Martinsville Speedway has always been Jimmie Johnson's ace in the hole when it's came to Chase campaigns in the past. If he's been in with chance of the title heading to the half mile "paperclip" short track, then it's been Martinsville that has allowed him to put his foot down and start to pull away to safety from the opposition. With eight career wins here - his most successful track in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series - there's no place that Johnson feels more at home or is more confident at.
By contrast, Johnson's chief Chase rival in 2013, Matt Kenseth, has never won at Martinsville. In fact, he's managed only three top-five and eight top-10 finishes in 27 career starts at the venue, so the name of the game for Kenseth heading to the circuit on Sunday for the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 Powered by Kroger was damage limitation and not let Johnson massively extend the lead he'd taken at Talladega a week before. Anything else would be gravy.
Both men were up at the front right from the start, with Johnson taking the lead away from pole winner Denny Hamlin on lap 2 before the first of what would prove to be a season-high 17 cautions totalling 111 laps (almost a quarter of the 500-lap race) run under yellow. The first caution was a particularly lengthy one for fluid clean up after Carl Edwards got into the back of Jeff Burton at turn 4 and spun the #31 around, also involving Dave Blaney, Travis Kvapil and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the aftermath.
The race resumed on lap 20 with Kyle Busch talking the lead from Johnson for a dozen laps before Kenseth took over for the first time on lap 37. Deciding he liked the view, he moved in the furniture and settled down for the first long spell in the lead, amassing a total of 74 laps out in front which raised eyebrows among spectators: had Kenseth finally mastered Martinsville?
The second caution came on lap 88, and once again Carl Edwards was in the thick of it - this time it was Kvapil sent spinning around by the #99. For the second time of the day, Edwards had his spotter relay his apologies as the field pitted for the first time.
Kenseth resumed in the lead ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports pair of Johnson and Gordon, the latter driver almost as successful at Martinsville in his time as Johnson, but not having found his way to victory lane here since 2005. Still, with such proven firepower arrayed against him, it was only a matter of time before Kenseth was forced to give way: it happened on lap 111 when Johnson made a move on the low side and picked up the position, Gordon following his team mate's lead a few minutes later. Those who'd thought that maybe this would be a breakthrough day for Kenseth settled back again in their seats: normal service had been restored.
Johnson's lead continued through a caution on lap 140 for David Reutimann spinning out Bobby Labonte and the ensuing pit stops, through to the next yellow on lap 166 for Kyle Larson's engine letting go and dropping more fluid on the track on the backstretch. Jeff Burton stayed off pit road this time and briefly led at the restart on lap 180, but he was soon displaced by Johnson taking back his rightful crown.
It's just as well he did it quickly, because the next caution came out just three laps later when a group of cars bunched up in turn 1 and tripped over each other: Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Martin Truex Jr. were among those caught up, with Kahne ending up stuck in the grass, Hamlin slewed sideways on the track and Truex with a new accordion design to the front of the #56.
Racing resumed on lap 192 and was under caution again on lap 205 for another multi-car accident, this time for Kurt Busch spinning after contact with Jamie McMurray that left the #78 ripe for getting rammed by Mark Martin in the #14. Kenseth took the lead soon after the restart and was back out in front when Kvapil spun in turn 4 on lap 218.