Johnson maintains Martinsville mastery
Jimmie Johnson called it a “standard Martinsville race.”
It certainly was.
Johnson turned loose his Martinsville express again, rolling to his eighth victory at the historic track, and doing it better than he ever has, leading a personal-best 346 laps of the 500 – topping the 339 he led here in October of 2008.
Starting from the pole after setting a track record on Friday, he dominated early and late, leading 197 of the first 221 laps and all of the last 138.
“This was one of the most relaxed weekends we’ve ever had sticking to our game plan,” Johnson said. “We fell back on experience. Friday, it was easier to stay committed. Then during race practice, the track was playing games. We had some fast laps but not consistently like some others. We weren’t competitive. But, we knew what we wanted to have in the race. Then, in the race, we had to make adjustments on the fly. ... It was a very well executed race by the whole team.”
He kept the lead through three restarts over the last 50 laps, the first one with teammate Jeff Gordon in second and the last two with Clint Bowyer lining up to his outside.. Johnson drove away after each, the last coming with eight after a six-minute red flag for cleanup of Kurt Busch’s car pounding the wall and catching fire, and won by .627 seconds.
“I didn’t want to see that last caution and give those guys a chance,” Johnson said. But I‘ve learned how to restart and run best laps on old tires. I lost races to Jeff like that. From a setup standpoint, Chad knows what changes to make. But, I knew if I could get through two or three corners, I could stretch it back out.”
The eighth win puts Johnson third all time on the track’s victory list behind Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. It gave Hendrick Motorsports the track record for victories with 20, one more than Petty Enterprises.
Johnson also took over the points lead, moving six ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Bowyer rallied after spinning on lap 180 as one of the losers in a pileup that began when Johnson slowed coming out of turn four while leading.
“He just had a faster car,” Bowyer said. “After practice (Saturday), I thought for once I was better than (Gordon) and he was better than Johnson. But, when the race started the tide turned. (At the end), he had a car that looked like it was ready to go to the next short-track race and mine was torn all to (heck).”
Johnson’s teammates Gordon and Kasey Kahne finished third and fourth, giving Hendrick three of the top four. Kyle Busch was fifth and Keselowski sixth.
Gordon, who rallied after overshooting his pit, was in second and gaining rapidly on Johnson when the caution waved for Brian Vickers’ spin with just over 50 laps to go.
“Our car was unbelievable on that long run,” Gordon said. “Obviously, we didn’t want to see that caution come out.”
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth combined to lead most of the last that Johnson didn’t. Kenseth, who was racing here for the first time in a JGR car and rarely ran well here while driving for Jack Roush, pitted during the final caution and wound up 14th.
Brian Vickers, who spun during and after the race, edged Danica Patrick for 11th in a three-abreast finish that also included Kevin Harvick.
Bobby Labonte finished 21st and Dave Blaney was 29th.