After the Easter break, NASCAR was back in action at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon for the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup race of 2013. And that suited Jimmy Johnson just fine, because Martinsville is a track he likes a lot and at which he's enjoyed considerable success in the past.
"Martinsville stays the same over the years and you just have to dig-in and get into a rhythm and drive your own race and see how things unfold at the end and how things happen," he explained in victory lane after the race. "This race track is tough to get around. But we have a great notebook ... I feel like the fastest car won the race. It was a very standard Martinsville race."
Sure enough, Johnson duly dominated the early stages of the STP Gas Booster 500, leading from pole position for the first 89 laps before Kyle Busch went to the front for a spell. Johnson let him enjoy the view before promptly snatching the spot back on lap 104. Johnson soon had his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jeff Gordon circulating close behind - both of them seven-time winners at Martinsville seeking an eighth to break the tie - while Busch was being supported by his Joe Gibbs Racing colleague Matt Kenseth in their bid to stop that from happening.
Although there was an early caution on lap 17 for a spin by Danica Patrick (who'd had to start from the back following an engine change) and on lap 71 for a similar incident involving Scott Speed, there were reactively few interruptions during the first hour and as a result the leaders quickly caught and started to pass the tail end of the field on the cramped oval circuit. They proceeded to put a lot of big names off the lead lap, starting with Danica Patrick and fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then later making short work of the likes of Juan Montoya, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Johnson had just put Tony Stewart in 20th position a lap down on lap 173 when there was a debris caution. Johnson led Busch to the green flag for the restart on lap 180, but he put the brakes on again right away as behind there was chaos thanks to the outbreak of a multi-car wreck. Kasey Kahne had slowed up and caught out the cars behind him; Marcos Ambrose got into the side of Mark Martin; Clint Bowyer spun; and a whole bunch of cars played a destructive game of oversize pinball that also left Stenhouse, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with varying degrees of bodywork damage, and Travis Kvapil out of the race and in the medical centre for a check-over.
Despite his slowing up at the previous restart, Johnson was still judged by telemetry and video data to have been in the lead when the yellow came out and so he duly once again led Busch to the green flag on lap 198. It was Kenseth who got the jump on them both and took the lead for the first time, however, and Kenseth was still in the lead when David Reutimann spun on lap 242, at which point the leaders - Kenseth, Busch and Johnson, along with Kahne and others - took the opportunity to make their next round of pit stops under the yellow. At the restart, Kenseth continued to lead ahead of Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick with Jamie McMurray circulating in sixth place as they passed the halfway point of the 500-lap race. However, there was a quick return to yellow when Edwards suffered a flat left rear tyre on lap 256 and spun to produce the sixth caution of the afternoon.
A problematic pit stop for Mark Martin, which saw the JGR crew work on the #11 outside its designated pit stall, dropped the veteran off the lead lap on his one race filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin. Shortly after the restart on lap 261, Kurt Busch was also booted off the lead lap after suffering a flat tyre which he blamed on contact with Logano that forced the #78 back onto pit road under green. Kurt's brother Kyle was still at the front, however, and on lap 264 he took over the lead once again from Kenseth as Johnson continued to hold station in third.
Truex spun in turns 3 and 4 to produce the next caution on lap 280, and now pit strategy for the remainder of the race was becoming a factor. The leaders came in but some of those lower down stayed out - Patrick getting two laps back at a stroke by playing that gambit, putting her back on the lead lap again in 22nd place. A rapid return to yellow after the restart (for Kurt Busch spinning after trying to cut down in front of David Gilliland) even allowed her to come in on lap 293 for a full set of tyres to leave her sitting pretty for the remainder of the race.
Kenseth took the lead soon after the restart and Johnson moved past a waning Busch for second place on lap 310, with Brad Keselowski threatening in fourth ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was still labouring in the pre-crumpled #88. However, Earnhardt soon started suffering suspected suspension and handling problems which saw him fall backwards like a stone to 22nd place just as the track went yellow again on lap 361 for a flat tyre on the #39 of Ryan Newman.
"We had a right-front tyre go down," he explained. "That obviously put us behind. NASCAR penalized us for intentionally bringing out the caution, so they held us for three laps. I felt like I didn't have a whole lot of choice, or else I would have wrecked half the field. We lost another right front not long after that, and our day was pretty much done from there."
At the restart on lap 367, the momentum swung further away from the JGR duo and back into the hands of the Hendrick stable, with Johnson taking back the lead and Kahne soon joining him by surging back into contention to take up residence in second place. That was ahead of Kenseth, who was himself soon displaced from third by Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer with a hundred laps to go to the finish.
50 laps later and the Hendrick duopoly became a three-way with Jeff Gordon surging to the front past Bowyer and the JGR cars just in time for the tenth caution of the day triggered by Bowyer's MWR team mate Brian Vickers spinning in turn 2 with a blown left rear tyre. That allowed the cars to come in for the final time, and a suspect call by a NASCAR official who deemed the #2 not to be properly within its pit stall cost Brad Keselowski multiple positions, dropping the reigning Cup champion down to 11th place. Further up the line, Johnson and Gordon resumed the race in the lead ahead of Bowyer and Busch, with Kahne now alongside Kenseth for the green flag on lap 459.
It was only seven quick laps before the next caution, however, triggered when Brian Vickers rubbed into Danica Patrick which resulted in her nudging Dale Earnhardt Jr. into a spin; and the next green flag stint lasted only 14 laps before the 12th caution, this time triggered by Kurt Busch's #78 Furniture Row Racing car spectacularly going up in flames after crashing into the wall in turns 1 and 2 on lap 486 after a brake failure, forcing Kurt to abandon ship at high speed as the fire crew scrambled to the scene. Busch was uninjured and even had the presence of mind to trigger the car's built-in extinguisher as he scrambled clear, but the yellow flags were briefly made red to facilitate the clean-up.
“Something let go in the brakes," he explained after being checked over in the medical centre. " The brakes got real spongy and then the pedal went straight to the floor. I had to turn the car to the right otherwise I was going to hit harder than what we did.
"Fuel pump issue and then a brake issue, bummer day for the Furniture Row guys," he added. "It's one of those things where we were running 38th, 20 laps down - what more can go wrong? But I will find it out there for sure!"
As the race resumed, Johnson was still in charge with Bowyer running second ahead of Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne and now Kevin Harvick displacing Kasey Kahne from the top six. The top five opted to stay out and not pit for fresh tyres, but Harvick rolled the dice and rejoined in 13th place hoping to make up the positions in the final ten lap dash to the chequered flag.
Staying out proved to be the right call: Harvick made no forward progress in the final seconds of the race, and Johnson held on to the lead to win by 0.628s over Bowyer and collect his eighth Martinsville grandfather clock - the unique trophy given to winners of this event on the Cup calendar.
“It was just a long-fought day," said Johnson afterwards. "Fortunately we didn't have any craziness with two tyres or four tyres at the end ... It was just a hard race." He added: "It's springtime, life is good - we've had two wins this year!"
Behind Bowyer, Jeff Gordon finished in third place while Kahne got the jump on Busch to finish in fourth place making it three Hendrick cars in the top four. Gordon was still disappointed not to steal the win away from his team mate, but confessed that it had been his error that had likely cost him the win.
"I made a mistake on pit road and got us way behind," he admitted. "We tried to free it up. We just didn't get it quite freed-up enough. So, I was just trying to get the front end to cut and I knew that we just didn't quite have it.
"On the long runs, I feel like we had the best car, but you know those cautions are going to come out there, he continued. "We were real tight there at the middle part of the race, and then boy - that thing just took off!
"It was a lot of fun. We needed that third place finish, so I'm very proud of this team," he added. "We just needed more laps there at the end."
Busch was able to just hold off Brad Keselowski at the line for fifth place, but admitted that he'd had his eye on better given the early form of the JGR cars during the afternoon.
"We keep finishing top five here all of the time, but it'd sure be nice to figure out some sort of secret that could get us into victory lane here. It would be nice to bring home a grandfather clock, but not this week," shrugged Busch. "We fought hard up there and tried to do what we could and just had to fade gracefully, I guess you'd call it ... There at the end when it was go time, we just didn't quite have enough in this M&M's Camry – just not enough turn and not enough drive off."
Just outside the top ten, Danica Patrick made good on her mid-race comeback from her early issues by finishing in 12th place, finding herself right in the middle a bad-tempered spat between Brian Vickers (who edged her for 11th) and Kevin Harvick (who lost out to both and finished 13th).
"If you're going to block, if you're going to run me across the curb, then you have to get the same in return," said Harvick later, after he'd clearly run into the back of the #55 to spin it following the chequered flag. "We raced hard all day, and we raced clean with a lot of people [but] if you're going to run me through the marbles, then what am I going to do?"
Vickers was mystified as to what had angered Harvick: "We hadn't really raced that much all day, and then he just wrecked us after the chequered flag," said a baffled Vickers. "It was blatant, pretty blatant: he just turned right into us."
On the other hand, Vickers was less than happy with Patrick's final run to the flag on the outside line: "The #10 and I were racing pretty hard. I got to her and got under her several times, and she ran me down in the marbles, ran me across the curb, was blocking pretty bad. So I put the bumper to her a little bit."
On the back of of his eighth Martinsville race win, Johnson jumps back into command of the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings by nine points over Brad Keselowski; former leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. slips two spots to third as a result of his troubles at Martinsville, while Kyle Busch is up two places to fourth having completed his comeback from two early frustrating outings at the start of the season.
Clint Bowyer is the biggest gainer in positions, up six spots to eighth place, while Carl Edwards loses three places after a troubled Martinsville event. But at least he was out on the track: Denny Hamlin drops out of the top ten after missing the race with a compression fracture in his lower back, although he was on hand over the weekend to help out his stand-in, Mark Martin, who managed a solid tenth place finish despite being completely unfamiliar with the JGR car and set-up.
"I'm proud of the effort that Mark Martin did," said Hamlin. "He is a guy that has been around longer than any driver in our sport but he wants to be treated like a rookie. He wants constant information all the time, and I just tried to do the best I could to give him the information when he needed it."
Seeing Hamlin around the paddock this weekend less than two weeks after his smash at Fontana led many to speculate that he might be back in the race seat sooner than forecast, but Hamlin admitted that being at the track had only brought it home to him how his recovery couldn't be rushed.
"I didn't realize the physical toll that coming out here all three days was going to take on me, so I might back off a little bit in the future," he said. "Come for one or two days to keep from rusting out.
"The start of the race was nothing like I thought it would be," he added. " I thought I was over it before I even got to the race track and thought that [I would be] emotionally tough enough to get through it, but the start of the race absolutely killed me. That was very, very tough to watch."
JGR's regular Nationwide Series driver Brian Vickers will now take over the #11 until Hamlin's return, starting from next week at Texas Motor Speedway.Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings