Gordon led the restart but was soon passed by Kyle Busch, with Hamlin and Johnson right behind as the race reached the 100-to-go marker. But the real danger seemed to be emerging further back as Kevin Harvick started to slice through the field, climbing four places to fifth in the course of 20 laps. The long green flag stint suited Busch and Johnson, but was also a threat to them as the absence of any further cautions would almost certainly mean they didn't have enough fuel to get to the end - unlike Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. who had made that cunning extra stop on lap 372.
Sure enough, Denny Hamlin running in fifth place was forced onto pit road on lap 458 for his final service; and it proved the worst case scenario for him, because shortly afterwards - and before any of his chief rivals followed him onto pit road - the 11th and final caution of the afternoon came out as Ragan Smith spun and hit the wall. After the leaders all came in for their pit stops under caution, and Hamlin duly was one of those to receive the wave-around, the #11 was none the less mired down in 13th place at the restart.
And disaster also hit Jimmie Johnson, after he was penalised for speeding in the pit lane and given a drive-thru that put him back out on the track at the back of the lead lap, immediately behind Hamlin. Johnson was incensed and insisted that he was absolutely, categorically not speeding and that NASCAR had made a huge mistake: "There is just no way. There is just no way. It won't do me any good to have a conversation, it isn't going to matter. I guess I just can't attack pit road like I know I can and like I did every single time before this."
It was only a day later that a cooler Johnson was able to admit that actually the mistake had been his after all. "The comments I made in the race, and Chad [Knaus, Johnson's pit crew chief] made, and the comments following the race were made without all the information. And the fact of the matter was, we were wrong," he later said. "I was misinformed, and was referring to a segment where we could not get busted in. I thought that's where we were busted. And at the end of the day, that wasn't the thing we got in trouble on."
Two of the biggest threats for the race win had been effectively ruled out, which left the front of the field consisting of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Juan Montoya. Dale saw his chance: on lap 480 he bumped Kyle Busch's rear bumper into turn 2 and unsettled the #18 enough to allow him to force his way through and take the lead. Harvick would also pass Busch half a dozen laps later, and then set his sights on chasing down Dale Jr. who was gunning for the chequered flag with everything he had.
Slow traffic helped Harvick pull right up to the rear bumper of the #88, and then when Earnhardt got loose out of turn 4 with four laps to go. It was enough to put Harvick alongside, and after that there was nothing Earnhardt could do to stop the closer from taking the lead, to the dismay of a highly partial pro-Earnhardt crowd.
"I was catching [Dale] and I'm like, 'Man, I'm going to be the bad guy here!'" Harvick said of those final laps. "But I've got to do what I've got to do," he said, adding: "I'm not going to back down."
"We had the opportunity there to win a race, and I'm disappointed that I didn't get the job done," Earnhardt admitted. "It'll probably bother me more and more as the night goes on. I'll probably think about it a million times, what I could have done differently."
In truth, Harvick simply had the faster car and had seen off everyone else, so Dale should not be too downhearted and not being able to stop "the closer" either. It's still one of his best races in the last two years and his best finish since he was second in the 2010 Daytona 500.
Kyle Busch held on to third place, philosophically admitting that his car simply didn't have the pace to see off Harvick over a short run. Despite once more claiming the bonus points for most laps led, he was again unable to seal the deal for the race itself - but third place is nonetheless his best finish at Martinsville and he is the only driver to have top-fives in four of the first six races of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.