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Cup Chase Now Has Big Historical Implications

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 31 2016
Jimmie Johnson's entry into the Round of Four means a shot at seven. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

Jimmie Johnson’s entry into the Round of Four means a shot at seven. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – For weeks Jimmie Johnson has attempted to ignore any conversation about a seventh NASCAR championship, but the winner of Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway can no longer sidestep the issue.

sprint-logo-08With Johnson’s 79th career victory Sunday, he now has a guaranteed position in the Chase’s championship race at Homestead. His ninth Martinsville victory also has kept the title race from being a Joe Gibbs Racing sweep. All four JGR teams made it to the Round of 8, but after Johnson’s performance Sunday only three now have the opportunity to advance. It’s a fact that hadn’t even occurred to crew chief Chad Knaus.

“I hate to say it like this, but I don’t care who we’re racing because anybody that’s in this stage of the game has the potential to go out there and race really, really well or manipulate the outcome of the race by pit strategy, anything, all the elements,” Knaus said. “If you made it to the final eight, you’re capable of winning the championship.”

This is the first year Johnson has made it to the championship round since the elimination format was instituted in the Chase and team owner Rick Hendrick noted confidence was a big factor. Johnson possesses six championships, so he’s no stranger to pressure in the season finale at Homestead.

“We’ve been to Homestead a lot of times with a little bit of a points lead, but he understands the pressure of that race,” Hendrick said. “So just getting there and being in position to race the other guys for the win is pretty cool.”

Johnson led once for 92 laps, but twice during the 500-lap event it appeared he was out of victory contention. The first occurred just before the 200-lap mark when his Chevrolet suffered sheet metal damage after a tangle with third-place finisher Denny Hamlin. Shortly after the damage occurred, the fourth of five caution flags waved for a banner partially torn off the track’s outside wall. Repairs made during that time relegated Johnson to 25th on the restart.

Johnson steadily worked his way through the field, but then shortly after the fifth caution period began on lap 358 his car stalled on the backstretch, apparently out of fuel.

“When I saw the fuel pressure fluctuate and the engine sputtering, I was reaching around,” Johnson said after recording his ninth Martinsville victory to tie him with Jeff Gordon for third on the track’s all-time win list. “I hit the switch and shut the ECU (electronic control unit) off, which cut the power off to the car. So I came to a stop.

“In my mind somewhere there was a voice saying, ‘Recycle the power of the car.’ So I shut the main power off, counted to three, which was probably only one second instead of three, turned it back on. I went through my checklist and saw the most important switch was off. I switched it on, fuel pressure came up, the car fired, off it went.”

Johnson had hoped NASCAR would open pit road in one or two laps, but instead it was about a half dozen laps before pit road opened. Knaus kept telling Johnson to pit even though pit road was closed, but Johnson refused.

“It was really scary, hoping I could maintain solid fuel pressure,” Johnson said. “I just kept coasting, shutting the engine off; was able to stretch it.”

It was that caution, however, that runner-up Brad Keselowski felt cost him a chance at the victory. For 29 laps, NASCAR worked to sort out the running order. When the yellow flag waved for Carl Edwards’ accident on lap 358, green-flag pit stops were underway. A.J. Allmendinger was leading, but then his car ran out of fuel and stopped on the track. That’s when confusion occurred in the running order. Instead of stopping the race and putting all of the cars in the proper position, NASCAR operated under the yellow. The race restarted on lap 387 with Johnson third and Brad Keselowski eighth. Johnson took the lead on lap 409.

When Keselowski moved into second with about 25 laps remaining, Johnson possessed a 3.619-second advantage. With 10 to go, Keselowski had cut the deficit to 2.186 seconds. He eventually finished 1.291 seconds behind Johnson.  

“It probably cost us the race,” Keselowski said about the lengthy caution period.  

For Johnson and his team, however, they now know that in three weeks they will compete for their seventh championship; a feat only two other drivers – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt – have achieved in NASCAR history.   

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, October 31 2016
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