Kevin Harvick sealed his reputation as the best "closer" in the Sprint Cup series by staging his second race win snatch-and-grab in a row in the final laps at Martinsville. But he could well have become the most hated man in Virginia that night as a result, as his win came at the expense of crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The half mile oval is the shortest circuit on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, and with 43 cars on it the feeling is one of claustrophobia as you doubt how these cars can manage to get around without crashing into each other. Obviously the short answer is that they can't, but they can still get underway without an IndyCar St Pete-style crash fest.
Polesitter Jamie McMurray led the field to the green flag and got the race underway, making a great start and soon pulling out a 2s lead that meant by lap 20 he was already coming up to lap the back of the pack. That had major implications for Matt Kenseth, who had been seen to move lanes before crossing the start line in a rush to get to the coveted inside line. That was a major no-no, and the drive-thru penalty put him a lap down. Once McMurray and the leaders started to lap the tailenders, Kenseth's chances for a lucky dog free pass faded and he was to spend the next 100 laps off the lead lap as a result. One of the first to go a lap down was Joe Nemechek, who promptly then retired with brake issues.
The early laps were strong for Jimmie Johnson who was soon in the top ten from 17th on the grid. Less happy was Kevin Harvick, who was complaining of a loose car and fervently hoping for an early caution - as was the leader McMurray, whose car was also going loose causing him to relinquish the lead to Kasey Kahne on lap 32. Kahne's lead was brief before first Ryan Newman and then Denny Hamlin took over in front, while McMurray continued to fall further back: on lap 50 the top five consisted of Hamlin, Newman, Kahne, Johnson and Kyle Busch.
The first caution finally came out on lap 52 when David Gilliland picked up a flat tyre. Jimmie Johnson had a terrific pit stop and took the lead ahead of Newman, Kyle Busch and Hamlin, while the news was less good for Robby Gordon (sent to the back of the field for a commitment line violation) and Brian Vickers (drive-thru for speeding) while Carl Edwards was also facing a tough day ahead when he reported that his power steering was failing. At this point it also seemed like a struggle ahead Kevin Harvick back in 20th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th.
Johnson led from the restart on lap 61 through to lap 78 when he was finally ousted by Kyle Busch, who led until the second caution on lap 107 when Dave Blaney cut a tyre and hit the wall in turn 4. Johnson was once again (somewhat atypically) the fastest car on pit road and resumed the race in the lead ahead of Kyle, Hamlin, David Reutimann and Clint Bowyer.
Kyle struggled to get back to the inside line at the restart and subsequently dropped positions to Hamlin - who went on to take the lead from Johnson - and Bowyer, but it was a short green flag stint before Marcos Ambrose spun and made hard contact into the wall on lap 25 bringing out the third caution. The leaders opted not to pit under the caution (although further back Trevor Bayne took to the garage for a punctured radiator) and resumed in the same order as before, but Clint Bowyer made the best start and blew past Hamlin for the lead on lap 134.
Poor Dave Blaney was once again the cause for a yellow flag on lap 174 with another flat tyre putting him into the wall; to add insult to impact, he was also penalised two laps for deliberately stopping on track to trigger the caution when in fact he could have made it back to pit road. At this point Bowyer had still been in the lead, but Kyle Busch had just taken over from Jimmie Johnson for second - but the pit stops once again put Johnson back to the head of the field in front of Kyle, Bowyer, McMurray and Hamlin.
The next green flag stint lasted only a little over 20 laps, but was certainly eventful: Kyle Busch got bumped out of line by Jamie McMurray and dropped to sixth; Tony Stewart got up too high and nearly ended up skating over the loose tyre rubber marbles into the wall on lap 190; and Mark Martin went a lap down from a drive-thru penalty after being judged to have switched lanes before the start/finish line in an echo of Truex Jr.'s race tart misdemeanour. By the time Hermie Sadler went into the wall at turn 3 on lap 203, Johnson had a 2s lead again over Bowyer, Hamlin and McMurray.