Jim­mie John­son’s win at Martinsville brings talk of sev­enth ti­tle

Cecil Whig - - & - By REID SPENCER

NASCAR Wire Ser­vice

— Mr. Martinsville is back – and with him, a re­al­is­tic shot at a record-ty­ing NASCAR Sprint Cup Se­ries cham­pi­onship.

Win­less at the .526-mile short track since the spring race of 2013, Jim­mie John­son ended his “drought” on Sun­day with a vic­tory in the Goody’s Fast Re­lief 500 and earned a berth in the Cham­pi­onship 4 race, set for Nov. 20 at Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way.

In win­ning for the ninth time at Martinsville, the fourth time this sea­son and the 79th time in his ca­reer, John­son didn’t take the lead un­til he passed Denny Ham­lin for the top spot on Lap 409 of 500.

In a race that fea­tured two green-flag runs of more than 110 laps, John­son pulled out to a lead of more than two sec­onds in the clos­ing laps and fin­ished 1.291 sec­onds ahead of charg­ing Brad Ke­selowski, who passed Ham­lin for sec­ond place on Lap 477.

John­son said on Fri­day he has been try­ing to avoid thoughts of a pos­si­ble sev­enth ti­tle that would tie him for the all-time lead with icons Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt.

“I’ve been try­ing to ig­nore the con­ver­sa­tion about seven, but now I can’t,” John­son said in Vic­tory Lane. “We’re locked in. It’s crazy to have a shot at seven now.

“I’ll prob­a­bly lie to all of you guys and say I’m not

MARTINSVILLE, VA.

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.”

Ham­lin led a pa­rade of Joe Gibbs Rac­ing drivers to the three po­si­tions be­hind John­son and Ke­selowski, with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch com­ing home third and fourth in a hotly con­tested race among team­mates.

“We all had a top three car dur­ing the end of the race, and we ended up three, four, five,” Ham­lin said. “That’s never happy.”

Not as for­tu­nate was JGR driver Carl Ed­wards, who blew a tire and hit the wall on Lap 358 to cause the fifth and fi­nal cau­tion. Ed­wards took his No. 19 Toy­ota to the garage for re­pairs and fin­ished 36th, 23 laps down. He en­ters next Sun­day’s sec­ond Round of 8 race 32 points be­hind Busch, who cur­rently holds the last of the Cham­pi­onship 4 po­si­tions.

The af­ter­noon was nearly as hard on the Ste­wartHaas Rac­ing Chevro­let en­tries of Kevin Har­vick and Kurt Busch, whose han­dling de­te­ri­o­rated af­ter the sun came out mid-race. Har­vick, the 2014 cham­pion, fin­ished 20th and Busch 22nd. They are 16 and 18 points, re­spec­tively, be­hind Kyle Busch and in need of strong show­ings – if not vic­to­ries – in the next two races.

Chase driver Joey Logano fin­ished ninth and is fifth in the stand­ings, four points be­hind Kyle Busch.

John­son’s mas­tery of Martinsville may have re­turned in the clos­ing run, but the day was any­thing but smooth for the No. 48 Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports Chevro­let team. John­son took a shot from Ham­lin in the early go­ing, and the con­tact pro­duced a tire rub that re­quired at­ten­tion and knocked John­son back to 25th for a restart on Lap 208.

Lap 358 brought a panic at­tack when John­son slowed to a stop on the back­stretch, hav­ing switched off the elec­tronic con­trol unit on his car. But af­ter re­cy­cling the unit, John­son came to pit road on Lap 366 and re­fu­eled for the fi­nal run, tak­ing the green flag from the fourth spot.

“We lost track po­si­tion through a cou­ple of dif­fer­ent means there at the first half of the race,” John­son said. “Hon­estly, that cau­tion with the No. 19 car (Ed­wards) put us in the cat­bird seat.

“I wasn’t sure I could get by the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) or the No. 11 (Ham­lin), but we got go­ing and I got by both of those guys. I thought ‘ Man, I hope this stays green,’ be­cause that re­ally suits what our race car was do­ing all day long.”

Notes: AJ All­mendinger started fourth and fin­ished 10th, his third straight top10 show­ing. All­mendinger restarted from the rear of the field for the fi­nal green­flag run be­cause he had to pit for fuel be­fore pit road was open. He was the fi­nal driver on the lead lap… In what is likely his fi­nal race in a Sprint Cup car, Jeff Gor­don came home sixth in his last sub­sti­tute role of the sea­son for Dale Earn­hardt Jr… Pole­sit­ter Martin Truex Jr. fin­ished sev­enth.

GETTY IM­AGES FOR NASCAR

Jim­mie John­son cel­e­brates in Vic­tory Lane af­ter win­ning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Se­ries Goody’s Fast Re­lief 500 at Martinsville Speed­way on Sun­day in Martinsville, Va.

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