By JEFF WOLFE
Jimmie Johnson felt good about his chances before he stepped into his No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday afternoon at Martinsville.
He was feeling a lot better after winning his seventh career race at the half-mile paper clip oval. Johnson led 193 of the 500 laps, including the final 15, for his fourth win of the season and first in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the final ten races of the season.
Martinsville is the seventh race in the Chase and Johnson, a five-time champion, leaves with a two-point lead over Brad Keselowski. Johnson has won at Martinsville three other times on the way to titles.
“I’m ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the points lead, but this is no cakewalk,” said Johnson, who has four wins this season and 59 for his career. “These guys bring their best each and every week.”
One late obstacle that Johnson had to overcome was Keselowski after the next to last caution with 24 laps to go. When pit lane opened, Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. were the only lead lap cars to stay out.
It was particularly a gamble for Keselowski, who was running sixth before the caution. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge made the call hoping that some other lead lap cars behind him would also stay out, meaning the leaders would have to pass at least a few of them before reaching him. But other than Earnhardt Jr., none did. And when Johnson won the race off pit road, that left him on Keselowski’s bumper for the restart in front of 60,000 fans.
“I felt like it was going to be a problem for him and I expected him to drop a little further back,” Johnson said. “We’ve learned our lesson of not pitting late and that came into play today. We’ve done it before and gotten beat. We made the right decision today.”
It took seven laps for Johnson to get past Keselowski and once he did it looked like the field was clear. However, Johnson did have to hold off Kyle Busch on the final five laps after the final of 11 cautions for 64 laps to secure the win. Busch reached Johnson’s bumper once, but was never able to pull alongside the leader.
“He was really slow in 1 and 2 and I should’ve done it there,” Busch said. “I’m really, really disappointed.”
The gamble turned out to be neutral move for Keselowski, who ended up finishing sixth on a track where he had a career average finish of 13.4.
“You can’t count this team out,” Keselowski said. “This team has a tremendous amount of heart. I know this championship is going to come down to Homestead (the final race). We’ve got to be in position where you’ve got a shot at it. We’ll keep fighting the good fight.”
While Johnson, who had two new right side tires when he passed Keselowski for the lead, felt confident he would get around Keselowski to take the lead. But he was also impressed that Keselowski didn’t drop back more in the final laps.
“I felt like it was going to be a problem for him,” Johnson said of Keselowski staying out. “I expected him to drop a little further back. You just can’t count out good race teams. When you get to the playoffs, teams step up and show what they’re made of.”
The rest of the top 10 after Johnson and Busch was Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle.
The fourth place tied a career best finish for Almirola, who drives the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“We were terrible at the beginning and all these guys never gave up,” Almirola said. “We kept fighting and fighting and making every change they could to get us better and better. It’s a great rebound from last week.”
Two drivers who kept fighting and fighting with the cars in the final laps were Bowyer and Gordon. It was in the spring race on a late restart where Bowyer dove under Gordon and Johnson, who were fighting for the lead, on the first turn, causing all three of them to crash. This wasn’t as severe or as crucial of a situation, but also didn’t go unnoticed by either driver.
“The 24 at the end, I didn’t want to do anything to him and he turned left to block,” Bowyer said. “It was just a bad deal. I was like ‘Hey, you better not do that.’ It is what it is.”
Gordon admitted he was caught in the outside lane on the restart and was trying to nudge his way to the bottom.
“We were sitting ducks on the outside,” Gordon said. “I was just trying to get down there. I felt like I got down in front of him. It’s not the first time with him. We race really hard together. We were just racing hard there.”
Bowyer and Gordon raced hard throughout. Bowyer looked to be the favorite to win when he came in for a green flag pit stop with 108 laps to go. Bowyer nearly stalled his car, but it cost him about three extra seconds and the lead. He never made it back to the front.
“As soon as it (the track) got cool, we got a little tight,” said Bowyer, who led 154 laps. “Then we had trouble getting out of the pits and lost track position and we never got it back.”
Gordon also had his share of success early in the race, leading 92 laps.
“It was really, really strong in the first half of race,” Gordon said of his car. “This team made an amazing effort. The last thing we wanted was to be on the outside the last two restarts and that’s where we were.”
The eighth race of the Chase, the AAA Texas 500 will take place at Texas Motor Speedway next Sunday. It will be a 2 p.m. start on ESPN.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.