MARTINSVILLE VA- Jimmie Johnson was able to punch his ticket Sunday. The six-time NASCAR championship took the lead with just under 100 laps to go at Martinsville Speedway and survived a late race charge by Brad Keselowski to win the Goody’s 500, the 79th win of his career, his fourth of the season and his ninth at Martinsville.
“Yeah, 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. There are so many challenges with this track. I’m so thankful for this race team.
For the first time since the elimination format of the Chase, Johnson has survived all the rounds and will have the chance to compete against three other drivers for a seventh title at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
“I’ve been trying to ignore this conversation about seven (championships) but now I can’t!” Johnson said. “We’re locked in. I’m just honored to be in this position.”
It appeared earlier in the 500 lap race that Johnson’s day would end in disaster. During a rare round of Martinsville green flag pit stops (the last happened at Martinsville in 2012), the race’s fifth caution came out on lap 357, when Chase contender Carl Edwards cut down a right front tire and hit the wall hard. Johnson had yet to pit, and came to a stop on the backstretch apparently out of power. Johnson was able to recycle his engine however and was soon rolling again.
“We were definitely sputtering and running out of gas,” Johnson later explained. “I don’t exactly know what happened, but somehow there’s a switch for the EC. It was off. When I saw the fuel pressure fluctuate and the engine sputtering, I don’t know, I was reaching around. I hit the switch and shut the EC off, which cut the power off to the car. So I came to a stop.”
“In my mind somewhere there was a voice saying, Recycle the power of the car. So I shut the main power off, counted to three, which was probably only one second instead of three, turned it back on.
“In my mind, I am like, All switches on. I went through my checklist and saw the most important switch was off. I switched it on, fuel pressure came up, the car fired, off it went.”
“Then it was hopefully pit one or two laps from then,” he added. “It went five or six. It was really scary, hoping I could maintain solid fuel pressure. But I just kept coasting, shutting the engine off, was able to stretch it.”
His crew chief Chad Knaus told Johnson to pit, however the pits were closed and had he pitted, the penalty would have sent them to the back of the field. Johnson said he would be fine and stayed out.
NASCAR did eventually open the pits and Johnson was able to get service. Because the caution came out during the green flag pit cycle however, it took NASCAR nearly 30 laps under caution to figure out the correct running order.
Johnson restarted third and worked his way forward taking the lead from Denny Hamlin on lap 409.
While Johnson’s day didn’t end in disaster, several other Chase contenders did have less than stellar days. After his meeting with the turn 1 wall, Edwards was forced to the garage, and lost many laps. He finished the day 36th. Kurt Busch struggled the entire day, and came home 22nd three laps down. Kevin Harvick ran among the leaders early on but a pit road speeding penalty on lap 134 sent him to the tail end of the field and he never recovered; Harvick finished 20th two laps down.
Behind Keselowski in second, Denny Hamlin was third, Matt Kenseth fourth and Kyle Busch fifth. Keselowski said after the race that had he had a few more laps he might have caught Johnson.
“Yes. I know what you’re thinking, I’m thinking it too,” Keselowski said. “You can say it, I can’t. 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.”
The win for Johnson ties him with Jeff Gordon for the most wins (9) among active drivers at Martinsville and ends a three year drought that saw no wins for Johnson at Martinsville, his last coming in 2013, and no laps led at all since the fall of 2014. Sunday, Johnson led a total of 92.
Jeff Gordon, substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished sixth.
“When things are on the line and things matter most, Jimmie and that team know how to step it up to another level,” Gordon said. “They showed that today. He’ll be showing that again in Homestead. I was back there in sixth or seventh place just watching him go after the No. 11 car (Denny Hamlin). That was just phenomenal driving and racing. Then he just drove away.”
Pole sitter Martin Truex Jr., who led 147 laps only to lose speed in the second part of the race, came home seventh followed by Jamie McMurray, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger rounding out the top 10.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500 next Sunday. Live coverage will be on NBC at 2:00 p.m. ET. And Johnson has two more races to get ready to run for the title in Homestead.
“I’ll probably lie to all of you guys and say I’m not going to think about it at all,” Johnson said. “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.”