MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Few things in stock car racing were as automatic as Jimmie Johnson’s victory Sunday in the STP Gas Booster 500.
He showed record speed during Friday’s pole qualifying, breaking the Martinsville Speedway track record at 98.400 mph. He maintained his overpowering presence Sunday, leading a career-high 346 of 500 laps to finish three car lengths ahead of Clint Bowyer.
Johnson was never worse than sixth at the half-mile track. While the victory was his eighth at Martinsville, few had been as dominant.
“Turns out he’s pretty good here,” Bowyer said.
The pole position gave Johnson first choice of a pit stall. He picked the last one, which meant he didn’t have any traffic ahead of him when his service was complete.
“You give the (No.) 48 that No. 1 pit stall and it’s pretty impossible to beat him,” teammate Jeff Gordon said after finishing third. “We’re going to have to start working on our qualifying here if we’re going to beat him.”
“You make your day so much easier when you qualify on the pole and get that No. 1 pit stall,” Johnson said. “There are four or five cars we race here I don’t want to see them get the pole so they can get that spot.”
Once Johnson got up front, his pit crew and pit stall made it easier for him to keep it.
Johnson easily pulled away on a restart with eight laps remaining to become the third-winningest driver in the track’s 64-year history. Only Richard Petty (14 wins) and Darrell Waltrip (11) have more.
“There’s a feel to this track. There’s a history to this track we can fall back on,” Johnson said. “We had a great weekend. The stats clearly show that. That’s probably the most calm, relaxed weekend we’ve had.”
It’s a history that continues to impress car owner Rick Hendrick.
“I thought he was going to win the race when he started on the pole,” he said. “I’m not surprised he won the race.”
Danica Patrick made her first start at the half-mile short track. She started last after an engine change and she was two laps down at mid-race. But she rallied back to finish 12th.
The victory also made Hendrick the most-successful in track history. His drivers have combined for 20 overall wins.
A chain-reaction crash on Lap 181 crumpled the fenders and created problems for 11 drivers. Kasey Kahne slowed dramatically in the fourth turn during a restart, and that triggered a pileup that also involved cars driven by Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Travis Kvapil.
All except Kvapil were able to continue.
Johnson had a comfortable 10-car lead when Kurt Busch’s brakes failed and crashed with 14 laps to go. Busch’s car exploded and burned after it collided with the first turn wall. He was able to walk away, but NASCAR stopped the race for 6-minute, 21-seconds to clean up the mess.
That created a final restart with eight laps remaining – and with Johnson, Bowyer and Gordon in the top three. A year ago they were in the top three on a restart with two laps to go and all three crashed when Bowyer tried to make it three-wide in the first turn.
This time there were no fireworks. Johnson got the jump and Bowyer easily fell in line. From there, there were no changes in the top three.
“I had a real nice comfortable lead,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to see a caution. On the restart, experience plays into it. I figured if I can get a lead two or three corners into (the first lap of restart), I could extend it. I just needed a few corners to get away from Clint.”
Bowyer wound up second, followed by Gordon in third, Kasey Kahne in fourth, Kyle Busch in fifth and Brad Keselowski in sixth.