Jimmie Johnson a step closer to 7th NASCAR championship after victory at Martinsville

Jimmie Johnson, left, celebrates after winning Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson, left, celebrates after winning Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway. AP

Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway, clinching a spot in the Chase championship round, all the while getting inside the heads of his closest rivals.

With Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin grumbling about Johnson over his radio during the race, followed by Kyle Busch complaining about how Johnson took advantage of some over-accommodating teamwork among the Gibbs drivers, Johnson moved a step closer to his seventh career NASCAR title.

One more championship and Johnson would tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt atop the sport’s all-time list. That chance will come Nov. 20 in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Two semifinal races remain to decide which three drivers will join him in the final four.

“It is three weeks away, but I feel like now it’s going to be four drivers with the same points and with nothing to protect,” said Johnson. “You’ll go out there and lay down your best work.

“But the bright and shiny spot of this is we have a shot at a championship.”

Sunday’s race was not without its quirks. It was marred by a 29-lap caution period, caused by a confusing scoring situation that took NASCAR officials about 25 minutes to sort out.

Non-Chase driver Brad Keselowski finished second, with JGR’s Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Busch finishing third through fifth. Jeff Gordon, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and perhaps driving his final NASCAR race, was sixth.

Johnson also won despite apparently running out of gas and coming to a stop on the backstretch during that caution period. He frantically pushed a couple of buttons to get the car restarted, not losing a lap in the process.

“We were definitely sputtering and running out of gas,” said Johnson. “I don’t know what happened, but the (engine control unit) shut off. I was reaching around and got it to turn back on. We were able to stretch (the fuel) after that.”

By that time, things were beginning to turn sour for the four Gibbs drivers who comprise half of the remaining Chase field. The long caution came after Carl Edwards blew a tire and hit the wall.

Earlier in the race, Hamlin complained on his radio about Johnson’s blocking strategy as Hamlin tried to pass him. Hamlin finally bumped him aside, forcing Johnson to go to the pits to repair the damage.

“I ran him down from the back of the pack, basically,” said Hamlin, who added that he and Johnson had run-ins recently at New Hampshire and Charlotte. “He just wasn’t wanting to give up the spot. It was just costing both of us time. It was frustrating both of us. I gave those guys many, many laps to give us the position before I had to move him.”

That didn’t add up for Johnson.

“I’m puzzled that he had to move me like he did,” Johnson said. “I prefer to race people cleanly. I got accused of racing hard? I’ll take that as a compliment.”

One week after Busch, Edwards and Kenseth ran safely near the back of the pack at Talladega to maintain their spots in the top eight, the Gibbs drivers ran closer to the front at Martinsville.

With Edwards out of contention, Busch, Kenseth and Hamlin tried to work together in pursuit of Johnson. They apparently couldn’t stay out of each other’s way long enough to mount a challenge.

“We worked so good together that we gave (Johnson) the win today,” said Busch. “That’s how good JGR is. We could have been a little farther up front, but we were held up there and we couldn’t pass and if I did try to make moves or try to make a pass, I got cut off.”

Hamlin was somewhat more diplomatic than Busch (diplomacy never one of Busch’s strong suits), but the team meeting at JGR’s headquarters this week should be interesting.

“It’s tough to say, I think we all agreed that we would work together on restarts and try to do everything we could to be sure we didn’t screw the other guy over,” Hamlin said. “When it comes to racing, I didn’t think that any of us really had anything for (Johnson). Maybe the other guys thought I was holding up the line, which is very possible, I definitely was at one point.”

Johnson, who won two of the first five races of the season, didn’t win again until Charlotte, in the first race of the second round of the Chase. Now he’s in a similarly strong situation in the semifinals.

He has a chance to put even more pressure on the rest of the Chase field over the next two weeks, especially at Texas, where Johnson has won four consecutive fall races.

“The big takeaway is momentum over these next two weeks,” he said.

Remaining races

Sunday: AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, 2 p.m

Nov. 13: Can-AM 500, Phoenix International Raceway, 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 20: Ford Ecoboost 400, Homestead-Miami Speedway, 2:30 p.m.