BROOKLYN, Mich. — In the final seconds of his first victory at Michigan International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson could finally relax a bit.
“About 200 yards before the finish line, I knew if the car exploded, I’d still slide across the finish line,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet made it through the last few laps with a comfortable lead, and the six-time series champion won Sunday for the first time in 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at MIS. Johnson outlasted pole winner Kevin Harvick by 1.214 seconds for his third victory in four races. He also won at Charlotte and Dover.
It was the fifth victory in a row for Chevy and Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also have won during the streak that doesn’t count Jamie McMurray’s win for Chevy and Chip Ganassi in the Sprint All-Star race last month.
Brad Keselowski finished third Sunday after two straight runner-up showings at Dover and Pocono. Paul Menard was fourth, followed by Kasey Kahne, Gordon and Earnhardt in the 400-mile, 200-lap race.
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.
“It was a long time coming,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “We’ve raced very well up here, and we haven’t been able to close the deal on quite a few occasions.”
There are now only four tracks on the current schedule where Johnson has never won – Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami. Johnson had led in 15 previous Cup races at MIS.
“It’s good to see Jimmie, after leading so many laps here, close the deal,” owner Rick Hendrick said. “We’ve run out of gas, broke motors, blown tires.”
Johnson led after 164 laps Sunday before stopping to pit and giving up the lead. He was back in front with about 10 laps to go following a cycle of pit stops by other drivers.
“We really were in a win-win situation,” Johnson said. “Those guys still had to come to pit road to make it to the end. Once I got an idea of how the race was unfolding, I knew we were in the catbird seat, and were able to take advantage of it.”
Hendrick had four drivers in the top seven.
Johnson is trying for his seventh Cup title, which would tie the mark shared by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. This was his 69th career victory, and he’s the first driver with three wins in 2014.
“Even at 69 wins, I still cherish them all,” Johnson said. “It is not easy to win in this sport.”
Hendrick’s team, however, is making it look easy, having won five straight races for the third time. Hendrick accomplished the feat twice in 2007, including a six-race streak.
Gordon’s sixth-place finish was enough to keep him atop the points race, with Hendrick teammates Johnson and Earnhardt in second and third.
Ford had won the last three Cup races at Michigan, with Joey Logano prevailing last August and Greg Biffle winning twice before that. Keselowski couldn’t extend that streak, and Logano finished ninth.
“We kind of trudged through it and came away with another top-three effort, which is good but not great,” said Keselowski, who was unable to come away with a victory in his home state. “We want the wins, especially here at Michigan. That would mean a lot.”
Keselowski, who has a couple Nationwide victories at Michigan, is 0 for 10 in Cup races at the track.
It was a rough day for Roush Fenway Racing, which has a record 13 Cup victories at Michigan. Biffle finished 20th and Carl Edwards was 23rd.
Kyle Busch was forced out of the race because of a problem with his left rear hub. He finished 41st and dropped from sixth to 10th in the standings.
Harvick qualified at over 204 mph Friday, the fastest pole-winning speed since 1987. He led for a race-high 63 laps but had to settle for his third second-place finish this year, to go along with two wins and three poles.
“The car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of all the strategy,” he said.
Menard won the Nationwide race Saturday and managed a fourth-place finish Sunday.
“I actually got to go to Victory Lane yesterday with my daughter and my dad was here today, so it was a good Father’s Day weekend for sure,” he said. “We needed some clean air at the end and the guys got me out front with some pit strategy and good pit stops and we came home with a top five.”