BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — After a slow start to the Sprint Cup season – by his standards – Jimmie Johnson appears poised for a run at yet another championship.
His latest victory came at one of the few tracks where the six-time champion had never won before.
“We said coming into it that we thought it was going to be May time before we were able to hit our stride,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “I think that May showed up and we started to run a little bit better, and I hope that we can continue to improve.”
Johnson won at Michigan International Speedway for the first time in 25 Cup starts Sunday. He made it through the final few laps in his No. 48 Chevrolet with a comfortable lead and crossed the finish 1.214 seconds ahead of pole winner Kevin Harvick.
Johnson was winless on the year before finally breaking through with victories at Charlotte and Dover. Michigan was his third victory in four races.
“The expectation is for us to go out there and perform on a weekly basis as the best team out there, and that’s my expectation, and it’s the expectation of all the fans and especially all you media guys,” Knaus said. “If we falter for two weeks, we’re washed up and we’re all getting fired and everything is going crazy. So if we don’t do that, that’s the only way to keep you guys quiet.”
Johnson moved up to second place in the points standings behind Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third, giving Hendrick Motorsports the top three spots.
There are now only four tracks on the current schedule where Johnson has never won – Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami.
Johnson had finished in the top five four times previously at Michigan, including a second-place showing in August 2011. He lost in August 2012 when his engine faltered with six laps remaining.
“When I heard 10 to go, and I’ve been there before with the lead. I heard five to go, I’ve been there before, didn’t win,” Johnson said. “Taken the white with the lead and didn’t make it back. So I was really – I wasn’t taking anything for granted on that final trip around.”
Here are five more things of note from NASCAR’s stop at Michigan:
HENDRICK ROLLS ON: It was the fifth straight victory for Hendrick Motorsports in a points-paying Cup race – three by Johnson plus one each for Gordon and Earnhardt. Hendrick had four of the top seven finishers Sunday, with Kasey Kahne, Gordon and Earnhardt finishing fifth, sixth and seventh.
It’s the third time Hendrick has won five straight races. The team accomplished the feat twice in 2007, including a six-race streak.
Chevrolet snapped Ford’s three-race run at Michigan after Joey Logano took last August’s race and Greg Biffle won the two before that.
“We need to switch that stat where that other brand wins too much here,” Johnson said.
IN GOOD POSITION: Johnson credited Knaus’ strategic foresight. The No. 48 car didn’t take over the lead for good until the 191st of 200 laps, but Johnson was in good shape the whole time because drivers ahead of him still needed to make pit stops.
“We had enough to go the distance whereas everybody else was short,” Johnson said. “Chad saw an opportunity and really let that develop and took great advantage of it.”
ROUSH ROUTED: Roush Fenway Racing has won a record 13 Cup races at Michigan, most recently with Biffle a year ago, but Sunday was a day to forget. None of the team’s four drivers led a single lap.
Trevor Bayne was the top finisher in 19th place, followed by Biffle in 20th, Carl Edwards in 23rd and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 27th. It was the first time since June 2000 that Roush did not have a driver in the top 10 at Michigan.
NOT QUITE THERE: Now that Johnson has finally won at Michigan, Brad Keselowski may be the driver most overdue to win at MIS. It’s in Keselowski’s home state, but he’s 0 for 10 in Cup races at the track.
Keselowski finished third Sunday, following up his second-place showings at Dover and Pocono.
“It’s always good to run well here,” Keselowski said. “It was a good day, not a great day. Third is nothing to hang your hat on. We have consistency, which is good.”
TUNING UP: Juan Pablo Montoya returned to Sprint Cup racing this weekend in a race he hopes prepared him well for next month’s Brickyard 400. He finished 18th Sunday.
“I understand the car a little bit more and how everything works with the team, and where we stand with the setup,” Montoya said. “I think that will be pretty useful.”
Montoya went back to open-wheel racing this year after a full Cup schedule in 2013, but he added NASCAR events at Michigan and Indianapolis to his plans this season.