John­son moves into 3rd round of play­offs

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - 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 at sun­soaked Charlotte Mo­tor Speed­way when nearly half the ti­tle con­tenders had hor­ri­ble days.

The win Sun­day was his third of the sea­son, but snapped a 24-race los­ing streak dat­ing to March. John­son is the only Hen­drick driver to visit vic­tory lane this sea­son, and this win earned him an au­to­matic berth into 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 re­al­is­tic con­tender for that elu­sive 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 North Carolina af­ter­noon, it im­me­di­ately shaped up as a Hen­drick kind of day.

John­son and Chase El­liott dom­i­nated the race, run­ning 1-2 for a long stretch, and a Hen­drick vic­tory all but guar­an­teed based on the speed the Chevro­lets showed. El­liott, though, was one of five Chase driv­ers to fin­ish 30th or worse, and it was John­son who had to carry the flag. Fit­ting, though. The win came on the 15th an­niver­sary of John­son’s de­but in Cup for Hen­drick, which was at Charlotte, and was his eighth ca­reer win at the track.

No­body ever gave up, and you know, we know what a 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 Sun­day, 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 reign­ing 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 both had en­gine is­sues. Austin Dil­lon and El­liott were in ac­ci­dents. Joey Logano had tire prob­lems, and Martin Truex Jr. had an elec­tri­cal is­sue 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 in­stead restarted 16th.

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

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

The hec­tic day left only John­son breath­ing easy 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, would make you feel a lot bet­ter about the next two weeks,” Kenseth said.

HEN­DRICK RE­TURNS

This had been a mis­er­able sea­son for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports, 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 sniff­ing vic­tory lane all sea­son.

On Sun­day, the two com­bined to lead 258 of the 334 laps, and John­son and El­liott ran 1-2 for a huge chunk of the race.

El­liott was in­volved in an ac­ci­dent with 75 laps re­main­ing 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 is­sue caused him to wreck.

HAM­LIN WOES

Dur­ing a lengthy red-flag, NBC Sports in­ter­viewed Ham­lin while he idled in his car and 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 spent spin­ning into an in­te­rior wall.

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

“I tried to give him a shot 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. “We just have to do a lot, we have to win one of the next two races.”

MIKE MCCARN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie John­son (48) cel­e­brates af­ter win­ning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Se­ries race, Sun­day, at Charlotte Mo­tor Speed­way in Concord, N.C.

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