With surgical precision, polesitter Jimmie Johnson triumphed at one of his best race tracks, gathering steam toward a sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title while fending off a strong performance from his closest challenger for the championship.
Holding off Kyle Busch during a five-lap closing green-flag run at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson won Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 at the .526-mile short track and grabbed the series lead from sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski.
Johnson’s fourth victory of the season and his seventh at Martinsville — tying him for third all-time with Rusty Wallace and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon — leaves the five-time Cup champion in a familiar position. Johnson holds a two-point lead over second-place Keselowski with three races left in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“I’m ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the point lead, but this is no cakewalk,” Johnson said. “I feel as focused and as prepared as I’ve ever been. We have some very smart guys with experience on this team, and everybody is managing their emotions well and working very hard on their individual positions.
“Our young group of over-the-wall guys, they’re standing the test of time. They’re dealing with a lot of pressure each time on pit road and executing very well.”
Busch finished second, .479 seconds behind the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet, who won for the 59th time in his career.
Kasey Kahne ran third, followed by Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 21st in his return to racing after a two-week hiatus. Earnhardt missed two races on doctor’s orders after sustaining his second concussion in six weeks Oct. 7 at Talladega.
Johnson had the lead on Lap 491 when a chain-reaction spin involving Sam Hornish Jr., Carl Edwards and Earnhardt caused the 11th caution and set up a restart on Lap 496.
For practical purposes, however, the winning move came on Lap 476 when Johnson and most of the other lead-lap cars opted to pit for tires under the 10th caution, caused by Kevin Harvick’s blown engine.
Keselowski and Earnhardt stayed on the track and led the field to the green flag on Lap 481. Earnhardt fell back immediately, but Keselowski stubbornly clung to the top spot until Johnson passed him on Lap 486.
“I think we’ve learned our lesson here in the past in not pitting late, and that certainly came into play, and we made the right decision there,” Johnson said.
Five laps after Johnson grabbed the lead, Hornish spun Edwards in Turn 2, and Edwards’ Ford slid into Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, knocking him out of the racing groove. After the restart on Lap 496, Busch got to Johnson’s bumper through Turns 1 and 2 on the final circuit, but deft driving on Johnson’s part kept Busch at bay.
“Jimmie did a good job,” Busch said. “He’s a five-time champion, six-time champion — probably six — for a reason. Getting into (Turn) 1, I got to his rear bumper. Didn’t want to move him out of the way. He slowed the corner down, protected the bottom.
“When I went back to the gas, I spun my tires and got loose, (and) he squirted away from me. No chance of getting back to him in 3 and 4. He manipulated my car the way he needed to protect himself for the last corner down there in 3 and 4.”
Denny Hamlin’s championship hopes sustained a crushing blow when his No. 11 suffered electrical problems late in the race. After intermittent losses of power, Hamlin’s car stalled on the frontstretch on Lap 391, causing the eighth caution of the race.
By the time his crew identified and fixed the problem — a broken post on the master cutoff switch — Hamlin was 34 laps down and mired in 33rdplace, his finishing position. Hamlin dropped from third to fifth in the standings, 49 points behind Johnson and all but out of contention for the title.
Johnson’s victory gave Chevrolet its 10th straight Cup manufacturers’ championship and 36th overall.