LAS VEGAS — Another race, another victory for Jimmie Johnson and yet another round of griping about the NASCAR champion’s dominance.
Only this time, there was a silver lining for those ready to see someone else hoist the Sprint Cup trophy: his competitors are clearly closing the gap.
Johnson reeled in teammate Jeff Gordon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the four-time defending champion won for the second consecutive week. He needed luck to win last week at California and strategy Sunday at Las Vegas.
Sooner or later, though, he’s going to run out of ways to win.
“We don’t feel invincible,” Johnson said.
And he shouldn’t.
Kevin Harvick finished second for the second straight week, then showed signs of the swagger that only Harvick can pull off, and only when he’s running well.
“We can run with them, and they know it,” said Harvick, the current points leader.
Gordon, who dominated the race only to have to settle for third when his pit strategy backfired, was buoyed by his ability to lead 218 of the 267 laps.
“I think we’ve got more of what we showed today,” he said. “We’re going to show a lot more. I think we’re just starting to tap into it.”
Johnson took four tires on the final pit stop — Harvick and Gordon took only two — in a race-winning decision that gave him his 49th career victory and fourth at Las Vegas. It also made the four-time defending champion the career victory leader on 1.5-mile speedways with 15 — one more than Gordon, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Informed of his intermediate track dominance, he did a celebratory fist-pound with crew chief Chad Knaus and shook team owner Rick Hendrick’s hand.
This one required beating Gordon, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate who hasn’t won a race in almost a year.
Gordon was out front when Kevin Conway’s spin brought out the final caution, and debated pitting strategy with crew chief Steve Letarte.
The call was made at the last second for Gordon to come in, and Letarte changed just two tires to get his driver back on track before the competition. Crew chief Chad Knaus called for four tires in a decision that put Johnson in fourth on the restart.
Clint Bowyer, who didn’t pit, restarted as the leader with 34 laps to go and the Hendrick cars immediately split him to move back to the front. Gordon held the top spot for 17 laps, but fretted several times as Johnson looked both inside and out.
Gordon tried to hold off his teammate, but Johnson finally scooted past with 17 laps to go. He quickly pulled away, and Gordon was unable to hold off Harvick as he faded to third.
“If we won the race, we’d look like geniuses, Steve would have. The fact that we lost the race, now Chad looks like a genius,” Gordon said. “I talked to Steve briefly after the race. He’s pretty upset obviously. I think he just felt like more people were going to take two tires. Shoot, we were thinking for a split second to stay out.
“I felt like we needed to come in and get some tires, but I felt like two tires was the right call, too. We just needed (Johnson) to take two. They did the opposite of us. That won the race for them.”
Knaus quickly defended Letarte. The two work closely at Hendrick Motorsports, and waged a classic 2007 battle for the championship.
“I didn’t outsmart him. He did not make the wrong call,” Knaus said. “There wasn’t a wrong call to make. They came in first. They wanted to maintain track position because track position is so critical. Only way for us to beat them was to do something different.
“Steve is a fantastic crew chief. He did what he thought was right to try to win that race. They came up a little bit short. Just a little bit.”
Johnson could sympathize with his teammates.
“In the end it obviously worked out really good for us,” he said. “Any time a caution comes out, if you’re the leader, you’re bummed, especially if you have a gap. For everyone else, you’re excited because it’s an opportunity to make your stuff better and hopefully gain positions on pit road.”
Once Johnson passed Gordon, Harvick pounced for second place. It was the second straight week Harvick was the runner-up to Johnson. He might have beaten him last week in California, but slapped the wall late to fall from contention.
“Just came up one spot short,” said Harvick, who has three top 10s in the season’s first three races. “Do I think we could have beat him? I don’t know. But I think we would have at least had a shot.”
Mark Martin finished fourth to give Hendrick three cars in the top 10. Matt Kenseth was fifth, followed by Joey Logano, Tony Stewart, Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle.
Defending race winner Kyle Busch was flagged for speeding on pit road and finished 15th. Big brother Kurt, who started from the pole, was caught in an early accident with Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya and finished 35th.