NASCAR Cup: Jimmie Johnson advances in Chase with Martinsville win
Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 30, 2016 (photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR).
By AMANDA VINCENT
Jimmie Johnson had never made the round of eight of the Chase for the Sprint Cup since the implementation of the elimination format in 2014, but a win at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway in the round of 12, sent him to his first round of eight that concluded last weekend at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. On Sunday, he made the best of his first round of eight slot with a win in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, guaranteeing him a spot in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month to battle for a possible seventh championship that would tie him for most all-time with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven, but now I can’t,” Johnson said. We’re locked in. I’m just honored to be in this position. I wouldn’t be in this position without the belief of Lowe’s an all their employees had in me back with I was running 10th or 15th in the Busch (now-Xfinity) Series. Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon, all the people who have believed in me to get to this point. It’s crazy that we have a shot at seven now. We couldn’t do it without our partners at Chevrolet, Valvoline, and the list goes on and on. Thanks to them all very much.”
The win was Johnson’s fourth of the season and second in this year’s Chase. It was his ninth-career victory at Martinsville, tying him with Jeff Gordon who ran was is expected to be his final Sprint Cup start. Alex Bowman reassumes substitute driving duties for Dale Earnhardt Jr. next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Gordon finished just outside the top-five in sixth on Sunday.
“Well, I had a lot of fun out there,” Gordon said. “It is great to be here in front of all these awesome short-track and Martinsville NASCAR fans. It’s just a special place to me, and I had a lot of fun and had a great car. The #88 Nationwide Chevrolet was really good. I knew we didn’t have the short run speed for some of those Gibbs cars. I don’t know where Jimmie came from. Wow, he is just so good here. You get him out front like that, and he is just unbelievable. Congratulations to those guys, stamping that victory and getting them to Homestead. That is amazing, just like we did last year.”
Brad Keselowski finished second a week after being eliminated from the Chase. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and Chasers Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished third through fifth.
Johnson led only once in the race, but that one race lead was 92 laps long, coming after he took the lead from Denny Hamlin with just under 100 laps remaining.
“It’s hard racing those guys and racing very, very tough,” Hamlin said. “Out of character for him over the last few years in the Chase, but they’re doing what they think is successful, but upsetting me is not going to make their job any easier. I think that he nearly wrecked up at New Hampshire, and then, we raced him hard for the lead. It’s one think if it’s the lead at Charlotte, because I was upset about New Hampshire, and then, we race like a bunch of dummies for seventh or eighth or something like that during halfway. That’s their prerogative, and they can race however they want, and we can race the way we want, but in turn, they’re doing what they think the need to do to win a race.”
Once Johnson took the lead, he pulled away from a JGR three-way battle for second. Keselowski, though, got by the JGR trio of Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch with just under 30 laps remaining.
“It was a good day for us, not the win,” Keselowski said. “I think we had the speed capable to pull it off, but still a really strong day. The car was good. The team executed really well; we just kind of missed out on the racing Gods today. We have a lot to be proud of — a great effort and showed that we’re still a strong team, if not the strongest team in the garage, and I’m really proud of that.”
Martin Truex Jr., like Keselowski, was eliminated from the Chase a week earlier at Talladega. After his elimination, he started on the pole Sunday at Martinsville for the second week in a row and led 147 laps before Kenseth took over and began to dominated on lap 181. Kenseth led a race-high 176 laps before a cycle of green-flag pit stops got underway around lap 350.
During that cycle of stops, a fourth Gibbs driver, Carl Edwards, wrecked, bringing out the fifth and final caution of the race. Confusion over the running order for the restart resulted in the yellow flag remaining out for nearly 30 laps. The caution lasted long enough that Edwards was able to go to the garage for repairs and return to the track, several laps down, before the race restarted.
“Goodyear was kind enough, and I have a lot of respect for them; they came down here and looked at the tire and said it was a belt failure, so that’s really big of them to say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing you could have done about it.” We had a really good race going, and sometimes that’s just what happens in racing,” Edwards said. “I just feel bad for Sport Clips. I think we had a top-three car. I was having a lot of fun, and now, we just go to Texas and try to win there and Phoenix. We could win at either one of those race tracks.”
A fifth Chase driver, Joey Logano, finished in the top-10, finishing ninth. Other top-10 finishers included Truex in seventh, Jamie McMurray eighth, and A.J. Allmendinger was 10th.
Edwards was the lowest-finishing Chaser with 36th, but he wasn’t the only one to finish outside the top-20, as Kurt Busch finished 22nd. Busch’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate and fellow-Chaser Harvick barely squeaked out a top-20 finish, finishing 20th.