Just like that, Jimmie Johnson has a seventh championship within reach.
Johnson salvaged a ho-hum season with a strong win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that moves him into the third round of the playoffs. The elimination format had not been good to the six-time champion since its 2014 inception: He was eliminated in the second round of the inaugural year, then bounced out of the first round last season.
Johnson snapped a career-worst 24-race losing streak while winning for the first time since March.
“I just knew it was taking way too long,” he said of the drought.
He has quietly turned it up through the first round of the Chase and became an official title contender on Sunday, a day in which nearly half the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field had trouble.
Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick both had engine issues. Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott were in accidents. Joey Logano had tire problems, and Martin Truex Jr. had an electrical issue as he left pit road after the final pit stop.
Five Chase drivers finished lower than 30th, and Harvick, the 2014 champion, is last in the standings.
Johnson, meanwhile, has a record eighth victory at Charlotte and a spot in the round of eight drivers. He doesn’t have to worry about tire trouble, mechanical breakdowns or a wild ride at Talladega Superspeedway in the elimination race later this month. Johnson is through to the third round, and many of the top names are in trouble.
Hamlin was running second when his engine blew with 25 laps remaining. As the cars left pit road, Truex seemed poised to restart in second, but he appeared to stall and instead restarted 16th.
Although Truex salvaged his day and finished 13th — lowest of the Chase drivers still running at the end of the race — Hamlin wound up 30th.
Dillon was 32nd, Elliott 33rd, Logano 36th and Harvick 38th.
The hectic day left only Johnson breathing easy at the end. Not even Matt Kenseth, who finished second to Johnson, is relaxed heading into races at Kansas and Talladega.
“Would love to have the win, would make you feel a lot better about the next two weeks,” Kenseth said.
Logano wins Xfinity Series race
Joey Logano snatched a win away from Kyle Larson in the second race of a NASCAR doubleheader.
Logano passed Larson on a restart with 12 laps to go to win the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The race was originally scheduled for Friday night but washed out by Hurricane Matthew and run following the Sprint Cup race. It made for 800 miles of racing, and Logano and Larson were among five drivers who ran both events.
Larson led 165 of the 200 laps and at one point had lapped all but one car in the field. A late caution gave Logano a shot to get by Larson, and he did after a three-wide battle for a lap.
Elliott Sadler finished second. Larson faded to fourth.