Jimmie Johnson took advantage of a Chad Knaus call on a late race pitstop to ease past Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon to take his second consecutive win in only the third race of the season.
Gordon had been the sole dominant force for most of the 267-lap, 400-mile race at Las Vegas, having taken the lead on the very first, overhauling the pole sitter in the shape of Las Vegas' own Kurt Busch and immediately sailing out to a commanding lead during the long green flag runs that characterised much of the race.
Gordon led a staggering 218 laps, his streaks only snapped by drivers not pitting during the cautions when they did come (a total of seven) or when Gordon himself pitted during the cycles of stops that occurred under the green flag.
The long green flag runs, especially an interrupted 117 lap stint leading up to lap 230, spread the field out, leaving as few as a dozen cars on the lead lap as Jeff Gordon's pace proved too much for a vast majority of the Sprint Cup series field.
However, when the yellow caution flag did fly, for rookie Kevin Conway's second spin of the afternoon, it was to prove telling.
Firstly as 19 teams took advantage of the wave-around rule (a rule introduced together with the double-file restarts last summer, but seldom such a well-subscribed option) and secondly for the strategy that played out on pitroad as team's were faced with a choice, havng only made green flag pitstops a handful of laps earlier.
RCR driver Clint Bowyer gambled, opting not to pit at all while many of the leaders – most crucially Jeff Gordon and Bowyer's Childress teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton – took two fresh tyres opted to only take two fresh tyres. However, Johnson, who was second when the caution flew, took on four fresh tyres a move which gave him an advantage, though dropped him to fourth for the restart.
The Hendrick pair overhauled the Childress cars within two laps of the green flag, Gordon returning to the lead with Johnson behind.
Several times the No.48 looked inside Gordon, but had to wait until lap 251 when he was able to slip last in turns three and four, a move that had only a hint of Gordon (coincidentally also part owner of Johnson's car) letting him by.
“It was just a matter of time because two versus four, and I was so tight,” conceded Gordon on the late-race decision. “[We] had we freed up the car a little bit more, and we did free it up for the two tires, but I just think we needed to do more of it. Maybe, maybe, maybe then we had a shot at it.”
“I ran so hard trying to get his car to tighten up behind me, you know, with dirty air, and I blocked him. I did everything I could, and it just took everything out of the right front tire. Took everything out of the right front tire, built the right front tire up so much I was just plowing it at the end.”
Once Johnson was past Gordon it looked briefly like the Hendrick domination would be further damaged as Kevin Harvick, in a pale yellow 'Custard Cream' livery for Pennzoil Ultra, began to reel in the pair. From over two seconds behind he made up half a second within a handful of laps at the close, and while he was able pass Gordon he could not catch Johnson, though Harvick's second place helped him extend his lead at the top of the embryonic points table.
But it was Johnson who won, a victory that also saw him become the most successful driver to date at 1.5 mile track, moving onto 15 wins ahead of Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt.
“It came down to pit stops,” admitted Johnson afterwards. “I thought the race was going to come down to pit stops and who got a good restart. Kind of turned out that way, although the four tires I think helped us more than anything. I got a good start and got around Bowyer at one and two.[I] Was behind Jeff, chasing him. I’d been chasing him all day. Wasn’t sure I’d get by him. Just kept putting a lot of pressure on him, hoping he’d make a mistake, hoping I could get him to overdrive his car and make it tight or do something wrong.
“Finally I was able to get inside of him and committed to trying the slide job on him in three and four, was able to get by.”
The race also saw a return to form for a handful of drivers, going someway to securing their top-35 positions after difficult starts to the season. Kasey Kahne was the big winner, jumping ten spots overall after clinching a ninth place finish while Marcos Ambrose declared “our season starts right now” after finishing 14th after two weeks of engine problems. Lastly Ryan Newman was also able to finish for the first time this season, his 18th place finish enough to inch him inside the top-35.
However, the race also saw several drivers hit problems.
Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch all saw promising runs dented by enforced pit stops on days when they were a constant in top-ten, Busch, the final victim of the three after being forced to come back down pitroad after speeding in the final round of green flag stops. The penalty dropped him to 17th and off the lead lap, though he was one to regain the lead lap after Conway's late spin.
But the worst day belonged to Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing who saw both their cars involved in the day's only multi-car crash. Jamie McMurray caught the left-rear of Montoya's car sending them both into the wall in a crash that would also end the competitive day of pole sitter Busch.
“I know his trying to prove point,” said Montoya of McMurray in a somewhat barbed TV interview. “To show everybody he can drive a race car, but it really ruined our day.”
“He nearly ran me into the fence out of [turn] two and going into three. Plain simple just wrecked us.”