NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Scores Consecutive Atlanta Wins

NASCAR Barometer: Johnson Scores Consecutive Atlanta Wins

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.


Jimmie Johnson mastered NASCAR Sprint Cup's new low downforce aerodynamic package to come out on top in Sunday's QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tied Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list in a race that saw minimal interruptions for cautions. In fact, the No. 48 was far enough ahead of Kevin Harvick in the closing laps that he would have cruised to victory had Ryan Newman not lost a tire to bring out a late caution. That yellow-flag period produced a green-white-checkered finish during which the race leaders pitted for four new tires to get a leg up. Johnson exited pit road first, which could have been the difference, as Harvick wasn't able to get the power down in the outside groove when the race restarted.

The win was Johnson's second in a row in Atlanta, and puts a spot in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup firmly in his grip alongside Denny Hamlin. Sunday's race set a record for consecutive green-flag laps at Atlanta, which stretched the field and tested teams. Drivers raved about the new rules package after, and fans got to see just how important tire management is going to be this season. Johnson and his Hendrick team are the masters of equipment management, and that could play into their favor the remainder of the year.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson – A loose wheel forced Johnson to pit early to change tires. Getting slightly off sequence was a tough


Jimmie Johnson mastered NASCAR Sprint Cup's new low downforce aerodynamic package to come out on top in Sunday's QuikTrip Folds of Honor 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The Hendrick Motorsports driver tied Dale Earnhardt on the all-time wins list in a race that saw minimal interruptions for cautions. In fact, the No. 48 was far enough ahead of Kevin Harvick in the closing laps that he would have cruised to victory had Ryan Newman not lost a tire to bring out a late caution. That yellow-flag period produced a green-white-checkered finish during which the race leaders pitted for four new tires to get a leg up. Johnson exited pit road first, which could have been the difference, as Harvick wasn't able to get the power down in the outside groove when the race restarted.

The win was Johnson's second in a row in Atlanta, and puts a spot in the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup firmly in his grip alongside Denny Hamlin. Sunday's race set a record for consecutive green-flag laps at Atlanta, which stretched the field and tested teams. Drivers raved about the new rules package after, and fans got to see just how important tire management is going to be this season. Johnson and his Hendrick team are the masters of equipment management, and that could play into their favor the remainder of the year.

UPGRADE

Jimmie Johnson – A loose wheel forced Johnson to pit early to change tires. Getting slightly off sequence was a tough proposition for the team since the race went an incredibly long distance without a caution period, but the No. 48 successfully battled back despite not having help from a yellow flag. All that changed when Newman lost his tire on the front straight, resulting in the green-white-checkered finish. Four fresh tires from the following pit stop enabled Johnson to make a perfect restart to claim his first win of 2016. Johnson has four Las Vegas wins, but last season finished 41st there after stumbling despite leading 45 laps and starting inside the top 10.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – One driver who was thrilled with the new low downforce rules package for 2016 was Earnhardt. He rocketed his way to a second-place finish from 16th on the grid, narrowly edging out Kyle Busch, after a disappointing Daytona 500 one week ago. Astute fantasy players should have noted Earnhardt as a top pick this week, and those who did choose him were rewarded with a fantastic top-five finish on one of the many tracks where he continues to improve. Next week's 1.5-mile oval isn't the same configuration as Atlanta, but it is another circuit where the No. 88 should pose a significant threat. He hasn't failed to finish outside of the top 10 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway since 2010.

Kevin Harvick – Despite a tire failure early in Sunday's race, Harvick battled back to take command after Matt Kenseth was assessed a penalty. The Stewart Haas Racing driver won his debut race at this speedway, but hasn't won there since. He led the most laps on Sunday, but wasn't able to stay with Johnson on the green-white-checkered restart. Harvick spun his tires in the outside groove, and that was enough to drop him into traffic and out of contention. Expectations for the No. 4 team to score their first win of 2016 will still be high this week, though. Harvick won last year's race at Las Vegas and continues to be among the fastest drivers at every 1.5-mile oval on the schedule.

Martin Truex Jr. – Furniture Row Racing's new partnership with Joe Gibbs Racing is paying dividends right out of the box. The No. 78 finished an agonizingly close second to Denny Hamlin in the Daytona 500 and was one of the top racers just one week later in Atlanta as well. Truex's breakout season in 2015 might be a harbinger of things to come. He was one of the few drivers capable of challenging Harvick on Sunday, which was impressive considering Harvick's domination of 1.5-mile ovals the past two seasons. Truex's outlook gets even rosier considering his last race in Las Vegas was a runner-up performance, and Sunday's race in Atlanta gave him his second top-10 finish in as many races this season.

Kyle Busch – After Busch posted the fastest lap in qualifying, NASCAR officials disallowed his qualifying time when his rear wheels were found to be out of tolerance. That gave his brother the top starting spot for Sunday's race. While no further penalties were assessed, the No. 18 was made to start dead last in the field on a track where qualifying can make a big difference. The long green-flag stretches of the race didn't assist Busch in his climb forward, but he was able to get out front to lead some laps, narrowly missing a second-place result to Earnhardt, after the green-white-checkered finish. Busch won in Las Vegas in 2009, but has only finished in the top-five there once since then.

DOWNGRADE

Matt Kenseth – Poor communication can be detrimental to any endeavor, and that's what cost Kenseth on Sunday. While they argued the call with NASCAR officials, the team failed to contact Kenseth on the track to report in for a penalty. The result was that the No. 20 car went from challenging for the lead to two laps behind with less than 200 laps remaining. The lack of caution periods kept Kenseth deep in the running order for much of the afternoon. Despite regaining the lead lap the No. 20 was only able to finish 19th. However, Kenseth is a three-time Las Vegas winner with the latest coming in 2013. He also finished inside the top 10 there in each of the last three races.

Clint Bowyer – Despite 2016 being an interim season for Bowyer with HScott Motorsports, Bowyer's stated desire is to win in 2016. His performance in Atlanta last week didn't show that he and the team are ready to do that yet, though. Bowyer was four laps down to the leaders before 200 laps were completed, and he never showed the pace to truly be competitive throughout the weekend and finished the race 35th. Next week could prove to be another struggle for the veteran, too. Bowyer hasn't finished inside the top 20 at Las Vegas in the last three visits and hasn't led more than nine laps there in any race in his career. This team would probably be happy with a top-15 run at this point.

Joey Logano – When a race goes as long as Sunday's did under green-flag conditions, small mistakes are punished heavily. That is exactly what happened to Logano when he hit the commitment cone on entry to pit road. The violation dropped the Penske Racing driver down the order, and gave him a hole to dig out of under mainly green conditions. A loose wheel while still a lap down late in the running didn't help him overcome that initial mistake either. Penske just wasn't on its game in Atlanta, but next week in Las Vegas could give Logano a chance to rebound. The young driver has led no fewer than 40 laps in each of the last two races here, and those were also top-10 finishes.

Ryan Newman – Newman's blown tire late in Sunday's race ruined a good finish, but set up a sprint to the flag for the leaders. The day had gone off with just one caution until Newman's tire sent him spinning. After pitting for repairs and battling through the final restart Newman picked up a 24th-place finish. However, the No. 31 does have four top-10 finishes in the last five Las Vegas races. Newman started the Atlanta weekend well, but stumbled with just a few miles remaining in the distance. While he's searching for his first top-10 of the season Newman may still hold potential for fantasy rosters if he can overcome the struggles of the past two weeks.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jamie McMurray – McMurray showed plenty of promise ahead of Sunday's race but ultimately came up short. Throughout the distance it seemed as though McMurray simply wasn't able to hang on to the handling of his car. He started at the front of the field, but was rarely heard from once he started to fade in the early laps. That inability to master the handling led him to a 21st-place finish, which was much lower than he was capable of. After finishing outside of the top 15 in Daytona McMurray needs to turn things around in Las Vegas. He's a regular fixture in the top 15 at that track, and this could be the week we see if Chip Ganassi Racing's winter progress was as much as we thought.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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