Known for his California cool, Jimmie Johnson overcame banged fenders and left opponents frustrated by winning the opening race of the Chase's Round of 8 at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday.
The victory guarantees Johnson a shot at a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship in the season finale.
After Johnson pulled away from the field over the final 92 laps at the Martinsville Speedway and proved unbeatable, the drivers finishing second and third had nothing but complaints. On a day when Johnson became the first driver to advance to the final round of the Chase at the Homestead-Miami Speedway and now has a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship within his grasp, the complaints were a sure sign of frustration.
Runner-up Brad Keselowski said if he'd had more green flag laps -- in place of a marathon 29-lap caution due to scoring issues -- he might have caught Johnson. Given how Johnson was motoring away in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, that was a slightly preposterous outlook for non-Chaser Keselowsli.
Chase contestant Denny Hamlin, who finished third, declared the six-time champion to be an arrogant "king" for the way Johnson made it difficult to pass midway in the race.
"It's hard racing those guys and (the) racing (is) very, very tough," said Hamlin, citing Johnson's lack of success in the first two years of the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup elimination format and suggesting his opponent now has a new approach. "They're doing what they think is successful, but upsetting me is not going to make their job any easier."
Given that Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates and fellow Toyota running mate Martin Truex Jr. made it easy to pass one another for a lap leader bonus point or on restarts at the tight half-mile bullring, perhaps Hamlin's expectations for Johnson's driving were slightly miscalculated. For his part, Johnson said he gave Hamlin the preferred line and that the Toyota driver waited several laps and then hit him on the way past.
"I'm puzzled that he had to move me like he did," said Johnson, who won his circuit-leading ninth career race at Martinsville. "The inside is a preferred lane. I gave him the inside. I had a little something working on the top. There's a line of cars behind him. I just can't roll over."
In other words, Hamlin was hoping to hang Johnson out to drop him several positions and Johnson made sure that once Hamlin got by, he'd have a spot to fall in behind him.
As it was, Hamlin hit Johnson's left front on the way past, a type of move that has become increasingly in vogue during the Chase. That created bent steering and a loose front fender that caused Johnson to later run over A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola.
Johnson's long pit stop to fix the fender dropped him to the rear of the field. By the time he recovered from accidentally hitting his kill switch under caution, he didn't catch leader Hamlin until 92 laps remained. But he quickly motored past.
"I prefer to race people cleanly," said Johnson, who has had remarkably few feuds given his success. "I could have easily taken the easy route and moved (Hamlin) when he came back to take over the lead, and I didn't. I hope that showed him that, 'Look, man, I don't have a beef.'"
The real beef was that once the tight, flat track became slick in the afternoon sun, Johnson's set-up -- bent steering and all -- worked noticeably better. As a result, Hendrick and Chevy are guaranteed a spot in the Championship Four and JGR will not be able get all four of its drivers into the finale.
Team owners Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick were once close allies when the former NFL coach first entered NASCAR's premier series in 1992. Gibbs team was, in many respects, the first affiliated team for Hendrick in terms of sharing engines. Now that Gibbs has cast his lot elsewhere with another manufacturer and last year gave Toyota its first Sprint Cup, the teams have become heated rivals.
Gibbs drivers Hamlin, Matt Kenseth (who had a race-high179 laps led) and Kyle Busch combined to lead 230 laps while finishing third through fifth and remain strong candidates to advance to Homestead. After a problem with a Goodyear tire, Carl Edwards hit the wall and is a distant candidate to advance without a victory.
In effect, SHR is now the most recent former affiliate of Hendrick Motorsports, which has supplied chassis and engines to the team. Once the Chase began, the relationship between the two teams went off-song due to SHR's planned move to Ford next year. At Martinsville, the lack of the usual communication with Hendrick appears to have hurt SHR's chances.
Given the team tactics that began at the Talladega Superspeedway a week before the Martinsville event launched the Round of 8, will Johnson get support from the Hendrick team's non-Chase teammates Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne and Alex Bowman? The latter will run the season's final three races as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr., taking over from supersub Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth at Martinsville.
Team owner Hendrick acknowledged that if JGR has adopted team tactics, so will his team when the opportunity presents itself.
"You saw the Toyotas let each other in today, give each other a hole when there was an opportunity," Hendrick said. "A teammate will let you in if it's a restart. Those things kind of happen on the track."
Johnson says he has time until he has to race for a landmark seventh championship at Homestead and will try to focus first on building momentum in the upcoming races at the Texas Motor Speedway, where he is a five-time winner, and the Phoenix International Raceway.
Homestead "is three weeks away," said Johnson in his post-race interview, "but I feel like at least now, an hour into it, it's a lot different than if I was sitting here with the old format. We're going to have four drivers with the same points value starting that race. It's going to be different. There's nothing to protect. We're all in a tie.
"It's just go out there and lay down your best work. I think that would be helpful from a stress management standpoint, thinking what could possibly happen. Love to do it. Honestly, just thrilled to have a shot at it. That's all you can hope for, is just have a shot at it."
His team owner likes Johnson's chances.
"If you think back when it was three in a row, four in a row, five in a row, going for six, I mean, he's been there," said Hendrick. "It's not like somebody that's trying to get their first championship, that's been so close and never won one."