CONCORD, N.C. — Competitors saw this coming, yet there was nothing they could do to stop it.
After a lackluster summer that led some people to question how far Jimmie Johnson would advance in the Chase, Hendrick Motorsports has returned to prominence.
Johnson’s win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway moves him into him into the Round of 8 and alters the feeling of this Chase.
“I think people would probably rate them as probably the favorite,’’ said car owner Joe Gibbs, whose teams have won a series-high 11 of 30 races this year.
Even as David Wilson celebrated Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Dover, the president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, said he knew a challenge was coming from Johnson’s team.
“What struck me as much as winning the race (at Dover) was how good (Johnson) was,’’ Wilson said Sunday.
Johnson didn’t contend for the win at Dover because of a pit road penalty. A speeding penalty prevented him from racing for the win at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase last month. Johnson’s team had no issues Sunday, leading 155 of the 334 laps to score his first win since March.
Johnson and his team have been mistake-prone this summer because they’ve been pushing to try to catch up to the Toyotas. But with the cars better, Johnson and his team showed that they no longer have to operate within a razor-thin margin of error.
“The easiest way to describe it would be I don’t have to scare myself to put up a good lap time,’’ Johnson said of what’s changed with his car since this summer.
Earlier this season, Johnson couldn’t make the car comfortable. The result was a 14-race stretch where he did not lead more than five laps in any race.
Now, he can.
“To have the car as consistent and stable as it is has really allowed us to be competitive, work through traffic, work through changing track conditions, and then if I do need to go out there and scare myself and pull away from (Matt Kenseth) or pull away from (Denny Hamlin), I can do it and get rewarded for it,’’ Johnson said.
That was no more apparent than the final restart. Kenseth led and had the preferred line. When the green waved, they went through Turns 1 and 2 side by side and drag raced down the backstretch, a mano-a-mano battle between Chevrolet and Toyota with Johnson’s Chevrolet pulling ahead and then pulling away.
“We were just a little off,’’ Kenseth said. “I just couldn’t run (Johnson) on a short run. I don’t think I could have done anything different there.’’
Kenseth wasn’t the only one searching for more speed Sunday. Brad Keselowski finished seventh — his lowest finish in the first four Chase races — but crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn’t thrilled.
“I feel like the Gibbs cars, we’re close to those guys, but it’s like the Hendrick cars and (Truex) have had the raw speed,’’ Wolfe said. “I feel like we’ve kind of been tit-for-tat with the Gibbs cars, depending on track position or balance. We’re just off right now.
“We could not get the speed to maintain in the top five once we got that track position.
Wolfe said that if he can’t find the speed, he’ll have to be more aggressive to make up for the deficit.
It isn’t just Johnson who has been fast for Hendrick. Chase Elliott led at least 75 laps for the second time in four races Sunday before he was collected in a crash on a restart. Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his fifth top-10 result in the last six races — his best stretch all season.
“Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were good here in the May race. We’ve been good on the mile‑and‑a‑halves, and we’ve been better than we’ve finished. But this feels good.’’
To all but the competition.
Now Johnson in set for the Round of 8 and the rest of the Chase field has two races to determine who will join him.