Hampton, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Jimmie Johnson is virtually guaranteed of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the 12th consecutive year after winning Sunday's Fold of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Johnson, the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion, earned his 71st career win, including his fourth at this 1.54-mile racetrack. He joined Joey Logano as those drivers who have all but assured themselves of making this year's Chase, which begins in September. Logano won last Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. Johnson is the only driver who has qualified for the Chase every year since NASCAR instituted a playoff format for its premier series in 2004.
"I think it is pretty much a lock as long as we have a smooth season," Johnson said. "I think if we win a second one, it is definitely a lock. But this takes a ton of pressure off."
But Johnson's win at Atlanta didn't come easy. On Friday, he was one of 13 drivers who did not get a chance to participate in qualifying due inspection issues. All 13 had their cars initially fail inspection and then could not have another examination of their vehicles completed in time for qualifying. Johnson was placed in the 37th starting position.
Former series champions Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart did not make a qualifying run as well and joined Johnson deep in the starting field.
Atlanta was the first race where the series used its new 2015 rules package for the cars.
Johnson grabbed the lead for the first time on lap 198 of this 325-lap race. He then ran in front for a total of 92 laps. Johnson held off Dale Earnhardt Jr., his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, after the final restart with 14 laps to go and then cruised to a 1.8-second margin of victory.
"We had a great race car, and unfortunately the way qualifying went, we didn't have a good pit stall pick, and it took us a long time to get in front of the No. 19 (Carl Edwards)," Johnson said. "Once we did that, we were able to utilize our awesome pit crew, get the stops done and race for the win and get the job done today."
Kevin Harvick, the defending series champion, passed Earnhardt for second in the closing laps. Harvick has finished either first or second in the past five Sprint Cup races. He was runner-up in the Daytona 500.
Harvick led the most laps with 116. He had qualified second but had to start from the rear of the field due to an engine change. Harvick blew his motor during Saturday's final practice.
"Jimmie ran great today," Harvick said. "It was a lot of fun racing with him. It was a good race there as we got to the middle part of the race. I just got behind on one restart there. Then I got stuck behind the No. 55 (Brett Moffitt) on the restart when I stayed out. Then never really made it back up through there."
Earnhardt wound up finishing third, while Logano, the pole sitter, took the fourth spot after he had led 84 of the first 96 laps. Johnson, Harvick and Earnhardt outran Logano after that.
"I had nothing for them," Logano said. "They were so fast. I was sitting there watching them in front of me and trying to keep up and doing everything I could, but it's hard because you want to run hard, but also save your stuff for the long run. At the end of the race, we were all running hard and I couldn't keep up with them."
Matt Kenseth completed the top-five.
Two big crashes occurred within the final 70 laps. Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Gordon were involved in an accident along the backstretch on lap 257. Hamlin triggered the wreck when he spun around coming out of turn 2.
"I apologize to all those cars involved," Hamlin said. "Just got sucked around and got a little loose."
McMurray ran into Gordon, who then slid down the track and slammed into an area of the inside retaining wall that did not have an energy-absorbing barrier on it. Gordon was not injured.
His impact happened eight days after Kyle Busch crashed head-on into an unprotected concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway. Busch fractured his right leg and left foot during his incident in the Xfinity Series race. NASCAR has since taken additional safety measures. Officials from Atlanta Motor Speedway said last week that they would add a number of additions to its existing barrier system.
"I am very frustrated with the fact there are no SAFER (steel and foam energy reduction) barriers down there," Gordon said after his accident. "I knew it was a hard hit. I was like, "Man, I can't believe it.' I didn't expect it to be that hard. Then I got out and looked at it and said, 'Oh, wow, big surprise, I found the one wall here on the back straightaway that doesn't have a SAFER barrier'."
Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, was released from the hospital on Friday after he underwent two surgeries -- one on his leg and the other on his foot. JGR has no timetable for his return to racing. David Ragan is scheduled to drive the No. 18 car in place of Busch for the next several weeks. Ragan finished 18th at Atlanta, his first race with the team.
"I don't think we can say any more after Kyle's incident at Daytona," Gordon added. "Everybody knows we have to do something, and it should have been done a long time ago. All we can do now is hope they do it as fast as they possibly can."
Gordon, who raced at Atlanta for the final time, finished 41st. Last week at Daytona, he placed 33rd after being involved in a multi-car wreck on the final lap. Gordon's first career start in the Cup Series occurred on Nov. 15, 1992 at Atlanta. He was involved in an accident midway through that event.
The second major crash in this race took place with 21 laps remaining. Six cars were involved when Greg Biffle and Joe Nemechek got together. Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Tony Stewart were caught up in the wreck.
The start of the race was delayed nearly an hour due to rain that fell on the track earlier in the day.