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Jimmie Johnson looked to have the car to beat early in the 312-lap NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, but a loose wheel on lap 129 spoiled a chance at victory. The No. 48 team never gave up, and its determination paid off with its first top-five finish of the season when Johnson brought the No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevrolet home in fourth place despite some late-race anxiety about fuel.
“We were concerned because I rarely get good fuel mileage,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We were definitely concerned, and once we cleared the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) we just kind of fell into a rhythm at that point and tried to make sure that we got home and made some points. Leaving Daytona in 42nd on the board wasn’t a good way to start the season. But I’m very proud of the effort. We had a very fast Kobalt Tools Chevrolet. Unfortunately we had a little hiccup on pit road and it kept us from really racing for the win, but we still fought back and got into it. So I’m very proud of the effort and very proud of our race team.”
Johnson never stopped improving his position once the race started. Spotter Earl Barban called Johnson’s ascension to the lead on lap 11. “I’ve been waiting awhile to say this boss. New leader, 48.”
A caution period a few laps later would send some cars into the pits. Crew chief Chad Knaus elected to bring in the No. 48 Kobalt Tools Chevy for two left side tires. Some of the field stayed out, forcing Johnson to restart 14th. Johnson worked his way up to second when a caution flag flew on lap 60. Johnson retook the lead leaving the pits. The No. 51 of Kurt Busch challenged Johnson for the top spot, but five-time champion Johnson regained it on lap 67.
Johnson held the top position until lap 112. He then reported a vibration on lap 129. Radioing to the crew on Lap 133 that he couldn’t last another lap, a fortuitously timed caution began the next lap for the spinning car of Paul Menard. The 48 crew diagnosed a loose wheel and spent the next few laps making sure that the same problem didn’t recur.
After fixing the loose wheel, Johnson restarted 25th. More than 50 laps later, he found himself back in the top-five. Johnson pitted for the final time with 84 laps to go, under caution. Knaus called for left-side tires and fuel while also reminding his driver to save gas for the end. Johnson restarted fourth but was shuffled back a few spots on the restart, attempting to avoid some aggressive drivers. Johnson reclaimed those spots in the closing laps to finish fourth.
Johnson led his Hendrick Motorsports teammates with his finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr., started 29th and finished 14th. Jeff Gordon started 30th and battled back to finish eighth. Kasey Kahne started 10th and brushed the wall early on in the race. He finished 34th.
Denny Hamlin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500k to score his 18th career Sprint Cup victory and his first at Phoenix.
Kevin Harvick finished 7.315 seconds behind Hamlin in the runner-up spot, while Greg Biffle, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Gordon, Mark Martin and Joey Logano comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were seven caution periods for 37 laps, with 10 drivers failing to finish the 312-lap race.
With round two of 36 complete, Earnhardt is the top Hendrick Motorsports driver in the point standings. He is fifth, 17 points behind series leader Denny Hamlin. Gordon stands 22nd, 47 points out of first. Kahne is 32nd, 64 points back. Johnson is 38th, 71 points out of first.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday, March 11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The race starts at 3 p.m. EST, with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 2:30 p.m.
How are you feeling about the 2012 season after Phoenix?