HAMPTON, Ga. — Jimmie Johnson smoked his tires crossing the finish line, celebrating another win at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Then he realized what it really meant.
Johnson stuck a hand out of the No. 48 car and held up three fingers.
It was Johnson's little tribute to "The Intimidator" and his iconic car number.
Johnson used pit strategy and a late yellow Sunday in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 to claim his 76th career Sprint Cup victory, pulling even with the late Dale Earnhardt on the NASCAR list. Only six drivers have won more.
"This is special, for sure," said Johnson, 40, who began his Cup career shortly after Earnhardt was killed in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. "There was a big void, in my mind, not having a chance to race against him. I was literally a handful of months away from having the opportunity. To tie him … gives me a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt."
Johnson won the race in overtime, crossing the line under yellow after the only wreck of the day. In a poignant touch, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second.
"If he's going to tie that record, I'm certainly glad I got to run second," Junior said. "I think my dad would've thought the world of him."
Kevin Harvick led 131 laps of the race, more than anyone else, but ceded the lead after he made his last green-flag pit stop nine laps after Johnson. The No. 48 car made a quicker stop and wound up with about a 14-second lead, then watched it fade away as Harvick gave chase on newer tires.
Harvick was about five seconds behind when Ryan Newman cut a tire and spun on the front stretch with three laps to go, bringing out only the second yellow flag of the race. With overtime looming, everyone went to the pits for new tires. Johnson returned to the track still leading, and the victory was his when the crash on the backstretch took out four cars.
Johnson credited crew chief Chad Knaus for calling the early pit stop, a strategy that allowed him to get past Harvick. "It was definitely a gutsy call," Johnson said. "The 4 car (Harvick) was awfully tough. It was going to take strategy to get by him."
For Harvick, it was another Atlanta heartache. He spun his tires on the final restart and wound up a disappointing sixth.
Harvick has led more than 100 laps in four of his past five races at the 1.54-mile trioval, but he hasn't won at it since the spring event in 2001, in his third race after taking over at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death.
The cars set a blistering pace in the first test of a new aerodynamic package designed to promote more competitive racing. The first 210 laps were run under green before a yellow came out for debris on the track.
After the restart, Harvick and Martin Truex went back and forth, exchanging the lead several times before Harvick started to pull away. But Harvick lost the lead in the pits, allowing Johnson to claim his fifth Cup victory in Atlanta.
Kyle Busch, who posted the fastest time in qualifying but had to start from the back of the field after his car failed inspection, rallied to take third.
Matt Kenseth lost two laps and any chance of winning when his pit crew was penalized for illegal fueling. NASCAR caught a crew member placing a wedge wrench on the deck lid of the No. 20 car during fueling, a violation of the rule that prohibits the fueler from performing "any adjustments or other pit stop procedures while the fuel can coupler is engaged." He finished 19th.
NHRA: Leah Pritchett raced to her first Top Fuel victory at the CarQuest Auto Parts Nationals in Phoenix. Pritchett's 3.775 seconds at 323.12 mph in her Bob Vandergriff Racing dragster topped Brittany Force's 3.774 at 321.35. It was the first all-female Top Fuel final since Shirley Muldowney defeated Lucille Lee in 1982 in Columbus, Ohio. "It is the happiest day of my life, besides getting married of course," Pritchett said. Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car) and Jason Line (Pro Stock) also picked up victories. The series continues March 17-20 with Gatornationals in Gainesville.