Johnson's fuel gamble at Phoenix earns HMS first win of '08

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- A little white lie by crew chief Chad Knaus helped Jimmie Johnson drive to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of the season.

With leader after leader diving for the pits to take on gas in the waning laps of Saturday night's Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Knaus was a constant presence on the radio, telling Johnson he had a big enough lead to slow way down.

"You know, we don't play the fuel mileage game," the two-time reigning Cup champion said. "We race for points year after year and, if we can't make it, we're coming to pit road. So, the fact that we stayed out and rolled the dice, I figured I'd probably run out coming off [Turn] four.

"But we had enough to do a little burnout [after taking the checkered flag] and then I drove around to the backstretch [on a cooldown lap] and it ran out. So we had it figured out to a 'T.'"

All the leaders, including Johnson, pitted during the last of eight caution flags, with 82 laps left in the 312-lap event on the 1-mile oval. At that point, everyone was expecting to make one more stop and hoping for another caution that never came.

Asked if he was worried he might not make it, especially with so many other cars pitting in the waning laps, Johnson said he just listened to his longtime crew chief, who was telling him he had a 20-second lead and could slow down even more when his lead was actually about 10 seconds on Clint Bowyer, the only other driver to gamble at the finish.

"I don't think he stopped talking for three laps," Johnson said, laughing. "My instinct was to step on the gas pedal, so it was good. And the white lies he was telling me were even more helpful. When he says something, I might think about it for a split-second, but I believe him every time."

Knaus wasn't as sure about Johnson making it to the finish as he sounded.

Asked if he was worried, Knaus said, "Yeah, the whole run."

Johnson, who led a race-high 120 laps, gave Hendrick Motorsports its first Cup victory of the year, beating Bowyer to the finish line by 7.002 seconds.

"We're back," Johnson said. "We've been working very hard to get back. I couldn't be more proud of the folks back at Hendrick Motorsports."

Johnson, who also led early in the race, fell to 14th on a pit stop midway through the event.

"We got out off cycle and got a little behind there and had to drive to front, and still wound up saving gas at the end," Johnson noted.

The 49-year-old Mark Martin, now a part-time driver in the Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8, battled at the front with its former driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in the second half of the race.

And it appeared Martin had his first win since 2005 locked up after he passed Earnhardt for the win on Lap 272 and began to pull away, building leads of more than a second. But, with the end in sight, Martin was called into the pits on Lap 301, giving up the top spot to Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.

Denny Hamlin, who pitted late in the race, finished third, followed by Carl Edwards, Martin, Jeff Burton and Earnhardt.

Martin, who shares the No. 8 with rookie Aric Almirola, was disappointed, but said, "I'm just really, really proud of this team. We just about pulled that one off tonight."

He said he might have been able to get to the finish like Johnson and Bowyer.

"I saved a lot of gas, probably more than they knew," he said. "You can't stop if somebody else stays out."

It was the 34th career win for Johnson, who had 10 of the Hendrick team's 18 victories last season, including a win here last fall.

He and teammates Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and Casey Mears have been shut out in the first seven races of 2008.

Mears finished 11th, while four-time Cup champion Gordon, who crashed and finished last in Texas a week ago, wound up 13th.