BRISTOL, Tenn. — It was just last month when people were wondering what was wrong with Jimmie Johnson after he got off to a slow start.
How silly it was to worry.
Johnson grabbed a rare victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday, giving him consecutive wins for the 11th time in his storied career. It was just the second career win in Thunder Valley for Johnson, who considers it one of his most vexing tracks.
His Hendrick Motorsorts team hit on something during Saturday’s practice for his Chevrolet, and that locked him in for the race postponed a day by rain.
“This track has been really difficult,” admitted Johnson, who last won at Bristol in 2007. But that Saturday find was “honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for for 16 years.”
“We finally figured it out. So, I’m very, very happy,” he said. “I’ve loved this racetrack from afar … and it’s been a journey since 2000 until now.”
Johnson snapped his season-starting slump on April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s last event prior to Monday. It ended any chatter that the seven-time and reigning champion might not be up for a record eighth title.
“After securing a win last week, it obviously takes a huge load off of your shoulders,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “Being able to come in here this week confident, relaxed, we had a weekend off.”
Johnson now has 82 career victories, and is just one away from tying Cal Yarborough for sixth on the all-time wins list. Two more would put him alongside Darrell Waltrip.
“That’s just mind-blowing,” Johnson said of his place in history.
Johnson doesn’t like Bristol, but had no trouble contending with Kyle Larson, the points leader and most dominant driver of the day. A speeding penalty on Larson late in the race allowed Johnson to make it look easy in the end. Clint Bowyer finished second and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick was third.
Matt Kenseth was the highest finishing Toyota driver with a quiet fourth. Joey Logano in a Ford was fifth for Team Penske and Larson rallied to sixth. He had been dropped to 29th in the field after the penalty and making it back to the top 10 was a victory in itself for Larson, who led a career-high 202 laps.
“I knew I gave the race away there,” Larson said of the speeding penalty. “I was surprised that I was able to line up with an opportunity there at the end. I think even if I was able to get to the lead, I don’t think I would have won because Jimmie and Clint were way faster than I was.
“They were over a straightaway ahead of us, I think, at the checkered flag. Disappointed in myself. I think I speed on pit road every single time I come to Bristol. So got to clean that up.”
Chase Elliott finished seventh and the top 10 was rounded out by Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin.
Junior's Day: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running 20th with just under 300 laps remaining when he wrecked during a restart after a mechanical issue. He didn’t return to the track.
NASCAR’s most popular driver was second in this race a year ago, but this year he’s still trying to find his way back into contention. NASCAR’s last race, at Texas, was his first top-five finish of the season.
As he headed to the care center for a medical checkup, a fan tried to take selfie with Earnhardt . Initially denied, Earnhardt was accommodating after he was cleared medically.
Busch stuck at No. 5: Kyle Busch is still seeking his first win of the season after an accident led to a 35th-place finish.
He had been hoping to win his sixth career Cup race at Bristol, and had the speed all weekend to do so.
“I was the fastest one out there those last two runs picking cars off and driving from the back to the front after we lost our track position the first time,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s fundamentally wrong what we’re doing, but it seems like all the rest of our five JGR cars are fine.”
Up next: NASCAR travels to Richmond, Virginia, for another short-track showdown. The three-day show will lack defending race winner Carl Edwards, who bumped teammate Joe Gibbs Racing for the victory in 2016. Edwards is not racing this year.