Jimmie Johnson didn’t have the car to beat until late in the Goody’s 500 on Sunday, but that he emerged at the right time should have been no surprise.
After all, he is Mr. Martinsville.
Johnson nudged Denny Hamlin aside in the third and fourth turns with 15 laps to go at Martinsville Speedway, and gave team owner Rick Hendrick a perfect place to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series: Victory Lane.
Johnson and Hamlin had differing views of the pass that gave Johnson his fifth victory in the last six races on NASCAR’s smallest, trickiest track. Hamlin said it was a bump and standard short-track fare, while Johnson thought the video would change Hamlin’s opinion.
On the pass, Johnson caught Hamlin and got inside him on the backstretch on the 485th lap. From the outside, Hamlin tried to cut down in front of Johnson, bringing the contact.
Johnson gathered control and grabbed the lead, while Hamlin kept his car from hitting the wall and tried to give chase, but Johnson pulled away easily and coasted to the victory.
“If he wants to think that I tried moving him out of the way, he can believe that, but he should watch the video and see that I was inside of him,” Johnson said. “I did everything I could to miss him—climbed up on the curb— and he was still coming down.
“The only reason we touched and the only reason he ended up in the rubber where he couldn’t come back and get me was the fact that he chopped me,” he added. “I patiently worked to get that spot, to get the position inside of him, and he crowded me on the bottom.”
Hamlin said he bore no ill will, but will look forward to a chance to reciprocate.
“I would have done the same to him and if it comes back around, I will do the same thing.” he said. “It’s just the way it is. At Martinsville, you’ve got to battle for every inch.”
No one, clearly, does that better than Johnson.
Dubbed “Mr. Martinsville” by Jeff Gordon, Johnson won for the fifth time in the last six races here and for the sixth time overall, second among active drivers to Gordon’s seven.
And he did it by biding his time, falling back in the pack early in the race to get his car right, and then using the improved car and some slick work in the pits to make it pay.
The victory was the 18th for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville, where a victory by Geoff Bodine 25 years ago gave the fledgling company a needed boost, and the 10th in the last 13 races. Johnson has won six of those, and Gordon has won the other four.
Hendrick, who missed that first win, gave Johnson a bear hug in Victory Lane.
Johnson’s 41st career victory came after Gordon, who led 147 laps, and then Hamlin, who led 296, dominated for most of the race, and after it looked like Hamlin had outfoxed him.
After Johnson took the lead coming out of the pits with 72 laps to go, Hamlin ducked inside him on a restart with 45 laps to go. The move gave the Virginia native the position he needed to take the lead, and he held onto it through three restarts until 15 laps remained.
Hamlin, the defending race champion, never challenged Johnson after he slid high into the banking after the winning pass, and his winless streak extended to 32 races.
Hamlin recovered to finish second in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, followed by Tony Stewart, Gordon and Clint Bowyer. Ryan Newman was sixth with Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. next, giving Hendrick four of the top eight spots and Stewart-Haas Racing two.
Stewart, who had the best view of the duel for the lead, was disappointed the leaders’ battle and contact didn’t give him a chance to take advantage, but thrilled nonetheless.
“We’re inching up closer,” said Stewart, a first-year owner who also owns Newman’s car.
Gordon, who started on the pole for the eighth time at the track when qualifying was rained out and the starting lineup was set by the point standings, ran in the top five for most of the day, but still saw his winless streak extend to a career-high 47 races.
Gordon remained the points leader by 89 over Bowyer.
“I’m not really concerned with this streak of how many wins we haven’t had in a row,” Gordon said. “I am more concerned with what we have to do this year to win races and win this championship. You certainly don’t want to give that No. 48 (Johnson) momentum.”