AVONDALE, Ariz. - For most of the first two months of the Sprint Cup Series season, Hendrick Motorsports' fortunes seemed to be on fumes. On Saturday, the proud racing company won that way.
On the surface, Jimmie Johnson's victory at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway seemed to be a fluke since he stretched his final tank of gas to 82 laps. As other lead-lap cars stopped in the final 10 laps for enough gas to finish, Johnson eventually cycled to the front and coasted - literally - to his first win of the season.
In reality, Johnson had the most-dominant car at the one-mile track. The team made an error in pit strategy that shuffled Johnson to the back of the pack. He used a combination of miles per gallon and miles per hour to make up the deficit.
Jimmie Johnson did a burnout Saturday night after winning the NASCAR Subway Fresh Fit 500 auto race at Phoenix International Raceway. Associated Press
In the process, it seemed to restore Hendrick's stable of cars and drivers as a leading player in the sport.
"I'm shocked that I was able to save fuel running that hard up through the field," Johnson said. "I restarted in 14th on that last restart and drove to third on my own and then I got to the front and was able to manage some fuel.
"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."
Johnson led 109 laps early in the race, but crew chief Chad Knaus decided to skip a pit stop during an early caution. When the next caution came out, Johnson lost his track position when he stopped for gas and tires while the other lead-lap cars stayed on the track. It took him the rest of the race to recover.
Everyone stopped with 82 laps to go after Kasey Kahne blew a right-front tire and hit the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr., another Hendrick driver, and Mark Martin led the next 71 laps, but both had to stop for fuel. So did 17 other lead-lap cars.
Johnson and Clint Bowyer both gambled they had just enough to finish.
"Well, we were getting really good mileage all day, especially on the long run," Knaus said. "The mileage was great. We didn't have the capacity we wanted, but we had the mileage we wanted. And you know we had some problems there. We didn't pit when we should have. But it was good."
Johnson inherited the lead when Martin, Earnhardt and Denny Hamlin all made quick stops. Knaus kept Johnson there by stretching the truth during the stretch drive. He constantly told his driver to "back it way down, back it way down" in the last five laps. He also told Johnson he had a 20 second lead and he could run half-speed to win.
Actually, he was 10 seconds ahead of Bowyer. But since he was trying to save gas, too, he couldn't make any late-race charge.
Johnson won by quarter-mile. He earned $262,111.
Hamlin wound up third, followed by Carl Edwards in fourth, Martin in fifth, Jeff Burton in sixth, Earnhardt in seventh, Martin Truex Jr. in eighth, Greg Biffle in ninth and Kyle Busch in 10th.
Casey Mears (11th) and Jeff Gordon (13th) gave Hendrick four cars in the top 13. After winning 18 of 36 races a year ago, Hendrick now has one victory in eight races this season.
"We know that we haven't been where we wanted to," Johnson said. "We kind of knew that when we went to California, Vegas for the test, the mile-and-a-half stuff, we needed to catch up some. We've been working really hard. We've had some tough races for the team. I think that's made us stronger. The whole organization is rallying together, trying to find what we need on the big tracks.
"The sport is so tough. Even with the year that we had last year, it's tough to keep that up over the off-season and year after year after year. You know, moments like what we've had, the slow start to the season, make me respect and really appreciate what goes on at Hendrick Motorsports and how good that company is, our company is."
Johnson discounted the idea he won by gambling on fuel because he raced so hard to get from 14th to fourth. It wasn't until he got to the lead with 11 laps to go when he started to save gas.
"I want to say that it's probably us and the 99 (Carl Edwards) that were probably the fastest cars, because Chad was reading me laps where everybody was," Johnson said. "The 88 (Earnhardt) was real fast, especially two-thirds of a run, then it seemed like his car would kind of fall off at the end.
"We had a very, very competitive car. I think the story from us re-starting in 14th with 80 to go and being in second or third I guess right there when those guys started pitting says a lot about the type of car we had."
And even more about Hendrick Motorsports.
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