Concord, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson saw an opportunity to snap a 58-race losing streak, and went for it. It cost him a shot at an eighth NASCAR championship and allowed Ryan Blaney to steal a surprise victory in the debut race of the “roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Had Johnson just settled for second, he’d still be in the playoffs. Instead, he wrecked with Martin Truex Jr. and wound up in a three-way tie for the final transfer position into the second round of the playoffs. The seven-time NASCAR champion was eliminated Sunday on a tiebreaker.
“I knew where I was on the math,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think that I was going to crash or spin trying to overtake him like I did. I thought I was making a calculated move and giving myself the chance to win and unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way.”
The roval was a unique combination speedway and infield road course created to improve the racing at Charlotte. The unusual layout and unfamiliarity made it a treacherous circuit for the 16-driver playoff field because it was an elimination race for four of the contenders.
The race was unexpectedly clean until the end, which was marked by two different wrecks among the leaders and a red-flag period of almost 15 minutes. The chaotic close made for a suspenseful post-race period in which NASCAR had to review the results and break the tie between Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola and Johnson.
Larson and Almirola advanced, both by picking up desperation points on the final lap. Eliminated along with Johnson was Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, as well as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
Blaney had hovered around the cutoff line most of the race and stunningly wound up the winner with an automatic berth for the Team Penske driver into the next round of the playoffs.
“I didn’t expect that. Sometimes it is better to have a little bit of luck on your side,” Blaney said. “You hate to see two guys take each other out, especially two of the best cars all day.”
The two best cars actually belonged to Larson and Blaney’s teammate Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski was on track to win for the fourth time in five races until he misjudged the entry into the first turn on a restart with six laps remaining. It triggered a multi-car accident that collected Larson, who had led 47 laps. Keselowski’s race ended after leading 29 laps.
Kyle Busch was also in the accident and mocked his fellow drivers for their error.
“All of us are just stupid and don’t know where to brake,” said Busch. “We all just drove off into a 90-degree wall because I guess we didn’t have anything better to do.”
Larson, meanwhile, had to limp a wounded race car around the track for the final laps to cling to his spot in the playoffs. Larson’s fate was also determined in the final few turns when he passed the stalled car of Jeffery Earnhardt.
“I couldn’t even drive my car it was so destroyed,” said Larson, who was married last Wednesday to get the ceremony done during the season. “He was like 100 feet from the start/finish line and I could see him (Earnhardt) creeping and I was like, ‘Don’t go, don’t go!’”
Johnson should have been content following Truex across the finish line and moving on in the playoffs. But he was once unbeatable at Charlotte, where he won eight points races on the oval, and saw the opening Sunday to grab his first win in well over a year.
Johnson tried to dive inside and pass Truex with two turns remaining and he ended up in a spin. Johnson collected Truex, who spun off course, Johnson’s car came to a stop and Blaney scooted past for the surprise victory.
Johnson wound up eighth and out of the playoffs. He stood silently next to his car for several minutes as NASCAR reviewed the final sequence and updated the standings.
“I was more worried about the win than anything else,” Johnson said. “We were in a transfer position and didn’t get it. Just going for the win. The wins are so important and the veteran could have taken the safe route and didn’t.”
Truex, technically the defending race winner because he won on Charlotte’s speedway last fall, faded to 14th and deliberately spun Johnson after the race.
“Last corner desperation behind us. He just overdrove it and was never going to make it and used me as brakes and turned us both around,” Truex fumed. “It sucks. We could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win and that would have been cool. The fans would have been digging it, but instead we finished 14th and he’s locked out of the playoffs. I guess that’s what he gets.”
Lewis Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi and closed in on his fifth Formula One title, but he’s not happy.
Victory was handed to Hamilton by his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who pulled over to let him through on orders from the team.
“It’s never, ever in my whole life been the way that I wanted to win a race,” said Hamilton, who said Mercedes overrode his objections to the switch. Passing Bottas “did not feel good.”
Hamilton cruised to victory after the switch and now leads Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 50 points in the standings as both chase their fifth title. Even if Vettel wins all five remaining races, he’s no longer guaranteed to beat Hamilton.
It was Hamilton’s fifth win in six races and Mercedes’ third one-two finish this year.
Team orders, as such coordinated passes are known, have been used for decades and are allowed under F1 rules. But they have a history of alienating fans who would prefer to see competitive racing.
Mercedes strategist James Vowles defended the move by saying Hamilton had a “small blister” on his tire and could have fallen behind Vettel.
Vettel, who finished third, said he held no malice toward Hamilton and Bottas for their switch.
“Well done to both of them. They played together as a team very well,” said Vettel. “I think in the position that they are, it’s a no-brainer what they did today.”
Seventeen-year-old Hailie Deegan used a bump-and-run on her teammate to become the first female winner of a NASCAR K&N West Series race in Meridian, Idaho. Her last-lap shove of Cole Rouse at Meridian Speedway gave her the victory.
Deegan is the daughter of X Games motocross rider Brian Deegan. Her victory came in her 18th start on the NASCAR K&N circuit.
The teenager from Temecula, California, led only one lap in Saturday night’s race, the last one. Deegan had two previous runner-up finishes in the series and said after the race she had imagined the winning move the night before while lying in bed. Deegan said her plan was to nudge the leader just enough to make the driver wiggle and create room for the winning pass.