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Jimmie Johnson was looking to cross Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International off his list of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tracks where he has never won. Johnson and the rest of Team Lowe’s Racing gave it their all in the Cheez-It 355k at The Glen but pit cycles and caution flags made it difficult to make up ground Sunday at the 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course.
Johnson finished eighth, his seventh top-10 in 12 races at The Glen. But more importantly, the finish allowed him to clinch a wild-card spot, for now, in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. He is the first driver to clinch this season and the only driver to qualify for the Chase every year since the format was instituted in 2004 – 10 consecutive seasons.
Johnson spent the first part of the race trying to gain track position after starting 18th. With a race that typically sees few pit stops, a comfortable car is crucial at the Glen. And crew chief Chad Knaus delivered a No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS that elicited few complaints from Johnson. A pit stop on lap 30 was the first of the day for Team Lowe’s Racing. After four tires and a slight adjustment, Johnson restarted 15th.
A red flag delayed action on lap 41. When the race resumed, Johnson made up five spots from the 15th position. He remained in the top 10 until a caution on lap 61 shook up the field, as some drivers were on pit road for green-flag stops with others were coming down as the caution flew. Johnson and several other competitors pitted on the following lap. The sequence put him in 15th-place again on the restart.
Several cautions in the closing laps left few opportunities for Johnson to pass. He managed to hold his own, moving up several spots. On the final caution, with two laps to go, Johnson wheeled his machine around several competitors to finish eighth.
“We were solid all day,” said Johnson, who has never won at the Glen, one of five tracks where he is winless on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit, along with Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., Homestead-Miami Speedway and Kentucky Speedway in Sparta. “We thought we had the strategy to put us in contention, but when the 43 (Aric Almirola) spun, it killed our track position. But definitely a decent day for the Lowe’s Chevy.”
Kyle Busch won the 355k at The Glen to score his 27th career Sprint Cup victory, his third of the season and his second career win at Watkins Glen.
Brad Keselowski finished .486 of a second behind Busch in the runner-up spot, while Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top-five. Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Johnson, Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were eight caution periods for 21 laps, with nine drivers failing to finish the 90-lap race.
With round 21 of 36 complete, Johnson continues to lead the Hendrick Motorsports contingent and the rest of the NASCAR field in the championship point standings. His 808 points place him 75 ahead of second-place Clint Bowyer and 185 ahead of 11th-place Kurt Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sixth with 670 points, 138 out of first and 47 ahead of 11th. Kasey Kahne is 12th with 622 points, 186 out of first and three out of 10th. Jeff Gordon is 13th with 610 points, 198 out of first and 15 out of 10th.
Four races remain before the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 15 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. Only the top-10 in points are locked into the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the Chase are wild cards, awarded to the two drivers between 11th and 20th in points with the most wins. If multiple drivers have the same number of wins, a driver’s point standing serves as the tiebreaker.
Kahne, who is 12th in points, is the first wild card via his two wins. Ryan Newman is the second wild card because he is the highest-standing driver between 11th and 20th with one victory.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday, Aug. 18 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn. The race starts at 1 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at noon.