No one knows how to play the Chase better than five-time champion Jimmie Johnson. He is able to perfectly position himself over the weeks and months of NASCAR's gruelling, seemingly never-ending 36-race season so that when the right moment comes he is just where he needs to be in order to have the ideal chance to clinch the title.
The plan might have unravelled last year, but there's a calm precision to his 2012 campaign that meant it was no surprise that he comes out of Martinsville with a win - and the lead in the Chase standings. Brad Keselowski might be only two points behind, but dealing with a racer of Johnson's calibre can make that gap seem like the Grand Canyon.
"I'm ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the point lead," said Johnson after the race. "We just had a great race car.
"But this is no cake-walk," he added about the work left to do in the remaining races of the season. "These guys are bringing their best each and every week and we've got to keep working hard to keep this Lowe's Chevy up front; and we're in good shape."
The race had started in bright sunshine but with the skies overhead already showing the first hints of the approach of Hurricane Sandy up the eastern coast of the US. Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers had led the field to the green flag for the start of the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway shortly before 2pm on Sunday afternoon.
Johnson immediately settled into the lead, while behind Vickers Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton were disputing third place and Denny Hamlin was trying to keep fifth from Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon. Considering that there were 500 laps of the race to go, it was already feeling positively feisty on the claustrophobic half-mile short oval.
By the time that the first caution came out on on lap 46 for a crash by David Stremme in turns 1 and 2, Jeff Gordon had worked his way up into second place behind his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson. The two had been bearing down on Johnson's main rival for the Sprint Cup championship, Brad Keselowski, who was relieved to see the yellows come out before he could be put a lap down. It was going to be a long day of damage limitation for the #2 by the looks of it.
Keselowski used the caution to put position first, gaining ten spots and climbing to 17th for the restart by taking only two tyres. Johnson and Gordon led at the restart, but it was a disaster for Denny Hamlin who got slammed with a speeding penalty and duly took the restart from the back of the lead lap - in 31st - rather than contending for the lead. Fortunately he had the time and the car to recover form the setback, and by the time the next caution came out he had already rised back into the top 20.
The new caution on lap 97 was for a crash by David Gilliland, who found the wall in turns 3 and 4. That was shortly after Gordon had wrested the lead from his team mate, and although Johnson took the top spot back in the ensuing pit stops it was no time before Gordon popped back to the front for a second time after the restart. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin's rehabilitation was nearly complete as be moved back into the top ten on lap 112.
Travis Kvapil's spin in turn 2 brought out the third caution on lap 128. Gordon, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. opted to stay out under the yellow and duly led the field at the restart ahead of Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin, while Johnson had dropped back to 11th place after deciding to come in.
Gordon once again surged away, but this time he had competition - from Brian Vickers, who surged into second place and then set his sights on the leader. He slid under Gordon into turn 1 for the lead bringing Hamlin through with him at the same time for the ride, just before a new caution was out for a solo spin by Kyle Busch in turn 4. The #18 didn't make any contact with anything or anyone, but Busch was dumped to the back of the lead lap in 28th place as a result of the misdemeanour.
Vickers cleared Hamlin to keep the lead at the restart, but was ousted by Hamlin on lap 165 who was in turn usurped by Johnson who decided that he wanted his lead back now, thank you very much, and who duly reclaimed it on lap 171 with Clint Bowyer following through into second. Bowyer decided to give the #48 a little 'excuse me' bump to allow him to take the lead on lap 182, and checking up caused Johnson to lose second place to Hamlin shortly afterwards.
A fifth caution came out on lap 199 when Marcos Ambrose spun in turn 2; the pit stops put Johnson and Gordon back on the front row for the restart, but the shock of the race so far was Hamlin getting done a second time for speeding on pit lane and getting demoted to the back of the lead lap - 28th place - all over again.
After a brief additional caution for a second spin by Ambrose, the race resumed and Clint Bowyer soon passed both Johnson and Gordon for the lead just before a new caution came out for a spin by Kurt Busch in the Furniture Row Racing #78 in turn 4 on lap 228, with a little help from Kevin Harvick - although Busch admitted that he'd hardly had a stellar car all afternoon.
"The spin was obviously a major blow to us today," he said. "But we also had a vibration in the Furniture Row/Farm American Chevrolet for the majority of the race and that affected the car's handling."
After that rather broken patch of caution-hit running, the race restarted on lap 235 and went for a whopping 158 green flag laps without further interruption. Bowyer established himself as the dominant leader over Jeff Gordon for the first two thirds of that distance, despite a dicey moment when he made contact with Tony Stewart's #14 car as he put the reigning Sprint Cup champion a lap down on lap 301.
Gordon started to fade as the time for green flag pit stops approached. He'd already lost second after being passed by the likes of Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers before he came on to pit road on lap 335. Bowyer didn't come in until lap 351, but when he did the car stalled and he lost valuable seconds as he was push-started by the crew.
Vickers briefly inherited the lead before his own pit stop on lap 365, and then it was Kasey Kahne who pushed to the front for the first time on lap 366, although his time at the top only lasted a dozen laps before Bowyer arrived having recovered from his pit lane setback and ready to take back his rightful place at the head of the field with little drama.
In fact the drama was happening elsewhere on the track: Denny Hamlin, having already overcome two speeding penalties to stay in contention, was now facing hi last stand of the day. The car's electrics started going haywire on him on lap 372 with the gauges flashing all sorts of things that they were never meant to do. He tried switching over to the backup battery, which momentarily did the track and allowed him to get back up to speed, only for the issue to reassert itself seconds later and the car start to cut out. As driver and crew tried to work out what was wrong and how to fix it, the car died for good on lap 391 triggering the eighth caution of the day.
"I've been in these Chases for seven years and I've had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that," said Hamlin as he sat in the #11 in the garage as the team worked frantically to track down the short circuit. "All I can do is just drive my heart out and if it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. We'll have our time, it's just our time is not now."
His words proved accurate: although the Joe Gibbs Racing crew got the car back out on track and Hamlin was able to see out the rest of the race, he was more than 30 laps off the lead by that point and doomed to a 33rd place finish, a huge blow to his Sprint Cup Chase title hopes. It means he drops from third to fifth in the standings, and moreover the gap between him and leader went from a manageable 20pts to a seemingly insurmountable 49pts with just three races remaining in the 2012 season. Hamlin admitted that this was the end for him in terms of running for the title.
"Just have fun, that's all I can do," he said, when asked how he would approach the final races in Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. "Just go out there and be relaxed and enjoy this championship battle that's shaping up. It's a shame we can't be a part of it, but we're going to try to work our way as far up in the points as we possibly can and just keep digging."
The race restart with exactly 100 laps to go, with Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer once again battling for the lead - and Bowyer once again not holding back in getting physical with the #48 when it suited him. This time Johnson was prepared and wise to it, and all the love taps in the world weren't about to move him out of the way this close to the finish. Bowyer seemed spent by the effort, and not only fell away from the back of Johnson's car but also succumbed to overtaking moves from Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch to demote him to fourth place.
But even out on his own at the front, Johnson was still finding danger: first he made contact with the lapped car of Casey Mears on lap 436 to bump him out of the way, and then a couple of laps later he did the same thing on the #42 of Juan Montoya - and Montoya went for a spin in turn 2, right in front of Johnson who was lucky not to get collected in the process.
That brought out the yellows and allowed everyone who wanted to come into the pits under yellow for fresh tyres. That didn't affect the running order at all - Johnson and Gordon continued to lead Busch, Bowyer, Kahne and Vickers at the restart - and while Johnson had no problem in keeping the top spot over the ensuing laps, the top six remained closely packed and set for a tight finish.
Before we could get to that point, however, there was the first of two final cautions when Kevin Harvick's engine expired on lap 474: "Motor blew-up," Harvick confirmed succinctly. "The motor wouldn't run all day. Couldn't restart in second gear. Just hasn't been a great year. If it isn't one thing, it's another. At least we got the car handling pretty good and we were up inside the top ten."
The leaders once again again opted to pit for fresh rubber, but Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both opted to stay out and duly took the restart at the head of the field - although their older tyres made them easy for Johnson, Busch, Kahne and Gordon to quickly push aside.
There was one more caution of the day - making 11 in total - on lap 490 when Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards tangled in turn 2.
"For about 400 laps I had a really good time,", said Edwards. "I'm not going to worry about the end too much. We just got wrecked, but the race was fun. I had more fun than I've had here in a long time and I credit our guys because they've worked very hard."
That left a six-lap sprint to the chequered flag, with Johnson and Busch starting from the front row and scampering away safely to get to the finish line before anything further untoward could happen to make this day any longer than the three and a half hour marathon it had already been.
Celebrating in victory lane, Johnson suggested that the weather - and the remorseless approach of Hurricane Sandy that was on everyone's radar - might have played a role in deciding the outcome of the battle between himself and Bowyer.
"The middle portion when the sun was out, we seemed to lose our advantage a little bit, was more like a top five car instead of a race-leading or winning car," he said. "From there the weather conditions were changing, as all of you know.
"Overcast, clouds came in, cooler temperatures. The balance on the race track changed a lot for me, and it came my way. Maybe it hurt the #15," he speculated. "It really helped my race car - it was nice to have Mother Nature lend me a hand there at the end and play into what my car needed."
"So close, yet so far away it seems like here at Martinsville time and time again," said second-place man Busch, who said he's tried everything he could to dislodge Johnson from the lead in that final run to the finish.
"Jimmie did a good job - he's a five-time champion for a reason," said Busch afterwards. "I was getting into one, and got to his rear bumper. I didn't want to move him out of the way. He slowed the corner down, protected the bottom. When I went back to the gas, I spun my tyres and got loose, he squirted away from me. No chance of getting back to him in three and four."
Kasey Kahne came home in third ahead of Richard Petty Motorports' Aric Almirola who equalled his best Cup finish with fourth place, thanks to a late two-tyre call by his crew chief Todd Parrott popping him up the running order when it was most needed.
"Todd Parrott made a gutsy call there ... I was really surprised at how fast it went on two tyres," said Almirola. "We were horrible at the beginning of this race and I mean horrible. I don't know how we didn't go several laps down, but we fought hard all day. We fought for every position. We made all kinds of adjustments on this Ford Fusion all day."
Clint Bowyer's late surge to try and reclaim the lead ended in contact with Jeff Gordon with two laps to go: "The #24 at the end, I mean, I didn't want to!" he said after the end of the race.
"I was door-to-door with him and he just turned left to block me and I was already there," he explained. "I hit the brakes and wheel-hopped, I hit him so hard and tried to stay off of him. It was a bad deal right there. You can see I was there and he just kept turning left on me and I was like, 'Hey, you better not do that.' It is what it is."
"Pretty typical Martinsville with Clint Bowyer and the #24 car here it's not the first time," was Gordon's response. "I like Clint a lot we race really hard together and we were just racing hard right there.
"We were on the outside and I mean we were sitting ducks on the outside," he continued. "I was just trying to get down. I felt like I got down in front of him but maybe I didn't, I don't know - I haven't seen the video."
Bowyer held on to finish in fifth place, while the incident saw Gordon lose sixth place to Brad Keselowski - who had done what he needed to in turns of damage limitation in the Chase.
"We probably had more like a tenth or eleventh-place car," was Keselowski's honest evaluation of the #2 at Martinsville. Despite coming back from 32nd place on the grid, he disagreed that such a successful display of damage limitation at his least-liked track in the Chase must feel almost as good as a win. "No, it just feels like you live another day," he said honestly. "It's like being in a war and surviving a battle. It's not necessarily a win, you're just happy to still be living."
Johnson's win puts him on top in the Sprint Cup standings, albeit by just 2pts over Keselowski. Given that there are just the three races to go before the end of the season, it's looking very much like a two-horse race between the pair now, with Clint Bowyer next in the standings but a hefty 26pts off the lead. Kasey Kahne is also just about in touch 3pts further back, but after that the rest of the Chase contenders are now effectively - if by no means mathematically - out of the running.
Of course, one disastrous multi-car wreck wiping out Johnson, Keselowski, Bowyer and Kahne early in one of the remaining races could yet turn this whole season upside down. But at this point, the smart money has to be that the the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is favourite to make it an impressive six-pack three weeks hence.
"Anything can happen. We've done a very nice job over these seven races to put ourselves in the points lead," said Johnson. "But we could both wad it up next week and Clint Bowyer is your champion. You never know. You got to go race the race.
"We'll have a dog fight for these final three," he added.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings