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Jimmie Johnson was able to do Saturday night what has often been a thorn in the side of the No. 48 Lowe’s team – conserve fuel. Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 MyLowe’s Chevrolet, spent the last 115 laps of the Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway saving enough Sunoco racing fuel to make it the distance with one final stop while most of the field was forced to pit again.
Johnson’s diligence paid off as he held on to third place, closing the gap on Brad Keselowski, who is leading the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Johnson is seven points out of the lead with five races remaining. The result Saturday was Johnson’s 16th top-five finish of 2012 and his 11th top-five in 23 points-paying Sprint Cup starts at Charlotte.
Johnson was rarely outside the top-10 during the 334-lap event. By lap 66, he was trying to pass race leader Keselowski, succeeding on lap 72 when Keselowski pitted. It was the first of three times Johnson led for 53 total laps around the 1.5-mile oval.
Five-time Sprint Cup champion Johnson radioed in only minor complaints during the race. With flawless pit stops throughout the night, Johnson maintained his spot in the top five. But on lap 167, crew chief Chad Knaus called Johnson down pit road during a caution and put just two tires on the MyLowe’s machine. Most of the field took four tires, and Johnson lost ground on the restart. He finally settled into the eighth spot and spent the ensuing laps working back into the top five.
A debris caution on lap 223, after most of the field had pitted less than 10 laps earlier, put fuel strategy into play. Johnson came down pit road to top off with fuel and restarted the race in 11th place with 107 laps to go. Fuel conservation became the name of the game for the remainder of the race with spotter Earl Barban and Knaus constantly reminding Johnson to watch his fuel intake. Knaus even radioed, “Save every little bit you can.”
On lap 278, Johnson pitted for the final time, with Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin the only other drivers not needing to pit again. Johnson slowed his pace and was able to hold on for third.
"I did a good job (saving fuel),” said Johnson, who has six wins at Charlotte (May 2003, May and October 2004, May and October 2005 and October 2009). “We started saving double the distance, so I knew we were going to be fine. We were just being really cautious. We didn't want to go up there and chase the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) and get ourselves in trouble.
“We're getting a lot better at this fuel-mileage racing. It is a tough thing to do. We've worked hard to get it right. We're still not the best car out there at it, but we're making it work week-in and week-out. It's part of the game right now, for whatever reason. Happy to have this MyLowes car third and glad to gain some on the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) car. We'll go to the next one. This thing is still wide open for anybody.”
Bowyer won the Bank of America 500 to score his eighth career Sprint Cup victory, his third of the season and his first at Charlotte.
Hamlin finished .417 of a second behind Bowyer in the runner-up spot, while Johnson, Greg Biffle and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five. Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were five caution periods for 23 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish the 334-lap race.
With the fifth race of the Chase completed, Johnson remains second in the championship point standings. He has 2,207 points, seven behind leader Keselowski. All four Hendrick Motorports drivers made the Chase. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not running for the championship due to medical reasons, with Regan Smith substituting. Kahne is next behind Johnson among Hendrick drivers in the point standings, fifth with 2,179 points, 35 out of first. Gordon remains sixth with 2,164 points, 50 out of first.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the sixth race of the 10-race Chase – is the Hollywood Casino 400 on Oct. 21 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan. The race begins at 2 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.