NASCAR Cup: Jimmie Johnson returns to victory lane at Charlotte
Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 9, 2016 (photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR).
By AMANDA VINCENT
The green flag on the Bank of America 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway on Sunday was a long-awaited one, as Hurricane Matthew pushed the start from Saturday night to midday Sunday. Something else long-awaited for Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team was a trip to victory lane, as that’s somewhere they hadn’t been since March. Johnson won twice in the first five races of the season, but hadn’t won since – until Sunday.
“I didn’t wonder (when the next win would come),” Johnson said. “I just knew it was taking way too long. When you drive for Rick Hendrick and have all the great people at Hendrick Motorsports working for you, the great support from Lowe’s and everyone in their stores and Chevrolet, there are just so many great people behind us and that support us to make this happen. We knew we would get back. Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be, but to be here today and have this victory is great. Thank you to Sprint, to the fans, to Gatorade, and to Valvoline. This is something very special to our team.”
Johnson led a race-high 155 laps en route to his third win of the season and the eighth of his career at Charlotte. The victory made him the first driver to clinch a spot in the upcoming third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, allowing him room to breathe easy in a couple of weeks when the Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the wild-car elimination race of the second round.
“That is massive,” Johnson said. “I am so happy about that.”
Matt Kenseth finished second after dropping to the back at the start of the race because of an unapproved change to his car and then being assessed a pit-road penalty during an early caution.
“It was a great-second,” Kenseth said. “I think this is one of the toughest tracks there is on the circuit to pass at. It was better during the day than it is at night, and that’s a good thing because we had to go to the back twice, so we were able to make up some ground and finish okay.”
Kenseth got off pit road first, ahead of Johnson, during the eighth and final caution of the race that came with 26 laps remaining because of Denny Hamlin’s blown engine. He restarted with the lead with 18 laps to go, but a lap later, Johnson regained the top spot and drove on to the win.
Non-Chasers rounded out the top-five, with Kasey Kahne taking third, Ryan Newman fourth and Kyle Larson fifth.
Hamlin, who led 52 laps before losing his engine, was one of several Chase drivers to hit bumps in the Chase road at Charlotte on Sunday.
Joey Logano brought out two-consecutive cautions when he hit the wall twice, first on lap 117 and again on lap 156
“Tires are popping,” Logano said. “We’re not the only car that had the issue, but we’re the ones that hit the wall when it happened, so that’s not the best place to have them go down. We had a fast car. Our car was capable of winning the race. We drove up from 10th and were up to third and running down the leaders, so I felt good about what we had. I don’t know. Things happen. It’s part of racing, I guess.”
Johnson took his first lead of the race during the lap 117 caution. He lost the lead to Hamlin on the restart but got back to the front on lap 176 and led most of the remaining laps.
Before the caution, Chase Elliott was the dominant driver after taking the lead from pole sitter Kevin Harvick on lap 13 and running up front until pitting under green on lap 114, three laps before the yellow flag waved.
But like some of their fellow Chasers, Harvick and Elliott also had problems, as did fellow-Chaser Austin Dillon.
Harvick suffered a mechanical issue as Logano was experiencing his second impact with the wall.
“It just suddenly shut off and the things that it points to are no oil pressure,” Harvick said. “It’s definitely not a power issue with the battery or anything like that. They are trying to diagnose it. I hate it for everybody on our Busch team; they made some great adjustments today and got our car back where we needed to be to run up front and everything was going fine. Lots of things can go wrong, and today, they did.”
Elliott’s race ended prematurely when he got caught up in a wreck and sustained substantial damage on a lap 259 restart. Dillon’s race ended with the same wreck. Other drivers were involved, but Elliott and Dillon’s cars sustained the most damage. The race was red-flagged for nearly 11 minutes for clean-up.
“I think the No. 3 (Dillon), they stayed out on tires and tried to get some track position,” Elliott said. “The No. 78 (Truex) ended up getting him out of shape and then after that, I tried to check up. I don’t think the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) saw it, got into us and got us turned the wrong way. It happens; we just got to go and try to have more runs like that next week.”
Dillon took only two tires during the previous pit stop and was surrounded by cars on four new tires.
Finishing sixth through 10th were Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray.