LONG POND — Next time there’s a party in the Poconos, don’t invite Jimmie Johnson. He knows how to ruin a good time.
Johnson made a spectacle of himself — in a good way — as he flexed incredible dominance Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He led 128 of 160 laps as he ran away with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Party in the Poconos 400 presented by Walmart.
“That was the fastest race car I’ve had in a long, long, long time,” said Johnson, who won for the first time at Pocono since sweeping both races in 2004. “What a race car. Not only a race car, but an engine. It was awesome on the straightaways to do what I wanted.”
Third-place finisher Dale Earnhardt agreed completely.
“We’d gain a little bit back between turns 1 and 2,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But he was just flying through turn 3 and down the front straightaway. If you’re going to be good here, that’s where you want to be good. We’ll go back, work on our stuff and try to get a little bit better.”
So will everyone else as Johnson extended his points lead and tied Matt Kenseth for the most victories this season with three.
The ride was smooth until the lap-125 mark when trouble with Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota started a run of five caution periods over the final 35 laps. Each time the field bunched up with hopes of challenging Johnson. Each time they failed.
“Restarts are so tough,” Johnson said. “Around here, if you can get the clean air on a short run, especially with the series of cautions we had, it beats trying to pass. Even with a dominant car, I didn’t want to be in that position running second and trying to get by somebody.”
The closest Johnson came to losing the lead over the final 35 laps was on a restart on lap 151. Earnhardt Jr. tried to poke his Chevrolet under that of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. But just as he was about to, Johnson powered away. That left a battle for second place between Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle. Biffle prevailed to finish second.
But like Earnhardt Jr., Biffle knew Johnson had too much for either of them.
“Like Junior said, turn 3 that was our worst corner,” Biffle said.”We were really good in 1 and 2 and in the tunnel … but I was terrible in 3 and 4. Anything I’d gain in those corners, I lose back all the way down the front. Then I couldn’t get beside him in 1 and 2.
“I could maintain my own, but like Junior said (Johnson) was super fast.”
So fast that Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief, seemed to concede the inevitable with about 10 laps remaining.
“He’s been unbelievable for three days here, not just today,” Letarte said.
Considering rain washed out all track activities on Friday, that would have been impossible. Considering Johnson’s dominance, it sure felt that way.
Johnson started on the pole based on owners points after qualifying was rained out on Friday. He shot ahead of Carl Edwards on lap 10, starting a run that sapped away any competitiveness.
“I’d say the second or third pit stops we really nailed the setup,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t like we were very far off to start with because we were up front leading. We dialed her in and got it right for the conditions at hand.”
The only serious challenge early on came from Ryan Newman. Newman was on a different pit sequence than the frontrunners, allowing him to poke ahead three times, the final occasion on lap 129. Brad Keselowski had a similar strategy that put him out front twice.
“We really wanted to try to maintain track position,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “We saw that a lot. (Newman) played that up a little bit, (Keselowski) was attempting to get some of that going as well. In traffic, you’d run a second slower than you could with the leaders. We wanted to work that pretty hard with the tire strategy and the fuel strategy.”
The victory eased somewhat Johnson’s misfortunes a week ago at Dover. He was penalized for jumping a restart and passing then-leader Juan Pablo Montoya. Johnson finished 17th despite leading 143 of 400 laps, second most in that race.
Still, Johnson, Knaus and the rest of the team won’t savor Sunday’s victory for long.
“On Monday, we’ll hop on an airplane and go somewhere else,” Knaus said. “We won’t think about Pocono until we come back.”
The rest of the drivers might do the same after seeing Johnson dust off the field.