No matter the changes to the car, the tires, or the weather, Martinsville Speedway is Jimmie Johnson’s kind of place.
Johnson led a career-best 346 laps Sunday and pulled away on a restart with eight laps to go for his eighth career victory on the shortest track in the Sprint Cup Series, taking over third place on the career victories list on NASCAR’s oldest track.
The only drivers ahead of him? Hall of famers Richard Petty with 15 wins, and Darrell Waltrip with 11.
“Probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we’ve ever had as the 48 (team),” Johnson said.
From the time he rolled his car onto the track for the first practice Friday until the final restart, Johnson had a dominant car, and knew it. And with his track record here, even when things seemed to take a bad turn, he and his team trusted history.
“We stuck to our game plan and knew what we wanted to have in the race and stayed patient, and it was tough to do at times, but it certainly worked out well,” the five-time series champion said. “And in the race, we had to adjust on the fly.”
No team does it better at Martinsville, and while Johnson said the final caution came at an inopportune time because he’d built a big lead over Clint Bowyer, he also realized it may have saved him from having to fight off teammate Jeff Gordon.
“Jeff on the long run probably had the car to beat,” he said. “Jeff has a really good line here on the long run, and he started catching me before the last caution and I was thinking, ‘Man, if this stays green, this could be a Jeff Gordon day.”
Instead, the caution flew on lap 487.
Johnson picked the inside line for the final restart with Bowyer on the outside, Gordon behind him and Kyle Busch to his outside, and Johnson got a clean break for the lead into Turn 1, his top priority to build some separation for the finish.
“I felt like if I could get two or three corners and maintain the lead on Clint, I could stretch it back out again,” he said.
Bowyer slid into second and Busch, who tried to make a move on the outside line, instead got hung up out there as Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne, who restarted fifth, went underneath to take fourth.
Nothing changed the rest of the way and the top five finished in those positions.
Gordon, too, was thinking he had a chance until Kurt Busch crashed, bringing out the 12th and final caution.
“I obviously didn’t want to see a short run there at the end,” he said.
The victory made team owner Rick Hendrick’s organization the winningest team in Martinsville history with 20, breaking a tie it had with the Petty organization.
Gordon, who was tied with Johnson and Rusty Wallace with seven victories on the 0.526-mile oval, said he knew it would be a tough day when Johnson won the pole for the second race in a row here because of the pit road advantage.
“You give him that No. 1 pit stall here at Martinsville, it’s almost impossible,” Gordon said.
While Johnson dominated, there were times it looked as if the race might go in another direction.
Matt Kenseth, who has struggled at Martinsville throughout his career, actually passed Johnson for the lead and led for 96 laps.
Mark Martin, driving for the injured Denny Hamlin and equally disdainful of the venue, moved into fourth place after taking a chance and getting just two tires on a pit stop, but then faded quickly.
Martin, mindful of Hamlin’s four career victories at Martinsville, finished a disappointing 10th.
“I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much,” he said.
Tony Stewart, who said earlier in the week he thought it would be funny to watch Danica Patrick try to navigate her way around the track, got passed by his rookie driver with 19 laps to go. Patrick finished 12, Stewart 17th.