Jimmie Johnson moves into 3rd round of NASCAR’s playoffs

Jimmie Johnson (48) keeps ahead of Kyle Larson (42) and Matt Kenseth (20) at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Jimmie Johnson (48) keeps ahead of Kyle Larson (42) and Matt Kenseth (20) at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Just like that, Jimmie Johnson has a seventh championship within reach.

Johnson salvaged a ho-hum season with a strong win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that moves him into the third round of the playoffs. The elimination format had not been good to the six-time champion since its 2014 inception: He was eliminated in the second round of the inaugural year, then bounced out of the first round last season.

Johnson snapped a career-worst 24-race losing streak while winning for the first time since March.

“I just knew it was taking way too long,” he said of the drought.

He has quietly turned it up through the first round of the Chase and became an official title contender on Sunday, a day in which nearly half the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field had trouble.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick both had engine issues. Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott were in accidents. Joey Logano had tire problems, and Martin Truex Jr. had an electrical issue as he left pit road after the final pit stop.

Five Chase drivers finished lower than 30th, and Harvick, the 2014 champion, is last in the standings.

Johnson, meanwhile, has a record eighth victory at Charlotte and a spot in the round of eight drivers. He doesn’t have to worry about tire trouble, mechanical breakdowns or a wild ride at Talladega Superspeedway in the elimination race later this month. Johnson is through to the third round, and many of the top names are in trouble.

Hamlin was running second when his engine blew with 25 laps remaining. As the cars left pit road, Truex seemed poised to restart in second, but he appeared to stall and instead restarted 16th.

Although Truex salvaged his day and finished 13th — lowest of the Chase drivers still running at the end of the race — Hamlin wound up 30th.

Dillon was 32nd, Elliott 33rd, Logano 36th and Harvick 38th.

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.

Hurricane Matthew had washed out most of the weekend at Charlotte and pushed both the Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series races to Sunday in an 800-mile doubleheader. Scheduled for both races were Harvick, Logano, Dillon and Brad Keselowski.

HENDRICK RETURNS: This had been a miserable season for Hendrick Motorsports, by its own standards. Only two of its four drivers made the Chase this year and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is sidelined with a concussion.

Johnson has the only wins for the organization, but Elliott had been sniffing victory lane all season.

On Sunday, the two combined to lead 258 of the 334 laps, and Johnson and Elliott ran 1-2 for a huge chunk of the race.

Elliott was involved in an accident with 75 laps remaining and could not hide his disappointment.

“We had such a good car,” he said. “I’m devastated that we didn’t get the result that my guys deserve.”

Despite Elliott’s finish, it was a good organizational day for Hendrick: Kasey Kahne finished third and Alex Bowman showed early speed before a tire issue caused him to wreck.

HAMLIN WOES: During a lengthy red-flag, NBC Sports interviewed Hamlin while he idled in his car and said he was just cruising along for a strong finish.

Then his engine blew up and a strong points day was ruined.

It was Hamlin’s first engine failure since Talladega in 2013, and he noted afterward that he’s always hit with bad luck during NASCAR’s postseason.

“It’s just my time,” he said with a shrug.

DILLON GAMBLES: As the longshot in the field, Dillon likely needed tremendous luck or a stroke of strategic planning to advance out of the second round. His team gambled on a late pit stop in taking only two tires, a move that earned him nine spots and into second for a restart.

He seemed to get off cleanly at the drop of the flag, but as he shifted, he was hit from behind by Truex and spent spinning into an interior wall.

Truex accepted blame for hitting Elliott in a frustrated communication over his team radio.

“I tried to give him a shot and just turned him around like a damn idiot,” Truex radioed.

Dillon, a rookie in the Chase who is winless so far at the Cup level, figured he needs to get a victory in one of the next two races.

“We will have to work hard the next two weeks to get the points back,” he said. “We just have to do a lot, we have to win one of the next two races.”