John­son wins Martinsville to gain spot in NASCAR’s fi­nale

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Jenna fryer

MARTINSVILLE, VA. >> A slot in NASCAR’s record books is ab­so­lutely within reach for Jim­mie John­son.

John­son earned one of four spots in next month’s ti­tle-de­cid­ing sea­son fi­nale Sun­day with his ninth ca­reer vic­tory at Martinsville Speed­way. The six-time NASCAR cham­pion will race for his sev­enth cham­pi­onship, which would tie him for the record with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earn­hardt.

“I’ve been try­ing to ig­nore this con­ver­sa­tion about seven, and now I can’t,” said John­son, who doesn’t par­tic­u­larly want to start think­ing about the stakes just yet.

“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 Toy­ota driv­ers in the fi­nal round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup ti­tle. There are only three spots still open in the Nov. 20 fi­nale at Homestead-Miami Speed­way, and JGR’s hope of sweep­ing the fi­nal four ended Sun­day.

Most likely to miss the fi­nal? Carl Ed­wards, who had a tire prob­lem and fin­ished 36th at Martinsville — 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 to fig­ure out the run­ning or­der. Had those laps not been wasted un­der yel­low, Ke­selowski ab­so­lutely be­lieved he could have beat 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 top-four 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 not get­ting out of the way al­lowed John­son to win and Ke­selowski to fin­ish 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.

Martin Truex Jr. fin­ished sev­enth and was fol­lowed by Jamie McMur­ray and Joey Logano, win­ner last week at Tal­ladega but now the first driver be­low the cut­line in the Chase.

It was an un­usu­ally fast race for Martinsville stan­dards, and the five cau­tions were the fewest since April of 1989.

It was an un­usual vic­tory for John­son, who tan­gled with Ham­lin early in the race and con­tact be­tween the two forced John­son to pit road.

With about 200 laps re­main­ing, Ham­lin grew rapidly an­noyed try­ing to pass John­son, and grum­bled that John­son “thinks we’re bluff­ing” about the strength of his car. Out of pa­tience, he moved John­son out of his way.

The ag­gres­sive move caused dam­age to John­son’s car, but he was saved when a torn ban­ner forced NASCAR to call a cau­tion. Ham­lin was still ag­gra­vated as John­son head to pit road for re­pairs.

“He thinks he’s a (ex­ple­tive) king, doesn’t do any­thing wrong,” Ham­lin ra­dioed.

John­son was 25th on the restart, and crew chief Chad Knaus quickly re­minded the driver that Ham­lin had dropped deep into the field ear­lier in the race be­cause of a speed­ing penalty and had driven back into the top-five.

John­son did climb back into the top 10, but a long green-flag run com­bined with an un­timely cau­tion caused him to run out of gas. He was able to get his car fired, then thought he’d made a mis­take on run­ning out of fuel.

It all worked out and John­son restarted fourth.

“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. It’s a great time to start win­ning races.”

STEVE HEL­BER — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim­mie John­son cel­e­brates after win­ning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speed­way in Martinsville, Va., Sun­day.

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