In an attrition-filled race that left many championship contenders scrambling, Jimmie Johnson avoided any problems and took a big step towards a seventh Sprint Cup title Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson won the Bank of America 500, his third victory of the season and 78th of his career. More importantly, he's now locked into the semifinal round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup regardless of how he finishes the next two weeks. Since NASCAR introduced the knockout playoff format in 2014, Johnson's never made it past the second round.
After an unusually rough regular season stretch that included only one top-10 finish over 10 races and a career-low amount of laps led, Johnson's performance has improved considerably since the Chase began last month. He led a sizable number of laps in two of the first three playoff races, with only pit road penalties preventing him from reaching victory lane.
On Sunday, Johnson was again fast and this time was mistake free. He led a race-high 155 laps and won by nearly 1.5 seconds over second-place Matt Kenseth. The win snapped Johnson's career-long 24-race winless streak.
"It was not fun to experience after all that we have been through but we have seen the cars get stronger, better, and faster," Johnson said. "We were able to execute all day long here."
Kasey Kahne finished third, with Ryan Newman fourth and Kyle Larson fifth. Completing the top 10 were Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, and Jamie McMurray.
While Johnson rejoiced knowing he wouldn't have to concern himself with the Round 2 elimination race at Talladega Superspeedway -- "That is massive, I am so happy about that," he said -- other Chasers endured various setbacks that put them in more precarious positions.
Kevin Harvick had an electrical problem that ended his day, so he finished 38th. Two tire failures sent Joey Logano into the wall, and he finished 36th. Denny Hamlin's engine blew as he was running second with 26 laps left. And though Kenseth and Keselowski finished in the top 10, each had to rally from pit road penalties.
"Things happen. It's part of racing, but we're not out," Logano said. "We're not gonna die. This team is resilient. We've proved it before and we'll just have to go out and prove it again. We just have to have two flawless races. It's something we can make up."
The biggest incident of the day saw playoff drivers Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott involved in a multi-car accident in which Dillon crash heavily into the inside front stretch wall. The carnage began when Martin Truex Jr. bumped Dillon, lined up second, on a restart with 76 laps remaining that spun Dillon with the field then stacking up behind him.
Dillon and Elliott's cars sustained extensive damage and were unable to continue. Also suffering damage, though minor, were the cars of Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, all of whom are in the 12-driver Chase. Neither Dillon nor Elliott were injured.
The second event of the three-race Round 2 Chase is Oct. 16 at Kansas Speedway, then the final leg is Oct. 23 at Talladega, where the lowest four ranked drivers are eliminated. Hamlin holds the final transfer position by three points over Elliott.
BANK OF AMERICA 500 RESULTS
|13||7||Martin Truex, Jr.||Toyota||334||Running||0|
|20||15||Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||Ford||333||Running||0|