CONCORD — The Coca-Cola 600 is NASCAR’s longest race. It also has provided some of the biggest boosts in Jimmie Johnson’s career.
Twice before, Johnson has rolled into the 600 winless on the season and rolled out a winner (2003 and 2004).
Sunday night, the third time was the charm.
Johnson passed Matt Kenseth with eight of 400 laps remaining and held off Kevin Harvick to earn his first win of the season.
Johnson has piled up seven series wins at Charlotte in addition to four in the All-Star Race.
Sunday’s victory all but ensures Johnson a chance to earn a record-tying seventh series championship this season when the Chase for the Sprint Cup gets underway.
Johnson’s seventh Charlotte win breaks a tie with Bobby Allison for most victories at the track.
“Just stoked for the night. I had a very good race car. We raced up front all night long and that last restart let us bunch up to those guys on two (tires) and our four (tires) were able to prevail,” said Johnson, who earned his 67th career win.
“It’s great to win, but believe me – and I promise you – all the hype and all the concern and worry, that was elsewhere. That wasn’t in my head; there are plenty of voices in my head, I’m not going to lie!”
Kenseth finished third, Carl Edwards was fourth and Jamie McMurray, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, was fifth.
Much of the race was dominated by Johnson and Harvick, but Harvick fell behind late in the race when he was forced to pit under green on Lap 263 to fix a loose wheel.
“I look at it as we let (Johnson) slip one in front of us tonight by shooting ourselves in the foot,” Harvick said. “We got to get clean pit road up.”
Brad Keselowski led the first lap but Johnson, the pole-winner, took over on Lap 2 and held it until the first round of green-flag pit stops, which began on Lap 48.
During those pit stops, Kasey Kahne was unable to get into his stall and was forced to circle the track a second time before pitting, going two laps down in the process.
When the pit cycle was completed, Johnson returned to the lead on Lap 50, followed by Clint Bowyer and Harvick.
Harvick made his way around Johnson to take the lead for the first time on Lap 76.
A second round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 92 and once that cycle was completed on Lap 98, Harvick remained in the lead followed by Johnson and Bowyer.
During those pit stops, Denny Hamlin was forced to pit twice with a loose left-front wheel.
Debris in Turn 3 brought out the first caution on Lap 109. Harvick remained in the lead on the restart on Lap 114, followed by Johnson and Bowyer.
Debris on the backstretch brought out a caution on Lap 149. All of the leaders pitted for fuel with Harvick remaining in the lead on the restart on Lap 154.
Johnson quickly assumed the lead and remained out front until the third caution of the race when David Gilliland slammed the Turn 2 wall.
“We blew a right-front tire there. We did the wave-around trying to make up some track position, but just blew a right-front,” Gilliland said. “It got real tight the lap before and just blew a right-front. It’s a tough way for this to end.”
Keselowski elected not to pit and took over the race lead on the restart on Lap 170.
Harvick finally ran down Keselowski and reclaimed the lead on Lap 192.
At the halfway point, Harvick led the way followed by Keselowski, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
Debris on the backstretch brought out the fourth caution of the race on Lap 223. Four drivers elected not to pit – Earnhardt, Brian Vickers, McMurray and Tony Stewart – and lined up in the first four positions on the restart on Lap 228.
Marcos Ambrose spun in Turns 3 and 4 in an incident that eventually collected Landon Cassill, Josh Wise, Brian Scott and Danica Patrick to bring out a caution on Lap 236.
On the restart on Lap 242, McMurray took over the race lead followed by Kenseth and Harvick.
Kurt Busch, who was attempting to become just the second driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, had his car’s engine blow on Lap 274 which brought out the sixth caution of the race.
“We gave it our all, and the way we were clawing our way up there and got a lucky break with the caution one time,” Busch said. “I thought we were making good gains on the car.
“I can't let the mood here with the car dampen what happened up in Indy.”
Johnson took over the lead on the restart on Lap 283, followed by Kenseth and Gordon.
Patrick’s engine died and brought out the seventh caution of the race on Lap 286. On the restart on Lap 294, Johnson continued to lead followed by Kenseth and Joey Logano.
Kenseth quickly passed Johnson on the restart to take over the top spot.
Earnhardt was forced to pit under green on Lap 311 for an engine problem just before his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Johnson, retook the lead on Lap 313.
Teams began another round of green-flag stops on Lap 330. Johnson retained the lead after lap 345, followed by Kenseth and Gordon.
A caution came out on Lap 378 for Alex Bowman’s blown tire which sent several lead-lap cars to pit road. Gordon, Kenseth and Johnson had all made their final stops for fuel under green and elected to remain on the track.
Gordon was the leader on the restart on Lap 384 followed by Kenseth, Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Edwards.
Kenseth made his way around Gordon on the restart to take the lead.
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter