Jimmie Johnson assured himself of racing for a record-tying seventh championship in three weeks after earning a spot in the title round by winning Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson passed Denny Hamlin with 92 laps remaining, then drove away for his fourth win of the season and ninth overall at Martinsville. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
Afterward Keselowski was among drivers frustrated with lengthy caution where officials couldn't figure out the correct restart order. As NASCAR tried to determine who lined up where, drivers circled the half-mile track for 29 laps. Keselowski strongly believed had those laps not been wasted, he could've caught and passed Johnson.
"We don't need to run a hundred laps under yellow with the field not trying to figure out where they're at," Keselowski said. "It probably cost us the race."
The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch along with quasi-teammate Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing dominated much of the afternoon. The four combined to lead 374 of 500 laps.
But when it mattered most, Johnson was better -- even in spite of earlier contact with Hamlin that knocked his steering alignment askew and a fuel pickup issue that caused him to momentarily stop on the track during caution. It was Johnson's ninth victory on the historic Virginia short track.
Johnson's win locks him into one of four spots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship finale Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The other positions will contested over the next two races among the remaining seven drivers competing in NASCAR's playoff.
A seventh Johnson championship would tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most premier division titles in NASCAR history. Johnson won a record five straight championships from 2006-10 and a sixth in 2013.
"I've been trying to ignore this conversation about seven, and now I can't," Johnson said.
Most in danger of elimination is Carl Edwards, who suffered a tire failure and crashed into the Turn 3 outside wall. He finished 36th and is 32 points behind Busch for the final transfer position. Edwards essentially needs to win either next week at Texas Motor Speedway or Nov. 13 at Phoenix International Raceway to avoid getting dropped from the Chase.
"It was nothing that we could have really avoided," Edwards said of the tire failure. "That's just the kind of thing that happens. It's a high performance sport and everybody is pushing everything. We could have won both Texas and Phoenix earlier this year, so I feel very confident going to those two tracks so we'll be alright."
Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are the other title-eligibles who struggled in the first of three races in the third playoff round. Neither Harvick nor Busch could get their cars to handle and labored to finishes of 20th and 22nd, respectively.
"We missed it," Busch said. "I don't know where, how, why, we missed it. Even SHR as a group, we didn't perform well. That was not the day we needed."