Likely locking up a run at his record-tying seventh championship before it even turns to spring, Jimmie Johnson pulled away after the final restart with 13 laps to go Sunday, winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Johnson started near the back after failing to get in a qualifying run because of inspection issues. But the No. 48 Chevrolet was the fastest car on the track at the end of the weekend, cruising across the finish line a comfortable 1.803 seconds ahead of Kevin Harvick.
It was the 71st victory of Johnson's career, and his fourth at the 1.54-mile track south of Atlanta. It also gives him an almost-certain spot in the season-ending Chase, going for a title that would tie him with Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
"It's pretty much a lock," Johnson said. "That takes a ton of pressure off."
After a big crash on Lap 305 brought out the red flag for nine minutes while the mess was cleaned up, Johnson found himself at the front of the pack. When the green flag waved, he got a good jump off the line, fended off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt going down the backstretch, and was firmly in control by the time the cars came back around in front of the stands.
There was no catching him from there.
Johnson was among four former champions, along with teammate Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, who never got on the track during qualifying. Thirteen cars were stuck in the garage after failing to pass inspection, a situation that Gordon called "embarrassing" for the sport.
Harvick, who qualified on the outside of the front row, also was sent to the back of the field after blowing an engine during Saturday's practice. He quickly worked his way through slower cars, got to the front and dominated long stretches of the race, leading a race-high 116 laps.
For much of the day, it was a clean race.
The first big crash came on Lap 258, taking out Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray. Then, on Lap 305, Greg Biffle clipped Joe Nemechek going into the third turn, gobbling up four other cars and bringing out the red flag.
Hamlin started a four-car melee when he got sideways coming out of turn two off a restart. Gordon took the biggest blow, sliding off the inside of the track and smashing into an exposed inside wall — just beyond a soft barrier wall that would've eased the blow.
Track officials had increased the amount of padding in Atlanta after Kyle Busch smashed headfirst into an unprotected wall during an Xfinity Series race in Daytona, leaving him with a broken right leg and left foot. Busch missed his second straight Cup race, recovering at home while substitute David Ragan finished 18th in the No. 18 car, two laps down.
There are still spots at every track where drivers can take a hard hit, an issue that will surely lead to calls for NASCAR to take additional safety measures.
"It wasn't going to be too bad, but I found the one spot where there's no SAFER barrier," said an uninjured Gordon, using the acronym for the Steel And Foam Energy Reduction Barrier used by NASCAR. "I can't believe that. Hopefully, soon, they'll get that fixed."
Newman was the only driver in the crash able to continue. Hamlin, who led 14 laps, took the blame.
"I apologize to all those cars involved," he said. "I just lost the handle on that last run."
Gordon was making his final appearance at Atlanta, the track where he began his Cup career at the end of the 1992 season. The four-time champion, who plans to retire at the end of the season, is off to a rough start in his farewell tour after winning the pole for the Daytona 500. He finished 33rd in the season opener, where he was also caught up in a wreck, and ended up 41st in Atlanta.
The start of the race was delayed nearly an hour to allow the track to dry after morning showers.
Though the rain held off the rest of the way, the temperature was only 43 degrees when the green flag waved under low, thick clouds. The stands were not even half full, another blow for one of NASCAR's most historic tracks, which hasn't come close to selling out in recent years and even took down a large section of seats before this race.
Atlanta once hosted two events a year, including the Cup finale, and even after losing its spring race still held a prime spot on the Labor Day weekend. But attendance woes led to track's only race being shifted to the second week of the season, while north Georgia is still in the grips of winter.