BROOKLYN, Mich. -- There's a lot of talk in NASCAR this year about first-time winners qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway instead produced the season's first three-time winner.
To the surprise of no one, Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson is the first Cup driver to affix three of the treasured "2014 Win" stickers to his car. Well, maybe it is a bit of a surprise; as April drew to a close, people were already asking "What's wrong with the 48?" questions after Johnson failed to post a victory in the season's first 10 events.
Now those same people are singing a different tune. With his relatively unchallenged win Sunday at Michigan, the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion has now won three of the last four races. Hendrick Motorsports has won five races in a row, and Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rank 1-2-3 in the point standings.
MIS was one of only five tracks where Johnson hadn't won a Cup race prior to Sunday. The way he and his Kobalt Tools Chevrolet are running, the competition had better look out at the remaining four: Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead.
The foundation of his Michigan breakthrough was rock-solid strategy by crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson was the first driver to make his final pit stop, on Lap 165 of 200, and he watched as car after car in front of him pitted down the stretch until finally he was at the front of the field with 11 laps to go.
He won at a canter by 1.21 seconds over frustrated pole winner Kevin Harvick.
"We had figured out every way to lose this race," Johnson said after winning at Michigan for the first time in 25 tries. "And today we were able to get it done.
"We really were in a win-win situation," he added. "Those guys still had to come to pit road to make it to the end. Once I got an idea of how the race was unfolding, I knew we were in the catbird seat and were able to take advantage of it. When it came down to strategy in the end, which we all knew it would at Michigan, Chad nailed the strategy."
The race featured eight cautions but, crucially, only one in the final 73 laps. Having pitted his driver on Lap 125, Knaus kept Johnson on track during the final caution from Laps 149 to 152, while Harvick and others pitted.
Those drivers lost track position yet would still be required to make the same number of stops to get to the finish as Johnson.
"We felt like we know what we wanted to do going into the event, but you just didn't know what was going to happen," Knaus said. "We were able to pass some cars, which I don't think a lot of people were able to do today, and that put us in position to make some things happen.
"We had one restart where we fell back to about seventh, so we had to exploit the pit strategy rather than just rely on a fast race car," he added. "The fast car actually showed up, and we were able to make the whole thing happen. A lot of years here we've been close to winning here but we haven't been able to pull it off, so I'm really happy for Jimmie."
Johnson admitted that he does listen to fan and media chatter about tracks where he hasn't won.
At Michigan, he has run out of fuel four times, including twice while leading on the last lap. He's also suffered three engine failures over the years.
We had one restart where we fell back to about seventh, so we had to exploit the pit strategy rather than just rely on a fast race car. The fast car actually showed up, and we were able to make the whole thing happen. A lot of years here we've been close to winning here but we haven't been able to pull it off, so I'm really happy for Jimmie." -- Crew chief Chad Knaus
But Sunday, nothing went wrong and JJ duly checked Michigan off his to-do list.
"It really is a big deal, but it wasn't until I really got close, down to the last few tracks, that I started thinking about it," he said. "I think Gordon has just one left, so I'm envious of that position. It would be so cool to get down to one track, so maybe we can get there."
To listen to Knaus, you'd think that Johnson just scored his first Cup race win, not his 69th. Despite being the most successful NASCAR team of the past decade, Knaus believes the best is yet to come from Johnson and his group.
"I still think we have a long way to go," he said. "We haven't been as fast as we want to be on a consistent basis, and we still have to qualify better. We're operating well, but we're just missing a little bit. We're not exactly where we want to be.
"There have been a lot of circumstances along the way that have helped us get these victories," he continued. "There are some cars that are maybe a little bit faster than us that have had some unfortunate situations, and we've been able to capitalize on that. We're going to keep digging hard."
That thought was echoed by Johnson.
"We're working our guts out to make our cars faster," said the six-time champion. "We need to keep working hard, and hopefully when the Chase comes around, we have to hope we can put together the kind of stretch we just had. I think our worst race in four events is sixth.
"Some years, I think we peaked too early," he added. "This year, there are so many options with the rules package that we haven't explored everything yet. I still feel like there is a lot to learn about this car, and I don't think we've peaked too soon."