Though slow in practice, Johnson pulled out all the stops in qualifying, driving what he called a “white knuckle lap” to put his Chevrolet in the number one starting spot. It would be a sign of things to come, too.
Sunday’s race got off to a bizarre start, when an inbound parachutist’s sandbag weight hit and damaged the Chevrolet of Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick. NASCAR allowed the team to return to the garage for repairs, and Harvick started the race as he qualified, in 23rd place. Ultimately, he finished the day in ninth.
While the early laps were uneventful, a series of yellows ensured nine restarts throughout the race. While Johnson looked fast all day long, so did Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who started the day trailing Johnson by a scant two points in the championship.
Kyle Busch was a consistent threat throughout the day, too, and the three drivers swapped leads all afternoon. Ultimately, the race was decided on a green-white-checkered flag finish, following a spin by Mark Martin in the closing laps.
At the restart, it was Keselowski and Johnson on the front row, followed by Busch in third and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in fourth. Though Keselowski gave it all he had, Johnson’s car was simply faster following the restart, giving him his fifth win of the season and his second win in the Chase.
Johnson now stretches his points lead to seven over second place Keselowski, with only third-place Clint Bower still mathematically able to catch either driver in the chase. Possible and likely are two different things, and with just Phoenix and Homestead remaining, there’s just one real question: can Johnson hold off Keselowski to take his sixth championship?