DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The caution flag giveth and the caution flag taketh away.
Jimmie Johnson, chasing race-leader Kevin Harvick with the laps winding down in Saturday night's Bojangles' Southern 500, used a two-tire pit stop under a late yellow flag to grab the lead and seemingly set the stage for a surprising comeback on the difficult 1.366-mile track.
But a pair of subsequent yellow flags pushed the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race into overtime, and gave the speedy Harvick just enough of an opportunity to race his way back to the front.
It was a green-yellow, green-white-checkered finish that extended the series' eighth race of the season an additional seven laps. A race ending that didn't exactly unfold -- it was more like an explosion.
"We had to gamble to kind of take a shot at getting a win," Johnson said after the third-place finish, "and Chad (Knaus, crew chief) played it right. We were in the right position, but just got two cautions there at the end and that kept us from getting to Victory Lane."
Johnson said he had no qualms about the two-tire call -- it was the right decision under the circumstances.
"Things were really going our way there when we took two tires and got the restart under control and had a good lead there," he said of a Lap 363 restart. "Then the caution came out and I knew that (being) on two tires, we were probably in big trouble -- the 4 (of Harvick) had worked his way up through there. ... It seemed like the fastest car all night long."
Given the way his race began, it was something of a surprise to find Johnson contending for the win, if that can ever be said of a team that seemingly wins with ease. Early handling issues left both Johnson and Knaus in a state of uncertainty, unsure what changes to make to the No. 48 Chevrolet as Johnson attempted to maneuver his way through the field from his 26th-place starting spot.
By Lap 120, however, the six-time champion was inside the top 10.
Johnson called it a "solid performance," in spite of the end result.
"We struggled the first run or two of the race, but we got the car turning for me and came to life and really did it the old?fashioned way and kind of drove up through the field before the last pit stop," he said.
Although winless this season, Johnson's results have been admirable enough -- Saturday night's finish was his fifth top-10 and third top-five. He's fifth in points heading into the season's first break.
"For us it's just unloading closer," he said when asked about issues that might be addressed during the off-week. "We seem to find a way come race time to get a good finish and honestly have a shot to win some races.
"But showing up at the track a little bit closer is key for us. We're really just trying to get a grasp on these (new) rules, and we go home with what we've learned from a previous race, bring a new mousetrap, and unfortunately we've had to continue to work on it each week. That's really our goal is to show up closer."
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