It should come as no surprise in a race named for a Nickelodeon cartoon character who lives in a pineapple under the sea that nautical nonsense interrupted Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Roughly one-third of the way through the race, a brief thunderstorm led to a two-hour and 17-minute delay, but once the race restarted nothing could put a damper on Jimmie Johnson’s evening.
Buoyed by a late-race decision not to pit and instead to pick up track position under caution, Johnson claimed the checkered flag in a Sprint Cup race for the record-tying third time at Kansas Speedway.
“I don’t pay attention to stats, but there’s some stats that are piling up and I’m lucky to have,” he said. “Being the winningest driver at places, yeah, absolutely it’s cool. Three, I don’t think that’s going to hold up over time. You need to get up in that eight or nine range, but I’ve got a few more years and opportunities to get there.”
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Jeff Gordon, who won last spring’s inaugural night race, also owns three Sprint Cup wins at Kansas.
Johnson, whose previous victories came in 2008 and 2011, also picked up his third victory of the season, all on 1.5-mile tracks after wins at Atlanta and Texas, and remained third in the Sprint Cup Standings.
With 12 laps remaining, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. rubbed the wall in turn two bringing out the ninth caution for 49 laps in the race. It also provided an opportunity for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
“Usually, Chad gives me some indication early in turn three what he’s going to do and he didn't really say much, so I knew he was thinking hard,” Johnson said.
As much of the field worked its way toward the apron, Johnson knew only a few cars were going to stay on the track. Knaus asked Johnson, who saved the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet from disaster after a brush with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the opening laps of the race, what he wanted to do.
“It just dawned on me that we’ve won two races, so we’re locked in the Chase (for the Sprint Cup),” Johnson said. “Points don’t matter. It’s all about wins.”
He radioed back to Knaus, “Man, I feel like gambling.”
The leaders Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, who had the strongest runs throughout the night, chose to pit.
“It’s just kind of a gut feeling and a splitsecond decision that we peeled right and pretty much everybody went left,” Johnson said. “At that point, I felt like I was pretty lonely and it wasn’t going to work out.”
Earnhardt also stayed out along with Gordon, who held on for fourth, and Kurt Busch, who faded to eighth.
Truex, who led a race-high 95 laps but wound up ninth, took a splash of fuel and Harvick, whose 53 laps led were the second most, took fuel and right-side tires on the fateful final pit stop.
“Once (Harvick) took right-side tires, I knew that he was going to be difficult,” Knaus said. “I knew that he was going to be the one to beat. But yeah … it just played out. We started to set up that strategy three stops from the end, and it worked out.”
Harvick, who remains the points leader by 46 points ahead of Truex, lined up sixth, but quickly moved up to second with a nifty high-to-low pass on Earnhardt, who finished third.
Harvick, who became the first driver since Gordon in 1995 to lead 1,000 laps in the first 11 races of the season, never managed to get around Johnson.
“He wasn’t that strong,” Harvick said. “He was just trying to run right in front of our car. Those first few laps when you’re really pushing like that, it really takes the air off the front of the car. … That’s the strategy that they took and it worked out for them.”
Johnson and Harvick, who finished second, have now won the last seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. It’s the 12th time they have finished first and second with Johnson, who owns four victories in the recent run of dominance, winning 10 of those battles.
Johnson, who now has 200 career top-five finishes and 300 career top-10 finishes, boasts a Sprint Cup-record 23 wins on 1.5-mile tracks.
“It’s fun to win one gambling,” Johnson said. “We haven’t really gambled before and won. Not to my knowledge, so it feels a little different and pretty cool to have that come together.”
And on Mother’s Day, no less. The race finished a few minutes after midnight.
The rain started on lap 97 during the third caution of the 267-lap race. It was red-flagged one lap later at 7:42 p.m. and resumed with Truex in the lead by running nine laps under caution before the green flag dropped again at 10:15 p.m.
Both night races at Kansas Speedway have been affected by weather.
The spring race last year was delayed 37 minutes by rain. The lights on the backstretch also went out for laps 114 to 152, but the race wasn’t stopped.
Joey Logano — who won last fall’s race at Kansas Speedway, started on the pole and led the first 29 laps — was sent to the back of the field for pitting before pit road was open on lap 186.
He carved his way through the field for a fifth-place finish despite the penalty.
Local favorites Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer both struggled, finishing 20th and 21st,