CONCORD, N.C. — Denny Hamlin was already at home when Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line for his third victory in five championship races.
Juan Pablo Montoya didn’t have a great view of the victory celebration, he was four laps behind the action.
And Mark Martin? Well, the one guy most people believed could keep pace with Johnson was mired back in traffic.
With the closest contenders out of his way, Johnson cruised into control of the points standings with Saturday night’s win at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. He did have his hands full late with Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon, but neither could beat him on a series of late restarts, and Johnson ultimately made it look easy.
Only it wasn’t, he insisted, and the cushy 90-point lead he’ll take into Martinsville next week isn’t nearly enough breathing room for a team determined to win a NASCAR-record fourth consecutive championship.
“Not to sound like a broken record, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Johnson insisted after celebrating his sixth Cup victory at the suburban Charlotte track. “If somebody spins out, you get caught up in it. Contact with another car and there’s a tire rub. Fender is on the tire, you come down pit road. Puncture a tire. Whatever it is, those elements are still out there.
“If we don’t have any problems, I feel that we’ve got a very good chance to win the championship, racing for it. But the unknowns is what we can’t control.”
It’s those very unknowns that have Johnson in such an envious position.
Martin and Montoya, who started the race ranked second and third in the standings, began the night with cars that could run with the No. 48. Then a round of pit stops stacked them both back in traffic on a Lap 125 restart that may ultimately prove to be the moment that ended their title chances.
Montoya, 58 points out of the lead before the race, rammed into the back of Clint Bowyer as traffic stacked in front of him on the restart. Martin, who was only 12 points out, then ran into the back of Montoya.
Montoya had damage to both ends of his Chevrolet, while Martin was left with a gaping hole in the nose of his car. Although Montoya got the worst of it — he plummeted through the field, fell a lap down and finally got a break when his own spin brought out the caution — the damage to Martin took him out of contention, too.
Montoya’s Chase-record streak of four straight top-five finishes ended with a 35th place, and he’s now 190 points behind Johnson.
Martin wound up 17th, his first finish lower than seventh in eight straight races.
“The damage that Mark got on the restart … we had a hole in the front of the car we had to fix, and then you get back in traffic and the car is kind of wounded — it’s hard to get back to the front,” said Rick Hendrick, car owner for Johnson, Martin and Gordon.
“That was uncharacteristic of that team. That was a bad luck situation. I think he would have been in the top 5 for sure.”
Hamlin also thought he was headed for a title-saving finish a week after driver error dropped him into a deep hole. A win over Johnson at Charlotte might have given him another chance, and after leading 54 early laps, he was in position for an upset victory.
Then the engine of his Toyota began to sputter, and Hamlin’s night was over just past the halfway point.
“Just had a rough couple weeks,” said Hamlin, who crashed while leading at California in the last race. “I had a great shot to win it and was being so patient and not trying to push it and not show what I had ‘til the end. We’re in contention to win every race, we just can’t get it together.”
His 42nd-place finish dropped him to 11th in the standings, a ranking not at all indicative of how strong he’s been.
That wasn’t lost on Hamlin, either.
“You run your tail off for 26 weeks, and it just doesn’t matter,” he said of NASCAR’s 10-race Chase format. “One bad week, for a driver mistake and a parts failure, and you’re done. That part of it is frustrating.”
And that’s why Johnson won’t relax.
He heads next to Martinsville, where he’s won five of the last six races, but the week after that is Talladega and he’s had his share of struggles at the Alabama track. The restrictor-plate race is considered the wild card of the Chase, and Johnson refuses to believe a disastrous day there won’t put everyone else back in contention.
Crew chief Chad Knaus is looking even longer into the future. No matter how big a points lead Johnson may build, Knaus said the team won’t feel comfortable until “lap 287 at (season-finale) Homestead.”
“It’s all about circumstances and timing,” Knaus said. “We’re fortunate over the course of the last couple years we haven’t had a significant failure in the Chase, but it is very, very possible. The potential is there every time you go on the race track.”