Johnson Settles for Second

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson led a race-high 296 laps Sunday after leading a race-high 104 laps at Auto Club Speedway last week before a tire problem late cost him the win. (Photo: Getty Images)

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - It has become so common at Martinsville Speedway that when Jimmie Johnson passed Kurt Busch for the lead 18 laps from the finish of Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, it was easy to think that Johnson was headed for another victory.

Johnson has won at this track eight previous times. In the fall race two years ago, he passed Brad Keselowski with 15 laps left and went on to the win. Johnson passed Denny Hamlin with 16 laps to go in the spring 2009 race at this track and won, so another late-race pass for the win was no surprise.

When Johnson passed Busch for the lead Sunday, even Johnson thought he was about to give Hendrick Motorsports its 22nd win at this half-mile track.

“Man, I got back by him and I thought that we had control of the race then,’’ Johnson said of passing Busch. “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.’’

Instead of celebrating a victory, Johnson had to settle for second place.

Busch admits that after Johnson passed, he was more motivated.

“It flashed through my mind when he passed me that I'm hungrier than he is,’’ Busch said. “It was great to have raced him, and there was that respect today because we don't come from the same garage, but we do have some ties. We do have (Rick Hendrick), we do have Tony Stewart and Gene Haas, and there is a little bit of that camaraderie of teammates back and forth, and you don't want to start it off on a bad foot like that.

“But that's an epic‑type battle at a short track, with a six‑time champion to go back and forth and exchange the lead, a couple taps, a couple moves, a little bit of a chess game. I was hoping I had enough rear tires to drive away from him at the end.’’

Busch did. By winning Busch likely earns a spot in the Chase, while Johnson continues to search for his first victory of the season.

Since 2004, Johnson has scored his first win of the season by the sixth race seven times. He’ll have to wait another week to have a chance to score his first win of this season.

“Today I couldn't have done any more,’’ Johnson said. “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.’’

Despite that, Johnson still has shown he has a strong car. He led a race-high 296 laps Sunday after leading a race-high 104 laps at Auto Club Speedway last week before a tire problem late cost him the win.

“It's nice to know our cars are good,’’ Johnson said. “This track is in the Chase, so we'll come back a lot smarter and try to prevent running second again. 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.’’

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