Defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson scored his first win of the season on Sunday. Johnson came through to win the sixth Sprint Cup race of this year, run on the half-mile Martinsville short track in south-western Virginia. Johnson struggled in the opening laps but got his car handling much better as the race wore on, and was able to barge his way to the front in great short-track stock car style with just 15 laps left in the 500-lap race. The three-time NASCAR champion shoved his way past leader Denny Hamlin as both drivers fought for control.
“I had a little bit better car than Denny on the longer run. I was patient, I set him up and got inside him,” explained Johnson. “He tried to put the squeeze on me. I was up on the kerb and sliding and we got together, and he did a hell of a job saving it. I thought I was going around too, but fortunately we had enough distance to the next guy to not have any trouble or lose any spots.
“I’m out of breath,” added Johnson. “We didn’t have the best car at the start. We worked on it as the day went on. We put some spring rubbers in the right rear, played with the tyre pressures and wedge, and got the car right.”
Johnson has won five of the last six races run at Martinsville and Sunday’s victory was the 25th anniversary of Rick Hendrick’s team’s first win recorded by Geoff Bodine at Martinsville in 1984. Hendrick’s team has now won 18 races at the track and all four of his Chevrolets finished in the top eight last weekend.
Second-placed Hamlin led the most laps – 296 – aboard one of Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas. Hamlin said of his battle with Johnson: “I’m honoured to be on the race track with guys like Jimmie and Jeff [Gordon]. Those guys are the best in the business. We just came up short today. That was short-track racing. I would have done the same to Jimmie and if it comes back around I will do the same. That’s just the way it is. At Martinsville you’ve got to battle for every inch.”
Tony Stewart finished third, only a second behind winner Johnson. This was Stewart’s best result in his first year as a team owner, with team-mate Ryan Newman not far behind in sixth. “I was thinking a few laps before Jimmie made his move that if they had a problem we were right there in the catbird seat,” said Stewart. “But we were just a little too far back to take advantage of. But we had a great weekend for our team. We’re back up running where we should be. I couldn’t be happier.”
Championship leader Jeff Gordon led a good portion of the early laps and brought his Hendrick Chevrolet home in fourth place, ahead of Clint Bowyer and Newman. “I was good in clean air but when the track rubbered up my car was too tight,” said Gordon. “Jimmie and that whole team are so good and I was really impressed with Denny today. We were the third best car but on that last restart I just couldn’t get round the lapped cars to catch Tony.”
Johnson’s win moves him up to fourth in the points. Gordon continues to lead the championship with 959 points. Clint Bowyer is second, 89 points behind, followed by Kurt Busch, Johnson, Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Stewart. And there are no fewer than 31 races to go!