Johnson’s win leaves 3 spots up for grabs in NASCAR playoffs

Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Jimmie Johnson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson is on to NASCAR’s championship race, which means Joe Gibbs Racing won’t pull off a clean sweep of the final four.

Johnson’s win Sunday at Martinsville Speedway clinched him a spot in the title-deciding Nov. 20 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway . With only three slots remaining, the jockeying for a shot at the championship could quickly turn cutthroat.

There’s so much on the line, and only two races remaining to set the field. That means the teamwork that has worked so well for JGR this year may quickly be abandoned as every driver races with their own agenda.

“We’re in a team business, but we’re also in a business to win for our sponsors and ourselves,” said JGR driver Denny Hamlin.

“I think at the end, you have to do what’s best for yourself.”

The crack started to show at JGR immediately after Johnson collected his ninth career victory at Martinsville . A tire problem had already dropped JGR driver Carl Edwards to last in the Chase field, but Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch had cars capable of winning.

But as the JGR cars ran nose-to-tail in the closing laps, Brad Keselowski slipped past them and grabbed second-place behind Johnson.

Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are inside the top-four as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. But all was not well in the Gibbs camp after the race.

Busch felt Hamlin finished the highest by holding up Kenseth and Busch in the waning laps. Although the teammates worked well together on restarts, Busch felt that Hamlin not getting out of the way allowed Johnson to win and Keselowski to finish second.

“We work so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson). So, JGR all the way,” Busch said. “At the end, you had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down (Johnson).”

Hamlin disputed Busch’s view.

“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run, but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said.

There have been times this season that JGR was the most dominant organization in the garage, and as they advanced all four Toyotas into this round of eight of NASCAR’s playoffs, it became a very real possibility they would roll into the final four. Of course, the odds were against a sweep. Johnson made it official.

The driver in the most trouble is clearly Edwards, who had a strong car until a tire issue sent him hard into the wall. He had to go to the garage for repairs, finished 36th and is last in the Chase standings.

Edwards said Goodyear officials told him the tire problem was related to a belt failure.

“That’s really big of them to say, ‘Hey, there’s nothing you could have done about it,'” Edwards said. “We had a really good race going and sometimes that’s just what happens in racing. Now we just go to Texas and try to win there and Phoenix — we could win at either one of those race tracks.”

Only problem? Johnson has won the last four November races at Texas Motor Speedway, and Kevin Harvick has won six of the last eight races at Phoenix International Speedway.

Harvick likely needs another win there to make the finale after a rough day at Martinsville for Stewart-Haas Racing .

Harvick and Kurt Busch finished 20th and 22nd and are both in the bottom half of the Chase standings. Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart, the two SHR drivers not in the Chase, finished 24th and 26th.

“We were slow all weekend,” said Harvick. “We could just never get the handle on it.”

That’s not going to cut it the next two weeks, where Johnson plans to race to win even though he’s already set for Homestead.

“The big takeaway for us over these next two weeks could be momentum,” Johnson said. “If we can run up front or win again, I mean, that’s just huge momentum for the team. That’s the big thing we have that could work for us going to Homestead.”

 

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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