CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson passed Matt Kenseth with nine laps to go and won the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night for his first victory of the season.
Johnson was dominant at Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning the pole Thursday night and leading 165 of 400 laps in NASCAR’s longest race.
Kevin Harvick was second, followed by Kenseth and Carl Edwards. Jamie McMurray, the All-Star race winner last weekend at the track, was fifth.
Kurt Busch’s attempt at motorsports history ended with 129 laps to go when he blew an engine. Busch finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500, but could not complete the 600.
Johnson broke a tie with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for Cup victories at the track with seven. It was Johnson’s fourth triumph in the 600, each year the most grueling test for NASCAR drivers, and his 67th overall victory.
Whenever Johnson fell behind it wasn’t long before he got back on top, leading 10 times during the race. The final push came when he swept past Kenseth in Turn 4 and was never pressured the rest of the way. Johnson broke a 13-race winless streak that seemed more of a concern for others than for the six-time champion.
Still, he was happy to celebrate in Victory Lane once again – and give competitors something to think about.
“They know we are awake,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, the 48 is heading that way and we can give other people something to think about.”
Harvick had won two of the past three 600s and led 100 laps this time. He fell back in the latter stages as he dealt with car problems and could not get back to the front.
“We needed a 700-mile race to get back to where we needed to be,” Harvick said.
Brad Keselowski held the lead and appeared to have out-pitted Johnson’s No. 48 group with a final stop 55 laps from the end. But a vibration in the Penske machine sent Keselowski back to the pits and a lap down.
Much of the pre-race attention was centered on whether Busch or points leader Jeff Gordon would make to the starting line. Busch because of his 850-mile trek South from Indiana and Gordon because of back spasms that cropped up Thursday after qualifying and were still severe enough Saturday for him to leave the track early after just a few laps of practice.
But both were there when the green flag dropped, although Busch’s arrival was far more dramatic with the helicopter circling the track and landing on the infield close to the start-finish line about an hour before the race began.
He received loud cheers and plenty of high-fives from fans and took a seat on the bench where driver introductions were made. As colleagues and competitors made their way up the steps, most made sure to chat up Busch or shake his hand on a job well done.
Busch had a bit of luck to stay on the lead lap, twice earning a lucky dog bid after going a lap down to return among the leaders. He eventually reached the top 10 and was running 16th when smoke started pouring out of his Stewart-Haas Chevrolet and sent him behind the wall and to a 40th-place finish.
“Kind of a shame, kind of symbolizes how it’s been for the Haas Automation team,” Busch said. “We gave it our all with the way we were clawing our way up there.”
The 42-year-old Gordon, a four-time series champion, has dealt with back problems before and his No. 24 team had driver Regan Smith on standby if Gordon couldn’t go.
But if Gordon’s back bothered him during the race, he didn’t show it with his performance. He spent much of the night in the top 10 and was out front until Kenseth passed him on a restart 16 laps from the end. Gordon finished seventh, his ninth top-10 finish in 12 events this year.
Danica Patrick had hopes of a strong showing after qualifying fourth, her best starting spot of the season. But like Busch, she too, was out early with a blown engine 119 laps from the end. She was 39th, her poorest finish in three 600s.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came into this one with seven top 10s in 11 races and the hope he could finally win a points race at his beloved home track. He led 13 laps late in the race before he had engine problems as well and faded from contention. He ended 19th.