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Johnson leads chase after Martinsville win

"I've been in these Chases for seven years and I've had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that," said Hamlin as he sat in the #11 in the garage as the team worked frantically to track down the short circuit. "All I can do is just drive my heart out and if it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. We'll have our time, it's just our time is not now."

His words proved accurate: although the Joe Gibbs Racing crew got the car back out on track and Hamlin was able to see out the rest of the race, he was more than 30 laps off the lead by that point and doomed to a 33rd place finish, a huge blow to his Sprint Cup Chase title hopes. It means he drops from third to fifth in the standings, and moreover the gap between him and leader went from a manageable 20pts to a seemingly insurmountable 49pts with just three races remaining in the 2012 season. Hamlin admitted that this was the end for him in terms of running for the title.

"Just have fun, that's all I can do," he said, when asked how he would approach the final races in Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. "Just go out there and be relaxed and enjoy this championship battle that's shaping up. It's a shame we can't be a part of it, but we're going to try to work our way as far up in the points as we possibly can and just keep digging."

The race restart with exactly 100 laps to go, with Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer once again battling for the lead - and Bowyer once again not holding back in getting physical with the #48 when it suited him. This time Johnson was prepared and wise to it, and all the love taps in the world weren't about to move him out of the way this close to the finish. Bowyer seemed spent by the effort, and not only fell away from the back of Johnson's car but also succumbed to overtaking moves from Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch to demote him to fourth place.

But even out on his own at the front, Johnson was still finding danger: first he made contact with the lapped car of Casey Mears on lap 436 to bump him out of the way, and then a couple of laps later he did the same thing on the #42 of Juan Montoya - and Montoya went for a spin in turn 2, right in front of Johnson who was lucky not to get collected in the process.

That brought out the yellows and allowed everyone who wanted to come into the pits under yellow for fresh tyres. That didn't affect the running order at all - Johnson and Gordon continued to lead Busch, Bowyer, Kahne and Vickers at the restart - and while Johnson had no problem in keeping the top spot over the ensuing laps, the top six remained closely packed and set for a tight finish.

Before we could get to that point, however, there was the first of two final cautions when Kevin Harvick's engine expired on lap 474: "Motor blew-up," Harvick confirmed succinctly. "The motor wouldn't run all day. Couldn't restart in second gear. Just hasn't been a great year. If it isn't one thing, it's another. At least we got the car handling pretty good and we were up inside the top ten."

The leaders once again again opted to pit for fresh rubber, but Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both opted to stay out and duly took the restart at the head of the field - although their older tyres made them easy for Johnson, Busch, Kahne and Gordon to quickly push aside.

There was one more caution of the day - making 11 in total - on lap 490 when Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards tangled in turn 2.

"For about 400 laps I had a really good time,", said Edwards. "I'm not going to worry about the end too much. We just got wrecked, but the race was fun. I had more fun than I've had here in a long time and I credit our guys because they've worked very hard."

That left a six-lap sprint to the chequered flag, with Johnson and Busch starting from the front row and scampering away safely to get to the finish line before anything further untoward could happen to make this day any longer than the three and a half hour marathon it had already been.




Related Pictures

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Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, is involved in an incident as Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, passes during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2012 in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, races to the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2012 in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, celebrates with the chequered flag after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2012 in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo Credit: John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
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Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, is congratulated by Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS Sunday, May 3, 2015 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. This was Earnhardt, Jr.`s sixth victory at Talladega. Johnson finished second behind Earnhardt, Jr. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/HHP for Chevy Racing)
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Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet SS, wins the Pole position Saturday, May 2, 2015 for Sunday`s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Alabama. Gordon is tenth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) standings. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet SS will join him on the front row Sunday. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, poses with Miss Coors Light Amanda Mertz and the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for pole position for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2015 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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