John­son earns a spot in Sprint Cup fi­nale

Six-time champ has chance to tie record for ca­reer ti­tles af­ter Martinsville win

The Star Democrat - - SPORTS -

— There was a time this sum­mer when a sev­enth cham­pi­onship seemed out of reach for Jim­mie John­son.

Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports was strug­gling and John­son wasn’t at the top of many lists to con­tend for the ti­tle.

Then the Hen­drick or­ga­ni­za­tion flipped a switch, built bet­ter, faster cars, and John­son turned it up a notch. Now, that slot in NAS- CAR’s record books is ab­so­lutely within reach.

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. SCARY SCENE: Track of­fi­cials said 22 pedes­tri­ans were struck by a mo­torist in a park­ing lot out­side the speedway af­ter the race.

A track of­fi­cial said there were no life-threat­en­ing in­juries, al­though seven were trans­ported to Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal in Martinsville, Vir­ginia, and two more were trans­ported to More­head Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal in Eden.

One per­son was taken into cus­tody af­ter the in­ci­dent for ques­tion­ing. JOHN­SON VS. HAM­LIN: There was mid-race ag­gres­sion be­tween John­son and Ham­lin , as Ham­lin

moved John­son out of his way for a pass for po­si­tion.

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

John­son didn’t un­der­stand Ham­lin’s lack of pa­tience, and Ham­lin said it stems from in­ci­dents in the first two rounds of the Chase. DE­HY­DRATED DRIV­ERS: It was the warm­est fall race at Martinsville since 1999 and tem­per­a­tures in the mid-80s caused over­heat­ing for at least two driv­ers. AJ All­mendinger and Michael McDow­ell had to be treated for de­hy­dra­tion af­ter the race, and both were re­leased from the care cenichael An­nett also was treated af­ter the race, but NASCAR did not dis­close his symp­toms. UP NEXT: A Sun­day stop at Texas Mo­tor Speedway, where John­son has won the last four Novem­ber races.

AP PHOTO

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

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