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Hamlin neck-and-neck in Chase with Johnson after win

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.



Related Pictures

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Denny Hamlin - FedEx Toyota   [pic credit: Getty/NASCAR]
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Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)
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