It was a gorgeous day for a motor race in Southern Virginia on Sunday, with sunny skies and the air temperature nudging a respectable 70 degrees for the time of year. Martinsville looked as picture-perfect as it possibly could, which is just as well because this tight, cramped and ageing circuit needs all the help it can get in the looks department.

The circuit is the slowest and shortest in the entire Sprint Cup series at just over half a mile, the small scale of the place making the NASCAR Cars of Tomorrow look like huge lumbering beasts as they crowd onto the track; it's barely banked (only 12 degrees in the turns) and the short length of the elongated paperclip shape of the track means that not all the pit boxes can fit down one side, so the pits wrap around the entire inner circumference of the oval with the pit lane entrance being at turn 3 and the exit just behind in turn 2. It is, if you like, the Monaco of the NASCAR season and no place for modern cars to race in the 21st century, let alone for an energy- and attention-sapping 500 laps; moreover, unlike Monaco, it doesn't have that principality's compensating glamour and gorgeous vistas.

What Martinsville does have, however, is a key position in the Chase: with the contenders dropping away and leaving a triumvirate of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick fighting over the Sprint Cup, this had the potential to be the race that decides the winner of the 2010 season - or closes everything up even tighter.

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Hamlin was best positioned to make maximum use of Martinsville after claiming pole position and starting on the inside alongside Marcos Ambrose, but Denny's car seemed sluggish at the start and after leading the first ten laps he was passed by Ambrose for the lead; and once deprived of the clean air up front, Hamlin started to drop backwards at an alarming rate of almost a position every lap until stabilising around 12th place.

Travis Kvapil blew a tyre and found the wall on lap 47 to bring out the first caution of the day, nicely timed to give everyone the opportunity for a relatively stress-free first pit stop of the day. Ryan Newman won the race off pit road ahead of David Reuitimann and Ambrose; further back, the stop seemed to have helped Hamlin who was able to inch his way back into the top ten during the next stint, and on lap 84 was enjoying a three-way battle over fifth place with his fellow Chase contenders, Harvick and Johnson.

By this point Newman had lost the lead to Jeff Burton who had been on a charge, Burton finally holding a tight inside line into turn 1 on lap 82 to claim the lead. He continued to hold the lead through the next caution (on lap 111, for a spin by Ellott Sadler who was also penalised for then intentionally forcing a caution) and ensuing pit stops, and at the restart he was leading Reutimann, Newman, Hamlin and Biffle.

The third caution followed just three laps later, when Jimmie Johnson and Marcos Ambrose made contact, Marcos blowing a tyre, spinning and hitting the wall and also leaving Johnson with some minor damage on the left side of the #48. At the restart there was a brief tussle over the lead between Burton and Newman, but the track was quickly back to yellow after Ken Schrader spun on the backstretch after receiving a bump from Casey Mears. The leaders all stayed out, but some of those further back down the positions - Juan Montoya, Scott Speed, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among them - opted to try a little pit stop strategy by pitting some 22 laps after the last mass round of stops.

Burton had no trouble keeping the lead this time, and Kevin Harvick popped up into second place as the race got some 23 laps of green flag racing in before Martin Truex Jr. crawled to a stop right in front of the pit entrance, all power lost. Everyone pitted - the off-sync strategy having come to nought for those further back - and at the restart on lap 176 Burton led Harvick, Hamlin, Newman and Reutimann to the green.

But the next fifty laps were a staccato burst of cautions: the sixth yellow on lap 185 was for a spin by Regan Smith triggered by a battle with Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed for position; the seventh was for Clint Bowyer similarly spinning and hitting the wall in turn 4 on lap 193; the eighth was for Paul Menard, who got turned around by a bump from Aric Almirola, although at least Menard kept it off the wall; then the ninth caution came on lap 225 after Mark Martin got a big hit up the rear from AJ Allmendinger, sending the #5 into the wall and sustaining some serious rear-end damage in the process; and finally the tenth caution on lap 233 was caused by David Reutimann spinning and hitting the wall after contact with Brad Keselowski. After such a strong early run, Reutimann's hopes of a good showing here were as damaged as the front of his car.

Jeff Gordon had stayed out during the most recent round of pit stops and duly led the restart on lap 246 ahead of Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Montoya and Tony Stewart. Dale in particular seemed invigorated by being this close to the lead, and soon overpowered Busch and then to the roar of the adoring crowd he clinched the lead from his team mate Jeff Gordon on lap 285 with a nice tight move down the inside just before the track went yellow for an eleventh time (for JJ Yeley stopped on the backstretch, having been unable to pull down to the inside to get to pit lane). All the lead-lap cars hit pit land and Dale won the race off pit road ahead of Stewart, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Burton.

Having taken the lead, Dale was in no mood to surrender it any sooner than he absolutely had to and he pulled out a margin of some 1.3s, no mean feat at such a cramped circuit. The margin had started to be eroded by Jeff Burton, however, when the 12th caution of the afternoon came out on lap 348 for Greg Biffle losing a tyre and spinning. After a round of pit stops, Dale led the restart and got some physical attention from both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, but was still in the lead when the 13th yellow quickly came out for Sam Hornish Jr. spinning and hitting the wall, inflicting some serious damage on the #77. Dale still seemed to have good pace at the restart, but soon it was clear that Kevin Harvick was the fastest of the leaders, finally muscling his way past Burton for second on lap 368 and then smoothly taking the lead from Dale ten laps later. Dale then quickly fell victim to Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson and fell to fourth before the 14th caution of the day.

This latest caution was the result of an on-track disagreement between Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch who were battling over 12th place. The two had simultaneously pulled down the track going into turn 3, resulting in Gordon nudging the back of the blue deuce and causing Kurt to have to check up to avoid a crash, allowing Gordon to take the position. Kurt has furious, interpreting the move as a deliberate hostile action, and as they came out of turn 4 onto the frontstretch he clearly and robustly reciprocated. This time the contact was strong enough to sent Gordon into a spin, and the #24 went rear-first into the inside wall causing extensive damage to the back of the car that would require some frenzied and physical remedial action back in the pits, ruining Gordon's hopes for a strong finish. Far from anger, crew communications with the team revealed a "yeah. what do you expect?" weariness for Kurt's action, which seemed to date back to past encounters and even repaying a grudge that the blue #2 had from its days being driven by Rusty Wallace when Gordon wrecked it in years gone by.

The ensuing caution allowed would prove to be the last round of pit stops for most of the drivers; and also gave Mark Martin the lucky dog, which restored him to the lead lap for the first time since his collision with Allmendinger on lap 225 and a later flat tyre that had dropped him a second lap down on lap 248. Although the car was looking held together by a combination of duct tape and prayer, the damage might ironically have been helping him make some of the fastest running of the day - aerodynamics are not nearly so key at Martinsville, so losing several pounds of bodywork off the back of the #5 proved to be the best tweaking the team managed all day.

Ken Schrader stayed out during the pit stop and was duly credited with leading the race, but at the restart he was no match for Kevin Harvick, and fell back through the field like a rock until the 15th caution on lap 397 for Tony Raines spinning in turn 4 after sustaining a flat tyre. Gordon got the lucky dog this time around and was back on the lead lap after going down one while sorting out the damage from his crunching encounter with Kurt Busch, but the damage was too serious for him to avoiding getting lapped twice by the leaders before the end.

At the restart on lap 402, Harvick was leading Hamlin, Burton, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson: and amazingly, given the endless sequences of cautions and restarts that had blighted most of the race, there would not be another yellow flag for the remaining 98 laps. It was green all the way to the finish, which meant that some cars got distinctly uncomfortable on very worn rubber by the end, none of the cars having run anything like this distance on one set of tyres all day until now.

For the longest time during this final stint, Kevin Harvick looked to be in control of the race and untouchable in the lead. Burton pressed his own claim and closed the gap, but in doing so wore his tyres down and eventually dropped back over the closing laps, which left the road open for Denny Hamlin to slowly real in his Chase rival. It took until lap 467 for Hamlin to finally catch the leader, and then after a lap spent side-by-side Hamlin proved he had the better car for long runs and finally cleared Harvick to claim the lead that he hadn't held since that pole position start. The nightmare for Denny now would be a late caution and trying to retain the lead during a restart: as long as the race stayed green till the chequered then he was home free.

Ideally Hamlin also wanted someone to take points off his Sprint Cup rivals, too: and his team mate Kyle Busch was doing his level, aggressive best to take a position off Jimmie Johnson in the final stages, finally managing it 25 laps from the end. That meant Johnson had not led a single lap at Martinsville for the first time in five seasons, at what is considered his best track in the Chase.

But the real star of the final laps was Mark Martin. Having just got the free pass back onto the lead lap in the nick of time, he was able to galvanise the damaged-but-light #5 into an astonishing bravura finish: starting the last stint as the last of 18 runners on the lead lap, he went past car after car - even breezing past the Busch/Johnson battle by lap 481, and then looking down the inside of Kevin Harvick to steal second place in the last minutes.

At one point, Johnson's lead in the Sprint Cup standings was down to a single point - only the late collapse of Jeff Burton's pace boosted him up a position in the final race results and stretch out his lead to a still-nailbiting 6pts over Denny Hamlin in the Sprint Cup. Meanwhile Kevin Harvick - despite running and impressive race and leading for so much of the closing period - is now 62pts off Johnson for the championship, by no means insurmountable but still uncomfortably far away from the leaders with so few races left to run.