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.
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.