Johnson wins the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway
Jimmie Johnson celebrates in Victory Lane at Martinsville. (ASP, Inc.)
Jimmie Johnson capped off a dominant weekend at Martinsville Speedway in a familiar way: by celebrating in Victory Lane. The Hendrick Motorsports driver won his eighth career NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the half-mile Virginia short track on Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500.
Johnson’s weekend started in fine form on Friday, when he won the pole for the event. His No. 48 was near the top of each practice session’s speed chart, and when the green flag flew for 500 miles of racing, there was little doubt as to who the field would be chasing.
Johnson led 346 laps — the highest single-race total of his career — and drove away from Clint Bowyer and teammate Jeff Gordon after a restart with eight laps to go to seal the victory in convincing fashion.
“We had a great weekend and I know the stats clearly show that, but (it was) the most calm, relaxed, thought-out weekend that we’ve had as the 48 (team) — and the most mature,” Johnson said. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
Bowyer, Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 5.
“Jimmie has just really figured this place out,” Gordon said. “You get a driver like Jimmie and a team like the 48 — or ours, or the 15 (Bowyer) — you put them on the pole (and) in that No. 1 pit stall … it’s going to be really, really hard to beat them.”
Johnson’s mastery of Martinsville is reaching historic levels. His eight wins on the paperclip-shaped oval leads all active drivers and ranks behind only Richard Petty’s 15 and Darrell Waltrip’s 11 all-time. He’s won seven of the last 14 races at the only track that has hosted NASCAR premier series races since the sport’s inception.
Johnson also reclaimed the lead in the Sprint Cup Series point standings, holding a six-point advantage over Brad Keselowski.
After two weeks of hype, neither Joey Logano nor Tony Stewart engaged in any sort of on-track retaliation following their post-race skirmish in Fontana, Calif. Denny Hamlin, who was injured in his last-lap battle with Logano in the same race, was in attendance at Martinsville atop the pit box of his No. 11 team. Mark Martin, who filled in for Hamlin, finished 10th.
Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick impressed in her first visit to the physical short track, placing 12th after a hard-fought duel with Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick on the final lap. Patrick was forced to start at the rear of the field when her No. 10 team changed an engine on Saturday.
“I didn’t know what to expect (at Martinsville), but I feel like finding the limit on a short track where you’re going a little slower … there’s less risk as opposed to finding the limit on a really big track where you’re doing 200 mph,” said Patrick said.
Johnson is the first driver to collect multiple wins in 2013, having scored his second Daytona 500 crown in February.
The circuit heads to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night affair this weekend.
Bowyer back in title talk with win in Bank of America 500
Clint Bowyer celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
After four races, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin had seemingly separated themselves in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not so fast, says Clint Bowyer.
As the sport’s version of a playoff completed the “first half” in its 10-race run, Bowyer and his No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing team used strategy to outsmart the trio of favorites, winning the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with superior fuel mileage.
Bowyer’s third win of the season moved his team to within 28 points of Keselowski in the championship standings.
“I looked at it last week and going into this week, I still thought if one of those guys (Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin) were to stub a toe, it would really open the door for about eight of us to get right back into the championship hunt,” Bowyer said. “With a win here, it definitely gave us new life and new hope.”
Crew chief Brian Pattie echoed the sentiment, saying that, “Twenty-eight points is achievable over the next five weeks. It’s a lot better than 40, how we started the weekend.
“There’s three guys you’ve got to pass, not only the points. We’ll go to Kansas on Wednesday and test like hell and try to pick up our program even more than we have now because we weren’t the fastest car tonight, we just had (a winning) strategy. It would be nice to win one of these things and actually drive to Victory Lane.”
Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin flexed their muscles throughout a tame event— leading a total of 228 of 334 laps—that witnessed five cautions, two of which were for debris.
But on lap 275, Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske Racing team did something it had largely avoided the previous four weeks: It made a mistake.
While attempting to stretch a tank of fuel, the championship leader—who led the most laps in the event (139)—ran out of gas while leading and coasted into the pits.
That opened the door for Bowyer, Johnson and Hamlin. With Keselowski mired in traffic, they went into fuel conservation mode, reasoning that, with one more full green-flag cycle left, everyone would be running on fumes as the race reached its conclusion.
And they were right. The twist, though, was that Bowyer was a forgotten soul, as the teams of Johnson and Hamlin calculated that they were the only two that would have enough in reserve to stretch one final cycle.
“We outfoxed him,” Bowyer said of Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. “Any time you outfox him you know you’ve done a good job, especially at this racetrack.”
The miscalculations were not especially harmful to Johnson and Hamlin, though, as the latter finished second and the former third.
Even Keselowski, who managed an 11th-place showing, did not appear to be distraught. He explained that aggressiveness was what got his team here, and one shouldn’t expect them to back off from that stance:
“We’re not going to put the prevent defense out there. We’re going to go at you and try to sack the quarterback every time. Sometimes you’re going to miss, and they’re going to get a big payoff.
“We have hit them a lot, that’s why we’re in the points lead, and we’re going to keep after it.”
Fair enough. And the next stop for NASCAR’s traveling circus is the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway, Bowyer’s home track. And a place that has seen Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin each score a win in the series’ last three visits.
For those still alive with five races remaining, hope springs eternal.
Keselowski holds off Kyle Busch in green-white-checker finish
Photo by ASP, Inc.
Every five or six visits to NASCAR’s ultimate spectacle at Talladega Superspeedway, someone figures out a new way to conquer the beast. The freight train, the lead-the-conga-line, the tri-oval slingshot — all have taken their turns as last-lap moves du jour at the 2.66-mile behemoth in Alabama. In Sunday’s Aaron’s 499, Brad Keselowski introduced a new move.
As yet unnamed, Keselowski’s Turn 3 move — “Shake ’n’ Bake” need not apply — to stave off Kyle Busch with the checkered flag in the air was, according to the race winner, one of cool calculation.
“Those are the kind of moves, similar to the move made here in ’09, that you get one chance to make, that nobody wises up on,” Keseloski said. “From there, everybody knows how to make it work. I’m sure everybody will wise up on it from here and they’ll make their moves earlier, which will change the racing again.
“It’s just evolution. You get one shot to be that guy that helps to evolve it. We had the opportunity to do that today and that’s part of what helped us win the race.”
A green-white-checker restart — caused when Keselowski spun Kurt Busch’s No. 51 Chevy — precipitated his two-lap dash to his second career Talladega win.
The ensuing lap 185 restart played witness to a nine-car pile up in Turn 1 that marked the end of the day for Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip, among others.
When the field next took the green flag, Matt Kenseth — who led a race-high 73 laps — led the pack, with teammate Greg Biffle immediately in arrears. Keselowski and Kyle Busch lined up along side.
Kenseth’s stout Ford pulled away immediately, but when he and Biffle briefly separated, their draft was broken, opening the door for the Keselowski/Busch freight train.
The latter pairing roared to the lead as the white flag was displayed and jumped out to an insurmountable lead. Recent history proved that running second was the preferred position on the final lap, as the runner-up had made a last-lap pass for the win in the previous four Talladega races.
However, with Busch hooked to his rear bumper, Keselowski dove from the high groove in Turn 3 to the low side of the track exiting Turn 4. The brief separation doomed Busch, who could not get close enough to execute a pass in the tri-oval.
“I just needed to make the move, (and I ) made it in (Turn) three,” Keselowski explained. “That disconnected us. That was the key right there. Once we got that air bubble in between the two cars, it was going to take two or three laps for him to pop that.”
For his part, Busch wasn’t immediately sure how Keselowski broke the draft.
“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and come unhooked,” Busch said. “Just gave the win away over there. Not sure exactly what happened — we definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.”
Keselowski’s win was his second of the 2012 season, putting him in position for a Wild Card entry into the Chase for the Championship if he is not in the top 10 in points at the Richmond cutoff race in September.
Kenseth held on for a third-place run and sits second to Biffle (fifth at Talladega) in the standings. Kasey Kahne was fourth, while Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10.