After the Easter break, NASCAR was back in action at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway on Sunday afternoon for the sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup race of 2013. And that suited Jimmy Johnson just fine, because Martinsville is a track he likes a lot and at which he's enjoyed considerable success in the past.
"Martinsville stays the same over the years and you just have to dig-in and get into a rhythm and drive your own race and see how things unfold at the end and how things happen," he explained in victory lane after the race. "This race track is tough to get around. But we have a great notebook ... I feel like the fastest car won the race. It was a very standard Martinsville race."
Sure enough, Johnson duly dominated the early stages of the STP Gas Booster 500, leading from pole position for the first 89 laps before Kyle Busch went to the front for a spell. Johnson let him enjoy the view before promptly snatching the spot back on lap 104. Johnson soon had his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jeff Gordon circulating close behind - both of them seven-time winners at Martinsville seeking an eighth to break the tie - while Busch was being supported by his Joe Gibbs Racing colleague Matt Kenseth in their bid to stop that from happening.
Although there was an early caution on lap 17 for a spin by Danica Patrick (who'd had to start from the back following an engine change) and on lap 71 for a similar incident involving Scott Speed, there were reactively few interruptions during the first hour and as a result the leaders quickly caught and started to pass the tail end of the field on the cramped oval circuit. They proceeded to put a lot of big names off the lead lap, starting with Danica Patrick and fellow rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., then later making short work of the likes of Juan Montoya, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.
Johnson had just put Tony Stewart in 20th position a lap down on lap 173 when there was a debris caution. Johnson led Busch to the green flag for the restart on lap 180, but he put the brakes on again right away as behind there was chaos thanks to the outbreak of a multi-car wreck. Kasey Kahne had slowed up and caught out the cars behind him; Marcos Ambrose got into the side of Mark Martin; Clint Bowyer spun; and a whole bunch of cars played a destructive game of oversize pinball that also left Stenhouse, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with varying degrees of bodywork damage, and Travis Kvapil out of the race and in the medical centre for a check-over.
Despite his slowing up at the previous restart, Johnson was still judged by telemetry and video data to have been in the lead when the yellow came out and so he duly once again led Busch to the green flag on lap 198. It was Kenseth who got the jump on them both and took the lead for the first time, however, and Kenseth was still in the lead when David Reutimann spun on lap 242, at which point the leaders - Kenseth, Busch and Johnson, along with Kahne and others - took the opportunity to make their next round of pit stops under the yellow. At the restart, Kenseth continued to lead ahead of Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick with Jamie McMurray circulating in sixth place as they passed the halfway point of the 500-lap race. However, there was a quick return to yellow when Edwards suffered a flat left rear tyre on lap 256 and spun to produce the sixth caution of the afternoon.
A problematic pit stop for Mark Martin, which saw the JGR crew work on the #11 outside its designated pit stall, dropped the veteran off the lead lap on his one race filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin. Shortly after the restart on lap 261, Kurt Busch was also booted off the lead lap after suffering a flat tyre which he blamed on contact with Logano that forced the #78 back onto pit road under green. Kurt's brother Kyle was still at the front, however, and on lap 264 he took over the lead once again from Kenseth as Johnson continued to hold station in third.
Truex spun in turns 3 and 4 to produce the next caution on lap 280, and now pit strategy for the remainder of the race was becoming a factor. The leaders came in but some of those lower down stayed out - Patrick getting two laps back at a stroke by playing that gambit, putting her back on the lead lap again in 22nd place. A rapid return to yellow after the restart (for Kurt Busch spinning after trying to cut down in front of David Gilliland) even allowed her to come in on lap 293 for a full set of tyres to leave her sitting pretty for the remainder of the race.
Kenseth took the lead soon after the restart and Johnson moved past a waning Busch for second place on lap 310, with Brad Keselowski threatening in fourth ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. who was still labouring in the pre-crumpled #88. However, Earnhardt soon started suffering suspected suspension and handling problems which saw him fall backwards like a stone to 22nd place just as the track went yellow again on lap 361 for a flat tyre on the #39 of Ryan Newman.