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Johnson quells doubters with return to winner’s circle

Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Bristol, Tenn. — It was just last month when people were wondering what was wrong with Jimmie Johnson and his slow start to the season.

How silly it was to worry.

Johnson grabbed a rare victory at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday, giving him consecutive wins for the 11th time in his storied career. It was just the second career win in Thunder Valley for Johnson, who considers it one of his most vexing tracks.

His Hendrick Motorsorts team hit on something during Saturday’s practice for his Chevrolet, and that locked him in for the race postponed a day by rain.

“This track has been really difficult,” admitted Johnson, who last won at Bristol in 2007. But that Saturday find was “honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for for 16 years. We finally figured it out. So, I’m very very happy.”

Johnson also won on Feb. 9 at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s last event before Monday. It ended any chatter the seven-time and reigning champion might not be up for a record eighth title.

Johnson now has 82 career victories, and is just one away from tying Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career wins list. Two more would put him alongside Darrell Waltrip.

“That’s just mind-blowing,” Johnson said of his place in history.

Johnson doesn’t like Bristol, but it wasn’t evident Monday as he contended with Kyle Larson, the points leader and most dominant driver of the day. A speeding penalty on Larson late in the race allowed Johnson to make it look easy in the end. Clint Bowyer finished second and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick was third.

Matt Kenseth was the highest finishing Toyota driver with a very quiet fourth. Joey Logano in a Ford was fifth for Team Penske and Larson rallied to sixth. He had been dropped to 29th in the field after the penalty and making it back to the top 10 was a victory in itself for Larson, who led a career-high 202 laps.

“I knew I gave the race away there,” Larson said of the speeding penalty. “I was surprised that I was able to line up with an opportunity there at the end. I think even if I was able to get to the lead, I don’t think I would have won because Jimmie and Clint were way faster than I was.

“They were over a straightaway ahead of us, I think, at the checkered flag. Disappointed in myself. I think I speed on pit road every single time I come to Bristol. So got to clean that up.”

Chase Elliott finished seventh and the top 10 was rounded out by Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Driver points

1. Kyle Larson 360

2. Chase Elliott -27

3. Martin Truex -37

4. Joey Logano -69

5. Brad Keselowski -83

6. Jimmie Johnson -116

6. Jamie McMurray -116

8. Clint Bowyer -121

8. Kevin Harvick -121

10. Ryan Blaney -132

11. Kyle Busch -146

12. Trevor Bayne -168

12. Erik Jones -168