Then at the end he soared out of nowhere, unleashed the strongest car in the field, and won.
But after he'd held off Ryan Newman and Casey Mears in a 7.5-mile overtime caused by a late caution, Johnson had to fight off a long drafting line of reporters who hammered him as to whether this win was tainted.
"Not at all," Johnson said. "This is the opposite of that. If you think about what we overcame, and the pressure that's on any team in any sport if they're faced with something like this, this is a huge, huge statement."
Crew chief Chad Knaus had been ejected from Daytona International Speedway a week ago after their Chevrolet failed inspection after qualifying. Johnson's time trial was disallowed. NASCAR allowed the same car to return to racing, but only after the infraction -- a mechanism that changedthe rear-window angle to improve aerodynamics -- was corrected.
Chief engineer Darian Grubb replaced Knaus as the boss in the pits.
"Chad broke the rules; he's admitted that," Johnson said. "He was in Charlotte watching the race today. We're serving our penalty [Knaus likely will be banned from the next two races as well].
"And we stepped up today and won the biggest race in our sport," Johnson continued. "And it's something I'm very proud of."
He'd done it by changing his driving strategy for plate racing. Last year he'd drawn fire from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others for recklessness. This time he went conservative and lay back in the field until the crucial time, the final 20 laps.
"I've been aggressive before and made some mistakes that caused wrecks," Johnson said. "Today I just wanted to sit and ride and take care of things."
Then with 13 laps left in the regulation 200, Johnson passed Brian Vickers for the lead just before a caution came out, and stayed out front the rest of the way.
Newman mounted the only challenge -- and it was nominal -- to Johnson on the last lap of overtime, and made another run at Johnson's team, verbally, after the race.
"I think a lot of Jimmie Johnson and his talent, but I'm pretty sure at least three out of his last four wins . . . have had [issues] with the cars being illegal," Newman said. "It's not necessarily good for the sport."
Told of Newman's remarks, Johnson shot back, "I kind of view it as jealousy -- he didn't have a crew chief working as hard to make his car as good. . . . I'm disappointed that Ryan's got to make statements and try to tarnish what we've done."
Just after the white flag signaling one lap to go in overtime, Newman pulled out trying to pass for the lead, hoping fellow Dodge driver Mears would go with him and give an aerodynamic shove. But Mears was being challenged from behind by Elliott Sadler and had to stay inside -- directly behind Johnson -- and wound up giving Johnson the help.
"I knew Ryan was going to try to get a run on me," Johnson said. "When he went up to the top [of the track], I stayed committed to the bottom and then I saw one of my friends from off-road racing, Casey Mears, behind me. And I knew at that point I was in good shape."
"I'd signaled Newman that I would go with him," said Mears, nephew of four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears. "But by the time he pulled out [to pass], the 38 [Sadler] had a strong run on me, and I had to stay inside or else I'd get freight-trained."
Mears wound up second, Newman third and Sadler fourth.
Battling for the lead, Gordon slid up and clipped Stewart as he tried to pass on Lap 48, and both their Chevys scraped the wall and had to pit for extensive repairs under caution.
Stewart came back strong, but Gordon's troubles doubled with a transmission problem.
Then Stewart's notorious temper did him in. He intentionally wrecked Matt Kenseth just past the halfway point, and both were penalized for aggressive driving -- Stewart was sent to the back of the field and Kenseth ordered to pass through the pits, losing precious time.
"Tony took me out intentionally -- no two ways about that," Kenseth said. "Tony's worried about people's lives [he'd spoken out last week about the dangers of bump-drafting], and now he's gonna wreck you on purpose at 190 [mph]."
Stewart by no means denied his intent to retaliate for what he considered an earlier offense by Kenseth.
"I guess Matt didn't think anything when he got me sideways over in [Turn] 2, either," Stewart said. "He has no room to complain. He started the whole thing, and I finished it."