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Jimmie Johnson won from the pole in the TUMS Fast Relief 500 on Sunday to earn his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
The victory put Johnson in the lead for the first time in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, two points ahead of second-place Brad Keselowski, with just three races remaining. Johnson’s win also clinched the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Manufacturers’ Championship for Chevrolet.
Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet was strong early in the race. But as the sun came out and heated the track, the handling on Johnson’s car tightened. He dropped to fifth by the midway point of the 500-lap race. But changes to the car orchestrated by crew chief Chad Knaus and quick work by the Lowe’s pit crew helped Johnson regain the lead on lap 393.
“We kept working on it,” Johnson said. “Our pit stops were awesome. Got me track position each time, which was really, really important. The last few stops, I think the last stop gave me the lead. To be on the inside lane and have control of the race was huge.”
As the lap count climbed, the temperatures dropped, improving the balance of the Lowe’s Chevy. Johnson took the lead for good on lap 486 and ended up leading 100 of the final 108 laps en route to Victory Lane.
“Overcast, clouds came in, cooler temperatures,” Johnson said. “The balance on the racetrack changed a lot for me, and it came my way. We executed well today on all fronts. We'll have a dogfight for these final three.”
Johnson led eight times for 193 laps around the tight .526-mile oval. The victory was Johnson’s 23rd top-10 result of 2012 and his 19th top-10 in 22 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville. He took time after the race to pay tribute to members of the Hendrick Motorsports family who lost their lives in a plane crash in 2004 near Martinsville.
“We just had a great racecar,” said Johnson, who has seven Sprint Cup wins at Martinsville (October 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012 and April 2007, 2009). “And I think we’ve also learned our lesson here in the past in not pitting late, and that certainly came into play, and we made the right decision there.
“I’m so torn with emotion right now with winning here, and I’m so happy to be in the point lead. But I can’t help but think of all the people in 501RH (plane number) a few years back. I’m ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the point lead, but this is no cakewalk. These guys are bringing their best each and every week, and we’ve got to keep working hard to keep this Lowe’s Chevy up front; and we’re in good shape.”
Johnson scored his 59th career Sprint Cup victory, his fourth of the season and his seventh at Martinsville.
Kyle Busch finished .479 of a second behind Johnson in the runner-up spot, while Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top-five. Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were 11 caution periods for 64 laps, with 11 drivers failing to finish.
With the seventh race of the Chase completed, Johnson takes over the championship point standings. He has 2,291 points, two ahead of second-place Keselowski. All four Hendrick Motorports drivers made the Chase. Kahne is next behind Johnson among Hendrick drivers in the point standings, climbing to fourth with 2,262 points, 29 out of first. Gordon moved up two spots to sixth with 2,237 points, 54 out of first. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who returned to the track after sitting out two weeks for medical reasons, remains 12th with 2,151 points, 140 behind Johnson.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the eighth race of the 10-race Chase – is the AAA Texas 500 on Nov. 4 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. The race begins at 3 p.m. EST, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 2 p.m.