CONCORD, N.C. — Welcome to the Round of 8, Jimmie Johnson.
The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion utilized a dominant performance on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway to win the Bank of America 500, earning a guaranteed berth in the third round of the playoffs for the first time since the elimination-style format was introduced in 2014.
Johnson took the lead for the first time after Joey Logano blew a tire and hit the wall at lap 118, having not yet pitted during a cycle of green flag stops and rolling up to the top of the leaderboard after his service.
From there, the El Cajon, California native was dominant, leading a race-high 155 laps en route to victory, 15 years after his Sprint Cup debut in the 2001 edition of the event.
The victory was Johnson’s third of the season, eighth at Charlotte and 78th career Sprint Cup triumph. It also ended a career-long 24 race winless drought.
“We knew we would get back (to victory lane),” Johnson saidy. “Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be but to be here today and have this victory is great. We were able to execute all day long here. The track got so slick (during the final restart) that I actually found that restarting on the bottom was a little bit better than what I had up top. I was able to throw it down to the inside of the 20 (Matt Kenseth) in turn three and make the pass, but restarts were really tricky today.”
“I feel like the daytime conditions really helped us,” Johnson added. “The old track … when it was Lowe’s Motor Speedway … was so worn out, temperature sensitive and difficult to drive that it really fit me pretty well, and this track is slowly moving back to that. Whatever asphalt (the track) put down is going to last a hundred more years; that’s how good it is. That stuff just isn’t changing, but the weather definitely helped my style and made a big difference in our race.”
Johnson and Elliott combined to lead 181 of the first 252 laps, but it was A.J. Allmendinger’s crash on the backstretch with 82 to go set up a round of pit stops and the beginning of the stretch run to the checkered flag.
Austin Dillon gambled on a two-tire call to jump up to second, while Johnson led the field back to green with 75 laps left, but chaos immediately ensued that changed the complexion of the race and the Chase.
Dillon spun his tires on the restart, getting a shot from behind by Martin Truex Jr. that sent him spinning into the infield grass before he hit the inside wall at pit exit and spun across the track. At the same time, Kyle Busch got into Elliott and turned him into traffic, sparking a multi-car melee that collected six of the 12 remaining eligible Chase contenders.
“I tried to give him (Dillon) a shot and I completely turned him around,” Truex admitted over the radio immediately after the accident to his team.
“It’s just tough,” Dillon lamented. “We’ll have to work hard now (to advance). I felt like I got to third gear pretty clean and just got contact (from behind). Obviously, we took two tires, and you know the risks when you make a strategy call like that and we knew that today. This time it didn’t work out.”
“I felt like I got hit more towards the right. I didn’t have a good vantage point, but it’s all good. We just have to win one of the next two races now.”
In addition to Dillon, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Elliott all sustained damage in the incident, with Elliott’s day the most severely ended after leading 103 laps in the No. 24 3M Chevrolet.
“I’m good,” Elliott said. “I guess the 3 (Dillon) spun his tires and got loose, then the 78 was trying to push him and just turned him around. The 18 (Kyle Busch) … I don’t think saw what was happening and got into me, and I tried to get off the brakes and get down, but it just didn’t work. We had such a good car today and just didn’t get the result we wanted. We’ll just go on to next week and keep doing what we can to advance.”