RIDGEWAY, Va. – Jimmie Johnson will go to Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20 with a chance to win a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title.
Johnson clinched a berth in the Championship 4 by winning the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven (championships) and now I can’t,” Johnson said after the race. “We’re locked in. I’m just honored to be in this position and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the belief of Lowe’s and all their employees had in me way back when.”
“To punch our ticket and know the chance at seven is alive is pretty damn awesome!”
Brad Keselowski finished second after driving towards the front from eighth on the final restart. The driver of the No. 2 car drove through a pack of Joe Gibbs Racing cars that included Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch in the final green-flag run. Though his car was faster than Johnson’s, he ran out of time to catch the No. 48 in the final laps.
Keselowski was coy about his chances to win after the race “I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it, too,” he said. “You can say it, I can’t!”
Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch all came home third, fourth and fifth respectively, but all three are currently in position to advance into the Championship 4 after this race.
Asked about whether or not the racing between teammates might have hurt the chances of a Joe Gibbs driver winning the race, Hamlin’s answer was straightforward: “I don’t think so,” he said. “Especially when we’re racing for third or something like that, we’ve got to do everything we can to get every position.”
A.J. Allmendinger fought a broken A/C unit in his car to finish 10th, his third-consecutive top 11 finish both in the season and at Martinsville.
“It’s the first time the team has had (three top-10s in a row during the season), Allmendinger said post-race. “It just shows that we’re getting more speed in the car and at a lot of these places that we’re going to, it’s definitely helping. I’m looking forward to the last three races of the year with brand new cars and trying to improve.”
Martin Truex Jr. brought the field to green and led the first 23 laps before Ricky Stenhouse brought out the first yellow. Stenhouse backed his No. 17 Fastenal Ford into the Turn 3 wall. It was his second wreck of the weekend, as he lost his primary car in Friday’s qualifying session to a similar accident in Turn 1.
A.J. Allmendinger beat Truex off of pit road in the first round of pit stops, but eight cars stayed out ahead of them. Joey Logano led the field to the race’s first restart. However, Truex would come storming back through the field to take the lead back from Logano on Lap 46.
Lap 60 would see the race’s second caution of the afternoon, as David Ragan suffered from a mechanical failure and dropped fluid all over the track surface. Truex and Kyle Larson traded the lead during the next run: Larson’s Target Chevrolet went to the front on lap 73, but Truex took it back on lap 80.
The race went green from that point until the fourth caution came out on lap 133 for debris in Turn 4. Kevin Harvick picked up a speeding penalty during the subsequent round of pit stops and restarted in 26th. He would fail to recover the lost track position and would finish 20th. Harvick is 16 points out of the final spot in the cutoff.
Truex would resume from the front of the field on the subsequent restart and lead until lap 181, when Kenseth’s Dollar General Toyota got around him and took the lead.
On lap 192, Allmendinger and Johnson made contact in Turn 1. Johnson sustained some right front fender damage as part of the incident. Six laps later, Hamlin moved Johnson out of the way in Turn 4, and Johnson’s other front fender was bent enough to create a tire rub. Johnson was saved by a caution three laps later for a banner that was falling off the wall in Turn 2.
Kenseth would lead 175 consecutive laps until the final caution of the day. On lap 358, Chase driver Carl Edwards melted a bead and blew his right front tire. He smacked the wall in Turn 1 and went behind the wall for repairs. Edwards finished 36th and has two races to make up a 36-point gap.
Edwards’ caution came out in the middle of a run of green flag pit stops. Allmendinger was the leader at the time of the yellow, but he ran out of fuel during the caution. The change in leaders set off a messy domino effect that NASCAR spent the next 29 laps sorting out under caution.
Questions were asked from all sides after the race as to why NASCAR took so long to set the restart order. Keselowski was chief among them, thinking that he could have run down Johnson if he had been given the chance to run those 29 laps under green. “We don’t need to run a hundred laps under yellow with the field not trying to figure out where they’re at,” he said. “It probably cost us the race.”
Hamlin was first when the final restart came on lap 386 before Johnson took the lead for good on lap 409.
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup continues with the AAA Texas 500 next Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway (Noon ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM).