Jimmie Johnson wins Martinsville, expands points lead
Jimmie Johnson gained some breathing room in his bid for his third-straight Sprint Cup title with a dominating victory in Sunday’s Tums Quikpak 500 at Martinsville Raceway.
Leading seven times for 339 laps, Johnson took the lead for the final time after pushing past Matt Kenseth with 31 laps to go and then held off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a green-white-checkered finish to notch his sixth victory of the year and increase his lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship by 149 points over Greg Biffle with four races left in the 2008 season.
Carl Edwards finished third, followed by Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin.
Johnson’s victory was his fourth win in his last five starts at Martinsville and the ninth win in the last 12 races for Hendrick Motorsports at the .526-mile oval.
“We were one of probably two or three cars that were really strong,” said Johnson. “We had a great pit stall and great pit stops. We kept track position on our side and I was really able to race for the lead and with the leaders and work on that situation there.
“There were times when I overworked the brakes and overworked the tires and we weren’t as strong as we wanted to be on the long haul, but the car was really good on the short haul and thankfully it ended up that way at the end and I could get away from those guys.”
Johnson held the top spot through the final 30 laps before a caution flag on lap 499 set up the overtime session.
With Junior on his tail looking for his first Martinsville win, Johnson took off on the restart and easily beat out Earnhardt, who had his hands full holding off Edwards.
“I didn’t have a good enough drive up off the corner to catch Jimmie, they had such an excellent race car, ” said Earnhardt. “We were good on a real, real long run, like 80 to 100 laps and it’s rare that you get one of those. I was just a little bit too loose early on, spinning the tires, so I was just having to do the best I could to protect my position.”
Edwards third-place showing allowed him to maintain his fourth-place position in the points, now 198 back from Johnson. It’s a big deficit to overcome, but Edwards is not giving up yet.
“He (Johnson) could have any sort of trouble at the next two races and be right back there with us with all these guys that are kind of bunched together,” said Edwards. “It looked like all of us were within 40-50 points second through fourth, maybe, so it could happen to anyone. We saw what happened with Kyle (Busch) and his team. Those guys seemed unbeatable, but they just had the bad luck - like what happened to us last week.
“This isn't over until the last lap at Homestead, that's for sure.”
Jeff Burton came into Sunday’s race second in the points behind Johnson, but ran into trouble after being penalized for pitting outside his pit box and fell a lap down, winding up with a 17th-place finish.
Burton dropped to one spot in the standings to third behind Biffle, who rebounded from a lap down to finish 12th.
Although he’s 149 points out, Biffle isn’t about to give up on catching Johnson either.
“We're gonna come and get them,” said Biffle. “We've got four more chances and we're going to some of our best places, so they better be on their A game. I know they have been so far, but we're gonna bring the heat to Atlanta and all the rest of the places and see what we can do.
“I'm still confident we can catch him, for sure.”
As confident as Biffle and Edwards may be, Johnson may have a decided edge in the final four races.
Last season, Johnson won four of the final five races in the Chase - starting with Martinsville and winning the next three events – to catapult him to the top of the standings.
Of the four tracks coming up, Johnson already has top-two finishes at Phoenix and Texas and a 13th-place finish at Atlanta.
He’s never won at Homestead, but by then, it may be too late to catch Johnson.
“It's getting closer,” said Johnson is his quest for a third title. “As long as I can hold off and just worry about winning races the better and hopefully I can do that the next two or three races and then cruise on from there.
“We still can lose this points lead and we have to think that way and we have to keep our eye on the ball and make sure we’re swinging hard at it each time. Atlanta was tough on us at the start of the year, but we still got a top 15 finish. But when I say that, that was so long ago and we’ve learned so much since then, that I truthfully feel confident about all the tracks left on the schedule.”
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