In a career that looms over modern NASCAR it seems incredible that Jimmie Johnson had never won at Bristol Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR's signature tracks.
Until today, when Johnson's first win on the half mile high banks brought his career total to 50 win, tying him tenth in the all-time standings with Ned Jarrett and his namesake Junior Johnson.
The victory was Johnson's third of the season in only the fifth race of the season, but it also came in a race when his no.48 Chevrolet was not always the dominant force in the race, the driver admitting he thought they were “in trouble” on late restarts against potentially stronger cars.
Statistically the race was dominated by Kurt Busch, looking to record consecutive victories for the first time since 2002. The Penske driver led a total of ten different times for a cumulative total of 278, a personal record for the 2004 series champion, swapping the lead with Johnson, Greg Biffle and Juan Montoya back and fourth, with a regular top-ten close in attendance, including Mark Martin, Paul Menard (again showing form that would have been a career day last year) and Brad Keselowski, who maintained good track position after an inspired strategy call by crew chief Jay Guy to run over 100 laps on their first set of tyres.
However, arguably the fastest man on the track spent much of race mired deep in traffic. That man was Marcos Ambrose.
Having started ninth the Australian initially slipped back, a problem compounded when he was caught speeding in Bristol's unique 'two-part' pitlane on the first caution, brought out Dave Blaney no.66 being stopped on track, unable to come to the pits to complete its pre-assigned start'n'park.
The penalty dropped Ambrose back to 33rd, only to recover back to the top-five by lap 200 and another caution, and another penalty for pitlane speeding, this time dropping Ambrose to 28th. That only allowed Ambrose to some back through the back, and was approaching the top-ten when Bristol struck.
Coming out of turn two Greg Biffle, apparently after his radio connection came unplugged, drifted up infront of Mark Martin sending both of them into the wall outside. Trailing sparks from an obviously flat right-front tyre Martin tried to make it onto the apron and into pits, but drifted back up the track in turn three, ahead of the approaching pack. Jeff Gordon just managed to avoid running into his Hendrick teammate, glancing off to the outside.
Ambrose looked set to pull off a similar move to the inside, however, before he could escape Juan Montoya barrelled into the back of the Little Debbie backed Toyota, mauling the left-rear corner, spinning the car down onto the apron, infront of more cars, trying to avoid joining the carnage on track.
The wreck officially involved 13 cars, though all were able to return to track at some point, Ambrose's car, the most heavily damaged in the melee reappearing devoid of most of the bodywork, to pick up a 33rd place finish.
The crash was one of ten cautions on the day, with two being brought out for light rain at the track and at least another three involving tyre problems, that pitched first Blaney, the Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne into the wall in another race that may draw the Goodyear critics to the fore.
Tyres were also critical in deciding the race, as strategy played a part when a late caution flew with only 16 laps to go. Kurt Busch and Johnson, who were battling for the lead before the yellow flag opted for four tyres while the Roush trio of Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, along with Tony Stewart took only two tyres and found themselves leading to the restart.
While Biffle, restarting from the outside lane accelerated cleanly, Kenseth was left behind, Edwards forced to dive below his teammate into turn one to avoid contact. That impacted on the four tyre pair, Johnson able to follow his fast moving outside line around Busch as the Las Vegas native struggled to fight past the in-fighting Roushketeers.
Johnson had no such trouble and once Biffle and Stewart had organised themselves into single file, Johnson dispatched them with ease, driving clean around the outside of Stewart to take the lead with six laps to go.
“Being on the outside was helpful,” Johnson said of the final restart. “I was in third or fourth before I exited turn two. [Kenseth] did not get a good restart. So, yeah, it definitely helped. But I was able to make some really aggressive moves, get by [Stewart] and [Biffle]. He [Kurt Busch] finished third, so he didn’t even get by [Stewart].
“I know he had an amazing car all day long. We chased him. There at the end, when the money was there at the end for that ten-lap dash, we had everything go our way, plus the fastest car.”
The Roush trio – Biffle, Kenseth and Edwards – held on behind the front three, with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, a recovering Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton completing the top ten. Kevin Harvick finished 11th to maintain the points lead, though only by a single point.
“We got beat at the end by the luck of the draw on restarts,” said Busch after the race, perhaps a little sore at seeing a dominant day falter when it really mattered. “I'd rather lose to any other of the 41 cars out there than this no.48 car. I thought we had him beat.”