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Jimmie Johnson overcame a back-of-the-pack start to finish second in the Kobalt Tools 400 Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, qualified sixth. But a crash in practice Saturday forced four-time Las Vegas winner Johnson to start at the rear of the field in a backup car.
Johnson wouldn’t remain there for long as he assumed the top spot by lap 99. Johnson and Tony Stewart put on a late-race chase for the checkered, with Stewart holding off Johnson in the closing laps. Johnson crossed the stripe just .461 of a second behind Stewart after leading once for 35 laps around the 1.5-mile oval.
"We had a great racecar all day long,” said Johnson, who has five top-five and six top-10 finishes in 11 career Sprint Cup starts at Las Vegas. “I wish we could have had this Kobalt Tools Chevrolet over in Victory Lane for the Kobalt race. But we'll just have to try it again next time. Great race car. To be out here in a backup (car) and to drive from dead-last to the lead and then finish second is pretty awesome. Hate coming up short. Glad to be on the West Coast and see all my fans. Look forward to doing it again soon."
Johnson wasted little time in moving up after starting 42nd. On lap 82, spotter Earl Barban radioed to Johnson “to be patient” as the five-time champion tried to pass the No. 17 of Matt Kenseth for the lead. That advice paid off as Johnson got by Kenseth on lap 99. He held the lead until lap 134, when Stewart took over the top spot. The duo would set up a dramatic finish a little more than 120 laps later.
Before the checkers, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus worked to set up Johnson’s car for a run at victory lane. On lap 191, Kenseth passed Johnson, who fell to third. He reported that his car hadn’t been handling as well as in earlier runs. Knaus brought the Kobalt Tools machine down pit road during a caution on lap 205 to try and improve the handling with an air pressure adjustment. While several competitors took only two tires, the 48 team four. The pit stop was quick but put Johnson back in eighth. He would move up a few spots, but fuel was a concern.
The team eased that concern on lap 229 when Johnson came down for a quick, fuel-only stop after a caution for debris. He restarted fifth. Johnson moved up to second after another caution on lap 256. He tried to pass Stewart, but the reigning Sprint Cup champion held the lead on the ensuing restart. But just four laps later, Johnson got another shot for the win when another caution flew. Stewart and Johnson put on a great show to the finish after the final restart, but Stewart proved too much as he held off Johnson for the win.
Johnson and Stewart have finished first and second in the same race 13 times during their respective Sprint Cup careers. Johnson has won seven times, Stewart six.
While Johnson was disappointed with the finish, the runner-up result will bring some much-needed relief to people in need.
“Man, I want to win,” Johnson said. “We were close. I think we had maybe a little bit more speed, but Tony (Stewart) could really get away on those restarts through the gears a lot better than I could. I will have to look into that and see if I was doing something wrong or something else is going on there. Solid performance. I have to stop and make mention of what Lowe’s is doing with the disaster relief fund, and the fact we finished so well means they are going to put up a bunch of money for all the tornado victims. Myself and Hendrick Motorsports are going to match that, as well. Great day in a lot of ways. Wish we could have this Kobalt Chevrolet in Victory Lane, but just didn’t happen.”
All three of Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates finished in the top 20. Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed 10th after starting fourth, Jeff Gordon was 12th after starting 16th, and Kasey Kahne finished 19th after starting on the pole.
Tony Stewart won the Kobalt Tools 400 to score his 45th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his first at Las Vegas.
Johnson, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top-five. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Trevor Bayne and Earnhardt comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were eight caution periods for 33 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 267-lap race.
With round three of 36 complete, Earnhardt leads Hendrick Motorsports in the championship point standings. He is fourth, 18 points behind series leader Biffle. Gordon is 17th in points, 50 out of the top spot. Johnson is next for Hendrick Motorsports in 23rd place, 64 points out. Kahne is 26th, 75 points out.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Food City 500 on Sunday, March 18 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 12:30 p.m.