For the last two years, Jimmie Johnson has never moved past the second round of NASCAR’s Chase. That all changed Sunday as Johnson cruised to victory, leading a race high 155 laps in the rescheduled Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The win gives Johnson a berth in the next round of the Chase and breaks a 24 race winless streak for the six-time champion.
“We knew we would get back,” Johnson said. “Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be but to be here today and have this victory is great. “
The 78th career win for Johnson came on a day when the 11 other drivers in the Chase had issues both big and small.
The trouble started even before the green flag when NASCAR sent Matt Kenseth to the rear of the field prior to the start for unapproved adjustments before the race. Brad Keselowski was penalized during a caution on lap 70 for his crew going over the wall too soon. Kyle Busch had a tire issue and was forced to pit under green on lap 89. He lost a lap fell to 31st. Later he was penalized for his crew over the wall too soon and an uncontrolled tire. Those drivers however, rallied for good finishes. Several other Chase drivers did not.
Kevin Harvick slowed with an engine issue on lap 153. He would eventually go behind the wall and out of the race, finishing 38th. On the same lap, Joey Logano hit the wall hard for the second time in the race; he would go to the garage for extensive repairs. He finished 36th 80 laps down.
Austin Dillon had been running outside the top 10 much of the day, but during stops on lap 258, his crew elected to take only two tires while the leaders took four. He made up 9 spots and restarted second. On the restart, Dillon couldn’t get going; Martin Truex Jr. just behind, got into Dillon spinning him and setting off a 14-car crash. Among those involved were Chase drivers Kurt and Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott. Elliott, who had led 105 of the 334 laps, saw his day come to an end, as did Dillon. Dillon was scored 32nd, Elliott 33rd. The crash resulted in a red flag of 10 minutes and 48 seconds.
“Definitely this it seems like has been a troublesome day for a lot of guys,” Elliott said. “Hopefully, we can just try to have another car like we had today and not make any mistakes next week.”
Denny Hamlin led 52 laps and was contending for the win in the closing laps, but on lap 308 the engine in his Toyota let loose and he was done for the day. Hamlin finished 30th.
Hamlin’s engine brought out the races eighth and final caution. During pit stops, Martin Truex Jr. who led all but 8 laps in May, and was running in the top five and contending, stalled exiting his pit stall. He rejoined the field 16th and could only work his way to 13th at the end. Carl Edwards, who was involved in the Dillon crash finished 12th.
“I’m disappointed at how we ran today, but at the same time we were running fourth when we had our issues,” Truex said. “As bad as we were we were still going to have a good day and then the clutch problem. That really just took any chance we had away. All in all, we just missed it and we fought hard and we did a good job of making something out of it until the clutch went out. Unfortunate, but more importantly I want to say that I’m sorry to Austin Dillon, the 3 team, Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) and all those guys. I know they’re working hard and they certainly didn’t need me to turn them around on that restart. I feel terrible about that.”
The day belonged to Johnson who broke a 24 race winless streak for his team and Hendrick Motorsports and was the only Chase driver to avoid issues.
“That restart at the end and the track got so slick that I actually found that restarting on the bottom was a little bit better than what I had up top,” Johnson said. “I was able to throw it down to the inside of the 20 (Kenseth) in turn three and make the pass, but restarts were really tricky today.
Kenseth, who not only started in the back, but was later penalized for his crew coming over the wall too soon, rallied back to finish second, Kasey Kahne was third, followed by Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson.
“It was a great second,” Kenseth said. “I think this is one of the toughest tracks there is on the circuit to pass at. It was better during the day than it is at night and that’s a good thing, because we had to go to the back twice, so we were able to make up some ground and finish okay.”
Kyle Busch finished a hard fought sixth, Keselowski seventh, with Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Jamie McMurray rounding out the top 10. The full results can be found here.
The win for Johnson assures him a spot in the next round of the Chase, a round he has never been a championship contender in since the format was introduced. Johnson goes into the next two races in the round not having to worry about what happens at Kansas and Talladega.
“That is massive,” Johnson said. “I am so happy about that. So happy to be in Victory Lane with this guy with Chad Knaus (crew chief), we are a brotherhood on this No. 48 team and just so thankful for the friendship and the hard work. Same thing for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports we are really going to enjoy this.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Kansas Speedway for next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400. Live coverage will be on NBC with the green flag coming around 2:15 p.m. ET.