Splitter to Spoiler: Johnson cashes in on rain check in Bristol

Seven-Time approaching more history, Clint Bowyer proves hes a contender and struggles continue for two NASCAR stars

Randy Sartin—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (48) celebrates in victory lane after winning the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Two weeks ago, we learned Jimmie Johnson still had the winning edge in Texas. On Monday in Bristol, he was just showing off.Granted, it took several mistakes from Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. — who combined to lead 318 of the 500 laps and win the first and second stages, respectively — but Johnson came away with win No. 82 in his career.That number is pretty special for Johnson as it puts him one behind one of his racing idols in Cale Yarborough. A three-time NASCAR champion in his own right, Yarborough totaled 83 victories over his career, which still stands as the sixth-most in the sport’s history.When it comes to Johnson’s earliest plans to eventually race in NASCAR, most of it stemmed from watching Yarborough on the track. In fact, as a child he would go to Hardee’s expecting to see Yarborough, who was sponsored by the fast-food chain, waiting to greet him.The idea of possibly surpassing him?”It’s mind-blowing. I cannot believe that we’re sitting here with 82 wins,” Johnson said. “That is such a big number. Yeah, and to be seven or eight years old, whatever I was, traveling around the country racing dirt bikes and walking into my first Hardee’s, I thought it was a race shop for Cale Yarborough and then I realized it was a hamburger stand, there’s no way. “I didn’t even really pay attention to NASCAR. I had no idea what it was. All my heroes were on two wheels. To be in this position is quite an honor.”It’s doubtful that Johnson will ever unseat Richard Petty as the King of racing with 200 wins, but the top five is within reach. After Yarborough, both Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip are tied at 84 victories, which could be surpassed with three more wins. Over the last five years, Johnson has averaged exactly five wins — the number he would need to move into fourth-place all-time.Next on that list? His former teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon.”I honestly wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for [crew chief] Chad Knaus and [Hendrick Motorsports owner] Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, Lowe’s, all the consistent things that I’ve had through my career,” Johnson said. “This has really been the environment for me to thrive in.”Sometimes the team makes the driver. Other times the driver makes the team. In the case of Hendrick, Johnson and Knaus, the trio has been one that has perfectly melded three superior pieces into one of the most dominant forces in NASCAR history. They’ve already surpassed Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Soon, they’ll add Yarborough, Allison, Waltrip and eventually Gordon to the list. Enjoy it now, because it won’t be around much longer.Clint’s ComingClint Bowyer has not led a single lap this season. But for those that have paid attention, he’s been one of the most consistent drivers on the entire circuit. He proved that again on Monday with a second-place result, his highest finish since April 2013.Bowyer’s entire career his experiencing a renaissance as he has three top-10 finishes in the last four races and an average finish of 9.5 since Daytona. Still, finishing second wasn’t good enough for Bowyer after fighting his way up to the top to come away as the runner-up to Johnson.”We’ve come a long way with this team,” Bowyer said. “These guys have worked so hard; it’s a fun group, everybody at Haas. My teammates are awesome. It’s so much fun to work with this group each and every week. Hell yeah you want to be up there and win it.”The season isn’t only a surprise for Bowyer, but his team as well. Over the last three seasons, Tony Stewart amassed just one win and eight top-five finishes with the No. 14 team. Bowyer may not have that elusive win yet, but he’s been far more consistent to start 2017.After a lost season with HScott Racing, which folded in December, Bowyer is quickly proving his talent wasn’t lost. Unfortunately, he still finished behind an old nemesis in Johnson, which he joked about despite clearly wanting to finish the day in Victory Lane.”Turns out he’s pretty good,” Bowyer said. “No, I don’t think it’s a matter of making mistakes. I mean, he’s just ‑‑ he’s a seven‑time champion. I mean, that’s all you can say about it. It’s good to know that you’re trying to outrun and frustrated with having the best that’s probably ever been beat you. I guess there is something to say about that.” “He’s still a butthole,” Bowyer added with a laugh. But Bowyer is certainly making the rest of NASCAR clinch theirs.Struggles continues for Earnhardt, Kyle BuschTwo years ago, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combined for eight wins and 28 top fives. Busch won the championship while Earnhardt came away with another career year despite finishing the year in the second round of the playoffs.What a difference two years makes.Following Monday’s race in Bristol, Busch is barely hanging on to a playoff position in 11th while Junior is well outside the running in 24th. Those positions are thanks in large part to accidents on Monday in Bristol, but Earnhardt wasn’t sure he even had a car to compete for a solid finish before the wreck.”It’s unfortunate,” Earnhardt said in the Bristol garage. “We weren’t running that great, but we were working on our car and trying to figure out how to get it to run better. And get something out of today, but we are going to have another bad finish. We have had a lot of them this year. It’s going to be tough.”