CONCORD, N.C. — Stuck in the longest losing streak of his career, Jimmie Johnson had a chance for a critical win that could salvage this ho-hum season for Hendrick Motorsports.
Hardly a title contender for most of this season, Johnson grabbed a victory at sun-soaked Charlotte Motor Speedway when nearly half the Sprint Cup contenders had horrible days.
Johnson's win in Sunday's Bank of America 500 was his third this season and snapped a 24-race losing streak dating to March. He is the only Hendrick driver to visit Victory Lane this season, earning an automatic berth into the third round of NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.
It's the first time Johnson has made it out of the second round since the elimination format was introduced in 2014. He was knocked out at Talladega in the second round of the inaugural season, and was bounced in the first round last year.
Suddenly, the six-time Cup champion is a realistic contender for that elusive, record-tying seventh title. He knows this feeling well — this was his 27th victory in a Chase race since the format began in 2004. Tony Stewart is second with 11 Chase wins.
"We can't sit back and celebrate too much on this," Johnson said. "We've got to buckle down and get to work (today) and keep advancing our race cars. But this does buy us a couple weeks of freedom."
The race was originally scheduled for Saturday night, but rains from Hurricane Matthew prompted a postponement. When the racing finally began on a beautiful North Carolina afternoon, it immediately shaped up as a Hendrick kind of day.
Johnson and Chase Elliott dominated, running 1-2 for a long stretch, and Hendrick's Chevrolets looked strong. Elliott, though, was one of five Chase drivers to finish 30th or worse, so Johnson had to carry the flag.
The win came on the 15th anniversary of Johnson's debut in Cup for Hendrick, which was at Charlotte, and was his eighth Cup win at the track.
"Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is," team owner Rick Hendrick said.
Johnson has quietly turned up his performance in the Chase and became an official title contender as the first driver qualified for the next round. He led a race-high 155 laps Sunday, and in four Chase races this season, he has led 363 laps and hasn't finished lower than 12th.
"Be curious to look back, I guess, and see if these are all new cars that they're bringing," reigning champion Kyle Busch said. "Obviously, if it is, then they've found something that they've been waiting out and holding out on us. That's to be expected, though, man. That's what this sport is all about."
Johnson figured it out on a day when six Chase drivers had trouble.
Denny Hamlin (who finished 30th) and Kevin Harvick (38th) had engine issues. Austin Dillon (32nd) and Elliott (33rd) were in accidents. Joey Logano (36th) had tire problems, and Martin Truex had an electrical issue as he left pit road after the final pit stop.
Hamlin was second when his engine blew with 25 laps left. As the cars left pit road, Truex seemed poised to restart in second, but he appeared to stall and instead restarted 16th.
At least Truex salvaged his day and finished 13th.
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.
Xfinity: 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 left in the Drive for the Cure 300 at Charlotte. The race was originally scheduled for Friday night but rain from Hurricane Matthew postponed it. The doubleheader meant 800 miles of racing, and Logano and Larson were among five drivers who ran both Sprint Cup and Xfinity series events.
Formula One: Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg capitalized on a slow start by teammate Lewis Hamilton to win the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka to widen his points lead. Rosberg, who started on the pole, beat Red Bull driver Max Verstappen by 4.9 seconds, with Hamilton third. Rosberg leads Hamilton by 33 points with four races left.