The defending series champion beat teammate Jeff Gordon on Sunday to win his third straight Nextel Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Only this one came under extremely different conditions on a reconfigured racetrack that gave everyone fits.
"This track was a different challenge for us, no doubt about it," said Johnson, who led Gordon across the finish line for a 1-2 finish that gave Hendrick Motorsports its 150th NASCAR victory.
Johnson suffered a pit-road penalty and a slight bounce off the wall, but otherwise had few problems navigating his way around the track that was under intense scrutiny all weekend because of changes owner Bruton Smith made to the 1.5-mile speedway.
The changes included an increase in the banking from 12 degrees to 20 and a curved pit lane unlike anything the drivers had seen before. Because the new surface produced such fast speeds, Goodyear had to bring a very hard left-side tire that was capable of withstanding the loads.
It created a perfect storm of slick asphalt, little grip and a garage full of grumbling drivers.
"I felt like I was on ice from lap one until the last one," said Gordon, the four-time series champion. "There is no reason for us to show up at racetracks and be at a white-knuckle experience for an entire weekend."
Other drivers repeatedly echoed that sentiment.
"It was out of control pretty much all day," Clint Bowyer said. "It was the poorest race I've ever been in. It wasn't fun to drive," David Stremme said.
"You couldn't run side by side. When you got alongside of somebody, you were scared to death you were going to wreck," Matt Kenseth said.
The race was marred by nine cautions, most of them products of the new configuration and tough tire. David Ragan spun on the opening lap, and Casey Mears, Robby Gordon and Ward Burton were in a three-car accident 10 laps in. Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney wrecked eight laps after that.
"There's just no grip at all," Mears said. "Everybody is having a hard time getting a hold of their cars."
Johnson understood Goodyear's choice of tire based on the short timeframe the company had between the January test that revealed the high speeds to when a choice of tire had to be selected. But he called on the company to figure out a way to work more with the teams in the future. "When we go to new surfaces, we need to be on the conservative side and we need to be able to test it," Johnson said. "To show up and not test what you are going to race is where all of the frustration comes from. I do understand that Goodyear wants to build a strong, safe tire. And not everybody is going to agree with going to a hard tire. But if we have a chance to test it, we'll find a way to be comfortable." Johnson led 89 of the 267 laps en route to the win, but it came at Gordon's expense.
Gordon dominated by leading 111 laps, and appeared poised to tie the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth place on the career list with 76 wins. But Gordon thought he had a flat left- rear tire following a late round of pit stops, and gave up the lead with 32 laps to go when Jeff Burton passed him.
Johnson got by both of them five laps later and held on after a final restart with 11 to go. He credited it to the final pit stop and a tire pressure adjustment that balanced out the damage he received from brushing the wall.
"Over the long haul I really don't think I had the speed to run with either of the Jeffs - Jeff Gordon or Jeff Burton," he said. "But at the end when we came in and put right-side tires on ... I had that edge that I could lean on and really push hard to get by Gordon and Burton and then hold off them at the end."
Gordon was disappointed with the finish. "I thought we had this won here," he said. "We just got beat. We keep bringing cars like this, we'll win some." Denny Hamlin finished third and was followed by Kenseth, Mark Martin and Carl Edwards.
Martin is still on top of the points standings, up six over Gordon. Martin plans to run only 23 races this season.
"The plans haven't changed - yet," he said. "Let's just worry about that later."
I was happy with the run. I'm happy with the team and happy with what I laid out. We don't need to be talking about that right now." Tony Stewart, the most vocal critic of the track and the tires, finished seventh. He was followed by Ryan Newman, Las Vegas native Kyle Busch and Jamie McMurray. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wound up a disappointing 11th after a mental error cost him a top-five finish. He was in fifth when Kasey Kahne's wreck brought out the final caution, and didn't notice that pit road was closed when he mistakenly followed Jeff Burton down it. "I followed the 31 in ... the pit road was closed and I didn't see, or wasn't looking, I didn't even think if it was closed or open," Earnhardt said. "You're not thinking about that. But we had a good car and I was real proud of that. But I'm sad for my team because we should have finished fifth or sixth." The penalty dropped him to 13th on the restart. He picked up two spots in the finishing order and 12 in the points - he's now 28th overall. Even without the mistake, Earnhardt wouldn't have challenged the Hendrick tandem of Johnson and Gordon, who had the field covered for most of the race. But it was Johnson who wound up in victory lane, even after a tire rolled loose on pit road earlier in the race. The penalty dropped Johnson to 25th, but he wasted little time moving back to the front.