On a day when it seemed every other Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff contender encountered calamity, Jimmie Johnson survived to gain the upper hand in the championship battle after Sunday’s rain-delayed Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson gained control on a restart with 18 laps to go when, starting on the inside of the front row, beating Matt Kenseth to the front – even though Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota had just beaten Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy of Jimmie Johnson off pit road.
It was a lead Kenseth could hold only briefly — for less than a lap, in fact.
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Once Johnson was out front again — he led a race-high total of 155 laps in all — he sailed away to clinch advancement into the Round of Eight in the Chase. Although Johnson has won six championships, it’s the first time since NASCAR instituted the elimination format in the Chase in 2014 that he has advanced this far.
It was Johnson’s 78th career victory.
"Yeah, boys, we are back," Johnson told his team over the radio shortly after taking the checkered flag. It was a measure of vindication for Johnson and the No. 48 team after they had encountered one problem after another during recent races.
It was Johnson’s third win of the season, but his first since Fontana in mid-March. Johnson said he never doubted he would get back to Victory Lane sooner rather than later, despite a series of mistakes, some by the driver himself, that had appeared to be holding the No. 48 group back in recent weeks.
“No, I didn’t wonder, I just knew it was taking way too long," Johnson said after breaking what had stretched into an uncharacteristic 24-race winless streak. "When you drive for Rick Hendrick and have all the great people at Hendrick Motorsports working for you, the great support from Lowe’s and everyone in their stores and Chevrolet…..there are just so many great people behind us and that support us to make this happen.
"We knew we would get back. Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be but to be here today and have this victory is great. … This is something very special to our team.”
For many of the rest of the Chasers, Sunday was a very difficult day at the 1.5-mile track during a race that had originally been scheduled for Saturday night, only to be postponed until Sunday afternoon because of torrential rain that hit the track Saturday.
The Chase championship chances of young drivers Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon took severe blows when they got caught in the middle of a 12-car wreck on a late restart
It brought out a red flag for extensive track cleanup.
Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, appeared to be getting a push from behind by the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. on the restart when things went wildly awry. Shortly thereafter, Dillon spun off and slammed into the inside wall while the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Kyle Busch clipped the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy of Elliott from behind, sending Elliott hard into the outside wall.
Like Dillon and Elliott, Truex and Kyle Busch are still alive in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. Also involved in the incident were Chasers Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.
"I’m all good," Elliott said. "I guess the 3 (of Dillon) spun his tires. Then the 78 (of Truex) was trying to push him and got him out of shape. … It definitely was devastating. They gave me a good car today. I hate that we weren’t able to get the result that we should have out of it."
Earlier, a number of others encountered trouble â including two top Chase contenders in Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, whose days took a terrible dual turn on Lap 155. At virtually the same time, Logano slapped the outside wall for the second time on the day after having a tire go down, and Harvick limped to pit road after losing power because of an apparent electrical issue.
Their chances for a decent finish ended right there.
Then one of the few Chase drivers who had been able to avoid trouble day, Denny Hamlin, suffered an unexpected engine failure in his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota while running second with 26 laps to go.
"Luckily some others (in the Chase) also had trouble today, so we’re not out of it," Hamlin said.
Did they ever. Just a few laps later, Truex stalled his car coming off pit road and lost several spots after he had come in having recovered from the earlier accident to run third.