Jimmie Johnson saw his Chase lead shrink from 41 points to just six ahead of Denny Hamlin as Hamlin won at Martinsville Speedway Sunday and Johnson could muster just a fifth-place finish in the sixth of 10 races in the Chase For The Sprint Cup.
And while there was a bit of a buzz about Johnson possibly losing more points because of a problem with his driveshaft, that issue was quickly put to rest after the race by Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby, who said there were no illegal parts on the car.
Johnson and Hamlin entered the race having combined to win the last eight Cup races at Martinsville and looked to duke it out again Sunday. But they spent most of the race battling for spots in the top five and not the lead.
Johnson never led and Hamlin, the polesitter, led the first 10 laps and then the final 30 of the 500-lap event.
This wasn’t Johnson’s typical Martinsville race. Typically, he gets better throughout the race but he never made a late surge this time. Not only did Hamlin make up ground on Johnson, so did Kevin Harvick, who finished third and cut his gap from 77 points to 62 behind Johnson.
“I almost fell into a sense of security today where [Harvick], [Hamlin] and us were all like a third-, sixth-place car,” Johnson said. “We stayed together most of the day. The last stop at the end, those two both got going. We just didn’t go anywhere.”
Johnson’s spot in the standings was much like the final 98 green-flag laps. He kept his position in the standings (as the leader) but now has Hamlin on his heels with Harvick still lurking.
“We certainly wanted to finish higher,” Johnson said. “But it’s over and done with. It is what it is. Top-five is something [that] would have been a good goal coming in here this weekend.
“We’re rolling into Talladega [next week]. We all know what can happen there. We’re happy to still be leading, wish the margin had gone the other way. Denny won the race, closed it up. We’ll buckle down, go to work the next four.”
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have said all along that they wouldn’t really be able to tell how good their chances were to win a fifth consecutive Cup title until after Talladega next week.
“You hate to see [the lead] vanish,” Johnson said. “I’m really trying to not be emotionally attached to things until we get out of Talladega. So much can happen at Talladega.”
Johnson said last year’s Talladega race is an example of what can happen in the wild-card event of the Chase.
“Last year, Mark [Martin can] catch me in the points. … I’m running sixth on the track, he’s running seventh coming to the checkered flag, his car gets hit, he is upside-down. I’m just one spot ahead of him. I finish the race, get a bunch of points.”
But what went wrong at Martinsville, which Johnson owned before Hamlin won the last three events at the 0.526-mile oval.
“The trend of our car was very quick at the beginning, would fall off, get tight as the run would go on,” Johnson said. “It didn’t really change much about all the adjustments we made to the car all day long.
“It did hurt us with it staying green [at the end]. Typically it’s good for me when it stays green, but it was just circumstances today.”
Johnson fought for every spot during the race, angering both teammate Jeff Gordon and ex-teammate Kyle Busch in the process. At one point, Busch and Johnson bumped each other on the track, but Busch and Johnson had a cordial talk afterward.
“I was doing all that I could to hang on to the position I was in and the points that came along with that,” Johnson said. “[Busch] worked me over from time to time, never really got inside of me, then the contact started. That’s fine. I get it, especially in the center of the corner off the turn, that’s not a problem.
“Then I got hit a couple times going into the turn. That’s when I thought it was uncool. I showed him the one?finger salute a few times. It was more me letting him know I was pissed. He mellowed out.”
And while there was a rumor that NASCAR was upset Johnson’s team prior to the race, that apparently wasn’t the case, even though NASCAR asked the Hendrick Motorsports team to change a piece of the driveshaft.
“We wanted bolt holes that matched up better so it was more secure,” Darby said. “It had been taken on and off so many times, it was starting to deteriorate the mounting holes. So we got another one that was fresh. We change parts on cars all weekend long.”
Was it an illegal piece?
“No, no, no, no, no, not at all,” Darby said. “It was something the guys saw this morning when it went through inspection and wanted it fixed, and they fixed it for us and everything is cool.”