BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jimmie Johnson scored his 50th Cup win in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, one of only six active tracks where the four-time defending champion had yet to win before Sunday.
The victory, his third in five races this season, ties him for 10th on the all-time NASCAR Cup Series win list with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
"Give me one good lap and we'll be spraying the champagne," spotter Earl Barban instructed the driver as he took the white flag.
"We did it boys, finally," Johnson exclaimed and released an emphatic "Yoohoo!" over the radio.
For the No. 48 Lowe's crew, it was yet another example of team effort -- Johnson wheeling the car and solid decisions and stops in the pits.
On the final pit stop Sunday, with Johnson running second to Kurt Busch, crew chief Chad Knaus elected to take four tires on the car before the 10-lap shootout. Busch's team also chose four tires and exited the pits ahead of Johnson, but the No. 2 Dodge was held up in the inside lane for the restart behind Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, both with two tires. When Kenseth stalled as the race went green, Johnson's lane -- led by Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart -- freed up and three cars took off.
Four laps later, Johnson passed Tony Stewart on the high side in Turn 1 for the lead. With Busch mired in traffic, Johnson set sail for the win.
Only three drivers -- Jeff Gordon, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip -- have reached the 50-win mark faster than Johnson and the No. 48 team.
"I am so proud of this team," said Johnson, after laying tracks of rubber up to his Victory Lane celebration. "I am so proud of us setting a mark and going at it and accomplishing what we wanted to."
After four titles, 50 wins and victories on every track except Chicagoland, Michigan, Infineon, Watkins Glen and Homestead, what's left for this team to accomplish?
In the immediate future, there's this: With the third win this season, Johnson now trails standings leader Kevin Harvick by just 14 points.
"Well, we have a lot of racing left, there is no doubt about it," Johnson said. "But when we are winning at tracks we aren't supposed to, the boys better look out. Even (Busch) doesn't want the No. 48 to win."
Despite leading 10 times for a total of 278 laps, Busch had to settle for third-place behind Stewart.
"I gave it my heart today," Busch said. "To lose to the 48 sucks. We fought hard and I'm sure everyone out here wanted anybody but the 48. But hey, it's a long season."
Although it's early in the season, once again, the field appears to be chasing the No. 48 team. While Johnson has not set numerical goals, he appears to derive sheer pleasure in dominating the field.
"I get caught up in that mind game stuff and find a lot of satisfaction in it," Johnson said. "I told (Knaus) before the year was over, I don't have a number of wins, but I want to win a lot to frustrate the competitors.
"Over the last few years, we've been able to get in some guys' heads and I think it's been helpful. I don't want to lose that advantage if we can prevent it."
Knaus agreed, "That's just momentum for us."
Put up or shut up
Crew chief Lance McGrew didn't hold back the tough love with driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Sunday.
The first snipe came after Junior complained about a loose car following pit stops during the fifth caution on Lap 205. McGrew replied, "Yes, but you're eight positions better than you were."
When the seventh caution was called on Lap 324, the No. 88 was up to sixth and was busted by NASCAR for "excessive speed entering the pits" and was forced to drop back to 26th. McGrew coached his driver with a "lots of laps man, we can get this back."
But Earnhardt sounded dejected on the radio. He was furious at the sanctioning body and its pit-road scoring system.
"Well, anyhow. To get busted at Bristol for (expletive) speeding by what-the-(expletive)-ever it was and when I didn't (expletive) gain nothing on nobody, it's not the way it should be," exlaimed Earnhardt. "There should be a different way of doing it. You bust your (expletive) to get up there. Now they can't be (expletive) (expletive) about every (expletive) little nitpickin' (expletive) thing. We're out here racing our (expletive) off."
And with Earnhardt deep in traffic, he radioed the car was "pushing like a truck."
That's when McGrew let loose.
"Don't lay down on me, bud," McGrew screamed.
"I can't lay down here," Earnhardt replied. "This is Bristol. I don't ever (freakin') lay down. Don't ever say that again on the radio. Don't need the whole world hearing that."
While little was said between driver and crew chief following the heated exchange, Earnhardt collected himself and salvaged a seventh-place finish that enabled him to jump five positions to eighth in the point standings.
Although Earnhardt was not available for comment after the race, team owner Rick Hendrick seemed pleased with the No. 88 team's improvement.
"They've worked really hard," Hendrick said. "Lance and Dale have great chemistry. I think if you listen to them on the radio, they're working well together.
"Dale had a great car. He would have been in the top five or had a real shot at it himself had he been able not to have that speeding penalty."
After kicking off the season with "Have at it, boys," does NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton regret throwing out the phrase:
"Did you ever do something where you thought it was OK, and then it wound up being not so OK? Not really. All in fun. You can use that to be negative or positive, but, quite frankly, I think the drivers have done a pretty good job this year."
The NASCAR COT wing era ended on Sunday after 93 races. Predictably, Jimmie Johnson won the most winged romps, 22, followed by Kyle Busch (13) and Carl Edwards (11).