Denny Hamlin may have won the Virginia campaign in triumphing at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, but Jimmie Johnson moved ever-closer to a record fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship crown with a runner-up finish at the 0.526-mile short track.
In a green-white-chequered-flag finish that ended under caution with John Andretti wrecked at the finish line, Hamlin pulled away from Johnson over the final two laps of the Tums Fast Relief 500. As the cars roared off Turn 4 on lap 501 – one lap beyond the scheduled distance – NASCAR simultaneously displayed the yellow-and-chequered flags when Andretti was unable to drive away.
Juan-Pablo Montoya was third, followed by Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon. Jamie McMurray, pole-sitter Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick completed the top ten.
Hamlin, who passed Johnson for the lead on lap 363 and held it the rest of the way, collected his second victory at the narrow, paper clip-shaped track and the seventh of his career. In winning his third race of the season, the Virginia native completed a sweep of the fall races at the two race tracks in his home state, having scored an emotional triumph at Richmond on 12 September.
“We were really good on the long runs, but I was kind of worried about that short run at the end,” confessed Hamlin, who is ninth in the standings at 352 points behind Johnson. “We were able to survive it, thank God. I hate to say it was a little bit of a lack of a motor, but it seemed like our car just would not accelerate like those guys' did. By doing that, it saved the rear tyres, and it was able to stay a little bit longer. I think that had a little bit to do with why we were so good at length (long runs).
“Jimmie obviously gave us a lot of respect there towards the end. He knew that we had a faster car and tried to protect his points lead. It was a good situation we were in. We were kind of racing for nothing, and he's obviously racing for a championship and, honestly, it was a great run at the end.”
Having won five of the previous six races at Martinsville – a streak interrupted only by a Hamlin victory in the spring of 2008 – Johnson found solace in his runner-up finish. He increased his lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings to 118 points over second-placed Martin. Gordon is third, 150 off the lead.
Johnson said he was concerned with having to line up in the outside lane – in second position – for re-starts on laps 489 and 500.
“Starting from the outside lane, there was so much to lose,” the Californian explained. “I was really nervous about getting to the bottom (the preferred line) and protecting the position I was in. All-in-all, a good day. I wish we could have won, but we just didn't have anything for the 11 (Hamlin) on that last run.”
Johnson, however, said it was still too early in the Chase to think about protecting a points lead.
“We all know what the answers are,” he underlined. “It's the same stuff over and over again. The mechanicals, the stuff we can't control is the stuff I'm worried about. The stuff we can control, I feel we're going to be great.
“[There are] four good tracks coming up for us. If we have no issues, I feel that we can race for this championship, and things will turn out as we want. The stuff I can't control, I know it gives everybody something to talk about, but I'm tired of talking about all the what-ifs – and I'd just rather not.”
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service