John­son ends long­est los­ing streak

3rd win of sea­son puts him into 3rd round of play­offs

Baltimore Sun - - NASCAR - By Jenna Fryer

CON­CORD, N.C. — Stuck in the long­est los­ing streak of his ca­reer, Jim­mie John­son had a chance for a crit­i­cal win that could sal­vage this ho-hum sea­son for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports.

Hardly a cham­pi­onship con­tender for most of this sea­son, John­son grabbed a vic­tory in the Bank of Amer­ica 500 at sun-soaked Char­lotte Mo­tor Speed­way when nearly half the ti­tle con­tenders had hor­ri­ble days.

The win Sun­day was his third of the sea­son, and ended a 24-race los­ing streak dat­ing to March. John­son is the only Hen­drick driver to win this sea­son, and the vic­tory earned him an au­to­matic berth in the third round of the play­offs.

It’s the first time John­son has made it out of the sec­ond round since the elim­i­na­tion for­mat was in­tro­duced in 2014. He was knocked out at Tal­ladega in the sec­ond round of the in­au­gu­ral sea­son, and was bounced in the first round last year.

Sud­denly, the six-time NASCAR cham­pion is a con­tender for a record-ty­ing sev­enth ti­tle.

“We can’t sit back and cel­e­brate too much on this,” John­son said. “We’ve got to buckle down and get to work to­mor­row and keep ad­vanc­ing our race cars. But this does buy us a cou­ple weeks of free­dom.”

The race was orig­i­nally sched­uled for Sat­ur­day night, but Hur­ri­cane Matthew washed out nearly the en­tire week­end and set up an 800-mile dou­ble­header of the Sprint Cup and Xfin­ity Se­ries on Sun­day. When the rac­ing fi­nally be­gan on a beau­ti­ful af­ter­noon, it im­me­di­ately shaped up as a Hen­drick kind of day.

John­son and Chase El­liott dom­i­nated the race, run­ning1-2 for a long stretch, and a Hen­drick vic­tory was all but guar­an­teed based on the speed the Chevro­lets showed. El­liott, though, was one of five Chase driv­ers to fin­ish 30th or worse, and Jim­mie John­son cel­e­brates af­ter win­ning the Bank of Amer­ica 500. It was the first time John­son, a six-time NASCAR cham­pion, has made it out of the sec­ond round of the play­offs since the elim­i­na­tion for­mat was in­tro­duced in 2014. it was John­son who had to carry the flag. Fit­ting, though. The win came on the 15th an­niver­sary of John­son’s de­but in the Cup for Hen­drick, which was at Char­lotte, and was his eighth ca­reer win at the track.

“No­body ever gave up, and you know, we­knowwhata cham­pion Jim­mie is,” team owner Rick Hen­drick said.

John­son has qui­etly turned up his per­for­mance in the Chase and be­came an of­fi­cial ti­tle con­tender as the first driver qual­i­fied for the next round. He led a race-high 155 laps, and in four Chase races this sea­son, he’s led 363 laps and hasn’t fin­ished lower than 12th.

“Be cu­ri­ous to look back, I guess, and see if these are all new cars that they’re bring­ing,” said de­fend­ing cham­pion Kyle Busch. “Ob­vi­ously, if it is, then they’ve found some­thing that they’ve been wait­ing out and hold­ing out on us. That’s to be ex­pected, though, man. That’s what this sport is all about.”

John­son cer­tainly fig­ured it out on a day when six Chase driv­ers had trou­ble.

Denny Ham­lin and Kevin Har­vick had en­gine prob­lems. Austin Dil­lon and El­liott were in ac­ci­dents. Joey Logano had tire prob­lems, and Martin Truex Jr. had elec­tri­cal trou­ble as he left pit road af­ter the fi­nal pit stop. Five Chase driv­ers fin­ished lower than 30th, and Har­vick, the 2014 cham­pion, is last in the stand­ings.

Ham­lin was run­ning sec­ond when his en­gine blew with 25 laps re­main­ing. As the cars left pit road, Truex seemed poised to restart in sec­ond, but he ap­peared to stall and restarted 16th.

Al­though Truex sal­vaged his day and fin­ished 13th — low­est of the Chase driv­ers still run­ning at the end of the race — Ham­lin woundup 30th.

Dil­lon was 32nd, El­liott 33rd, Logano 36th and Har­vick 38th.

The hec­tic day left only John­son breath­ing eas­ily at the end. Not even Matt Kenseth, who fin­ished sec­ond to John­son, is re­laxed head­ing into races at Kansas and Tal­ladega.

“Would love to have the win, Kansas Speed­way, Kansas City, Kan. Sun­day, 2:15 p.m. TV: Chs. 11, 4 would make you feel a lot bet­ter about the next two weeks,” Kenseth said. Hen­drick re­turns: This had been a mis­er­able sea­son for Hen­drick, by its own stan­dards. Only two of its four driv­ers made the Chase this year and Dale Earn­hardt Jr. is side­lined with a con­cus­sion.

John­son has the only wins for the or­ga­ni­za­tion, but El­liott had been close to vic­tory all sea­son.

On Sun­day, the two com­bined to lead 258 of the 334 laps.

But El­liott was in­volved in an ac­ci­dent with 75 laps left and could not hide his dis­ap­point­ment.

“We had such a good car,” he said. “I’m dev­as­tated that we didn’t get the re­sult that my guys de­serve.”

De­spite El­liott’s fin­ish, it was a good or­ga­ni­za­tional day for Hen­drick: Kasey Kahne fin­ished third and Alex Bow­man showed early speed be­fore a tire prob­lem caused him to wreck. Ham­lin woes: Dur­ing a lengthy red-flag, NBC Sports in­ter­viewed Ham­lin while he idled in his car and he said he was just cruis­ing along for a strong fin­ish.

Then his en­gine blew up and a strong points day was ru­ined.

It was Ham­lin’s first en­gine fail­ure since Tal­ladega in 2013, and he noted af­ter­ward that he’s al­ways hit with bad luck dur­ing NASCAR’s post­sea­son.

“It’s just my time and it’s usu­ally Chase time when I have these things hap­pen,” he said. “I’ve been do­ing this 11 years and I can’t name any­one else who has had as bad of luck as I have in the Chase.” Dil­lon gam­bles: As the long shot in the field, Dil­lon likely needed tremen­dous luck or a stroke of strate­gic plan­ning to ad­vance out of the sec­ond round. His team gam­bled on a late pit stop in tak­ing only two tires, a move that earned him nine spots and into sec­ond for a restart.

He seemed to get off cleanly at the drop of the flag, but as he shifted, he was hit from be­hind by Truex and sent spin­ning into an in­te­rior wall.

Truex ac­cepted blame for hit­ting El­liott in a frus­trated com­mu­ni­ca­tion over his team ra­dio.

“I tried to give hi­mashot and just turned him around like a damn id­iot,” Truex ra­dioed.

Dil­lon, a rookie in the Chase who is win­less so far at the Cup level, fig­ured he needs to get a vic­tory in one of the next two races.

“We will have to work hard the next two weeks to get the points back,” he said.

BRIAN LAWDERMILK/GETTY IM­AGES

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