big time roll. The Sprint Cup series this week heads to Dover, where Johnson has won a record eight times. Then comes Pocono, where he has three wins.
Johnson has politely dealt with inquiries about not winning and showed that the best way to combat that was finishing out front. He did that Thursday in qualifying, taking his first pole of the season, then followed that up with the stellar performance Sunday night.
Johnson led the most laps - 165 of 400 - and was in the lead 10 separate times. The last came when Johnson moved past Kenseth in turn four nine laps from the end. No one came close to running him down after that, not even Kevin Harvick, who led 100 laps and has been the toast of NASCAR all year long with the speed the Stewart-Haas team has produced.
Harvick was second, Kenseth third and Carl Edwards fourth.
Johnson made sure the No. 48 won't be overlooked this year.
"You never know when you are going to peak. We will hopefully peak at the right time," he said.
Five other things to take away from the Coca-Cola 600:
GORDON IS TOUGH: Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon again showed his toughness and determination by lasting all 600 miles in the car despite back spasms that saw him cut short practice and leave the track early Saturday. Gordon was among the top 10 all night long and held the lead with 16 laps left before falling back.
Gordon said his back bothered him at times during the long, long ride, but he was able to persevere. "It tells me a lot about what kind of threshold I have and I just want to show this team the kind of commitment I have to them because of what they have shown me," he said.
Gordon finished seventh for his ninth top-10 finish in 12 races this season.
THE DOUBLE IS TOUGH: Kurt Busch was more than prepared to go all 1,100 miles Sunday night. Unfortunately, his equipment wasn't as he blew an engine on lap 271 of 400 - about 184 miles short - and could not complete the Coca-Cola 600. Earlier, Busch finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500 in the first time he's ever raced an Indy car.
A frustrated Busch never had the speed to match the leaders at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but had toughed out the problems to stay on the lead lap when the car finally gave out. "We were going to muscle it out," he said. "And then it's like the car just swallowed three cylinders all at once. So the engine let go. Those things happen in motorsports."
DANICA PROBLEMS: Danica Patrick had hoped to have her best showing at Charlotte after starting fourth, her best qualifying run this year. She was up to second early in the race behind winner Johnson, but began to fall back. Her issues were complicated when she was involved in a five-car wreck midrace, then was done for good when her engine blew on lap 281. She finished 30th, her poorest performance in three career Coca-Cola 600s.
WHEN WILL MATT KENSETH WIN? With Jimmie Johnson's drought over, the attention will turn to Matt Kenseth. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has yet to win this season after capturing a series-leading seven victories a year ago. Kenseth acknowledged the frustration that comes from not finishing things off when you're in contention as he was Sunday night.
"They put you out in the front at the end of the race, you don't win the race, you're always frustrated and disappointed," he said. "You don't get a lot of those opportunities."
DALE JR.'S STRUGGLES: There's probably no place Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to win a points race more than Charlotte, where he grew up watching his father run and learned to love NASCAR racing. Instead, it's been problem after problem for him at the track he cherishes. This time Earnhardt led 13 laps and was positioned among the leaders late before engine problems dropped him from contention.
"We just have to look at the positives and try not to dwell too much on what happened," he said.
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