Jimmie Johnson Is One Step Closer To His Seventh Championship With Ninth Win At Martinsvilleby Hunter Thomas October 30, 2016
RIDGEWAY, Va. – Jimmie Johnson overcame a mid-race stumble on Sunday to lead the final 92 laps of the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 to win his ninth career victory at Martinsville Speedway.
On Sunday, the driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet started third and ran between the top-15 and top-five for most of the afternoon; however, during a lap 358 caution, his competitive finish was in jeopardy. While under the caution, Johnson thought that he had ran out of fuel, but he was able to get the car fired back up to salvage valuable positions. Johnson says that he accidentally turned off the Electronic Control Unit (ECU), causing the car to come to a stop, but his car was sputtering at the time. The Hendrick Motorsports driver took the lead away from Denny Hamlin on lap 409, and he never looked back. In the closing laps, Johnson held off Brad Keselowski for his 79th career victory after fighting through heavy lapped traffic.
“Yeah, there were a lot of moments but anything in life you have to work for it,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to come easy and we knew that coming into this race. There are so many challenges with this track. I’m so thankful for this race team.”
With the win, Johnson is now guaranteed a spot in the Championship 4 to compete for his seventh championship in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are the only two drivers in series history to reach the milestone. Johnson’s sixth championship was captured back in 2013. So far this season, Johnson has four wins, 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes. Now that he is one of the final four fighting for the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, all he has to do if beat the other three contenders to make history.
“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven (championships) 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 and all their employees had in me back when I was running 10th or 15th in the Busch Series. Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon… all of the people who have believed in me to get 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.”
Brad Keselowski just wasn’t able to navigate through the lapped traffic quickly enough to catch up to Johnson to challenge him for the win in the final laps. The runner-up finish tied his best effort at Martinsville Speedway. During last year’s spring race, Keselowski also finished second as well.
“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 in the garage and I’m really proud of that.”
Rounding out the top-five on Sunday were the Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were strong all race long. Kenseth led a race high of 176 laps, while Hamlin was out in front for 48 laps. Busch only led three laps, but he ran inside the top-five for the majority of the 500-lap race. As for Carl Edwards, he had a disappointing 36th place finish after pounding the wall on lap 358. The finals laps were tense for the teams because all four drivers are still in the hunt to advance to the Championship 4.
“We’re in a team business, but we’re also in a business to win for our sponsors and ourselves,” Hamlin said. “I think at the end, you have to do what’s best for yourself. We made deals about restarts and things like that. Obviously I think I got two taps or something like that from the 20 (Matt Kenseth). But I definitely didn’t feel like we were holding anyone up at the end by any means. I didn’t even see the 18 (Kyle Busch) at the end. But, you know, it’s just part of it. We’re all frustrated. We had probably the first, second, third fastest cars throughout the day, then we end up three, four, five. It’s frustrating for all of us.”
Jeff Gordon, who was possibly competing in his final career series race finished sixth. Rounding out the top-10 was Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger.
Throughout the afternoon, there were only five cautions and only two of them involved cars hitting the wall. The first caution came out on lap 23, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped and backed his Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Fastenal Ford Fusion into the Turn 3 wall. The accident was his second of the race weekend.
“It was the same thing that happened in qualifying,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “I just got in the brakes and the rear end start hopping. You lose all grip as soon as it happens, so that seems to be a typical thing for us at Martinsville – not finishing these races clean. I hate it for all the Fastenal guys and all of our fans.”
The second caution came out on lap 62 for fluid coming from David Ragan. Debris brought the third and fourth cautions of the day out on lap 133 and lap 201. The final caution was for Carl Edwards crashing hitting the wall.
Edwards said, “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. 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.”
Following Sunday’s race, Johnson is the only driver currently locked into the Championship 4. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are both just six points ahead of Joey Logano, who’s in fifth. Kyle Busch is currently three points to the good for the final round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The second race of the Round of 8 will be at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, November 6. The AAA Texas 500 will broadcast live on NBC and the Performance Racing Network (PRN) at 2 p.m. ET.
Photo Credit: Wayne Thomas