Johnson wins at Martinsville, gains chance for seventh title
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MARTINSVILLE, VA. — A slot in NASCAR’s record books is within reach for Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson earned one of four spots in next month’s title-deciding season finale Sunday with a win in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, his ninth career victory at Martinsville Speedway. The sixtime NASCAR champion will race for his seventh championship, which would tie him for the record with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven, and now I can’t,” Johnson said. “I’ll probably lie to all of you guys and say I’m not going to think about it at all. But it’s inevitable. Fortunately, I don’t have to think about it for three weeks. But we’re going to enjoy this and savor it. We’re going to get our ducks in a row for Homestead.”
The victory blocked Joe Gibbs Racing from placing all four of its Toyota drivers in the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup title. There are only three spots open in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20, and JGR’s hope of sweeping the final four ended Sunday.
Most likely to miss the final is Carl Edwards, who had a tire problem and finished 36th, lowest of the eight Chase drivers. Also in trouble: Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, who finished 20th and 22nd.
Brad Keselowski, eliminated from the Chase last week, finished second and was irritated by a lengthy caution earlier in the race when NASCAR struggled Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth Sunday, 2 p.m. TV: Chs. 11, 4 to figure out the running order. Had those laps not been wasted under yellow, Keselowski believed he could have beaten Johnson.
“We don’t need to run 100 laps under yellow with the field, not trying to figure out where they’re at, and it probably cost us the race,” Keselowski said.
The caution took 29 laps, and left some grumbling the order still wasn’t correct when the race restarted.
“I think the stakes are so high, I really wish we would have red-flagged the race, gone, reviewed it and gotten it right,” said thirdplace finisher Denny Hamlin. “There’s a 100 percent chance it was not right at the end. It changed the running order.
“Hopefully, that doesn’t change what happens going into Homestead. I know that NASCAR is doing everything they can with the scoring they have and things like that. But you have to get it right. It definitely was not right.”
JGR finished third, fourth and fifth as Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are inside the topfour as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. But all was not well in the Gibbs camp after the race.
Busch felt Hamlin finished the highest by holding up Kenseth and Busch in the waning laps. Although the teammates worked well together on restarts, Busch felt that Hamlin’s not getting out of the way allowed Johnson to win and Keselowski to fin- ish second.
“We work so good together that we just gave the win to [Johnson]. So, JGR all the way,” Busch said. “At the end, you had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down [Johnson].”
Hamlin disputed Busch’s view.
“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run, but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said.
Jeff Gordon finished sixth in his final scheduled race as the replacement driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. It is presumably the final race of Gordon’s career. He retired last season, but was pressed into eight races when Earnhardt suffered a concussion.
It was an unusually fast race by Martinsville standards, and the five cautions were the fewest since April 1989.