Kurt Busch said after winning Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway that “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” referring to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who came into the race with eight wins apiece on the .526-mile track.
With both drivers having Hendrick Motorsports power under the hood, Busch beat Johnson to prevent the six-time Sprint Cup champion from earning his ninth career win at NASCAR’s oldest Cup racetrack.
Had Johnson won, he would have overtaken HMS teammate Jeff Gordon for most wins at Martinsville by an active driver (NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty holds the all-time record with 15 wins there).
Johnson yielded the lead to Busch on lap 473, but regained it 10 laps later. With just 17 laps remaining, Johnson felt his tires going away and couldn’t hold off Busch, eventually relinquishing the lead for good with 11 laps remaining.
“Man that is all I had, that is all I could do,” Johnson said. “I got back by him and then he got back to me and I was really, really loose in the closing stages of the race.
“Once he got back to me and put the pressure to me, I couldn’t keep the back under me. I put all the front brake in it that I could and was just hoping I could hold him off, but just wasn’t able to.
Having led 296 of the race’s 500 laps, Johnson appeared headed towards yet another dominating win at Martinsville, but will have to wait again until at least this year’s fall Chase race there to get that elusive ninth win.
“This track is in the Chase, so we’ll come back a lot smarter and try to prevent running second again,” Johnson said. “You just learn from the situation.
“I’m not saying there was a mistake today, but you learn from this weekend and carry it forward. This is a brand new car and a lot of stuff to figure out, so I know in the coming months the car’s setups will be a lot different, and we’ll just keep evolving and try to prevent running second.”
It marked the first time Johnson has ever lost at Martinsville after leading more than 271 laps in the scheduled 500-lap event. Johnson ultimately led 296 laps, only to come up short and finish second.
“(I had) just a very strong race car,” Johnson said. “We unloaded off the truck fast and qualified well and had an awesome car here in the race today.
“Of course, we’re disappointed not to get to victory lane, but there wasn’t anything else I could do. Man, I got back by (Busch) and I thought that we had control of the race then.
“I felt like since I hadn’t seen him through really any part of the day that he might have me on short-run speed but he would fall off. He stayed in my mirror and found a way back by me and then got a car length or so on me and did an awesome job. … I came up a little short, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.”
Johnson is still winless after the first six races, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned, given that he now has four top-six finishes.
“I’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said. “Hopefully I’ll win a race soon or a championship. To be truthful, last year I felt like some (potential wins) got away that I definitely had control of and was disappointed in myself on some of that.
“Some of the stuff circumstances got me, but we left a lot of wins on the table last year for sure. Today, I couldn’t have done any more. I just got beat. You’re going to have those, too, and you’ve got to recognize when you get beat and you’ve got to recognize when you make mistakes, and today we just got beat.”
While he came so close, Johnson isn’t really fretting. A win Sunday would have been great, but there’s no shame in finishing second.
“We’re definitely in a good place, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “I think today was very representative of that.”
In addition to what he hoped would have been his ninth career Cup win at Martinsville, Johnson was also seeking to give team owner Rick Hendrick his 220th career Sprint Cup win and 22nd Cup triumph at Martinsville.
The 30th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports’ first Sprint Cup win is April 29, when Geoff Bodine gave Hendrick his first career win as an owner in just the team’s eighth race together.
“We had a very fast race car,” Johnson said. “I wish we could have gotten this for Rick’s 30th anniversary.”
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