NASCAR – TUMS QuikPak 500, Martinsville Speedway VA – Sun Oct 19

Gorgeous weather – bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies – made it hard to believe that qualifying had been rained out. That meant starting positions were decided by Chase points standing – and gave Jimmie Johnson an invaluable and ultimately unbeatable edge.

Compared with the other tracks we visit in the NASCAR series, Martinsville is absurdly small: at just a half mile in total distance, the cars barely have time to put their foot down at the start of the straight before they’re into the next turn. It’s more like the Monday morning commute than a car race. The 43 cars when running line astern pretty much take up two thirds of the track length so that almost before they know it, the drivers at the back are getting lapped. The first to go a lap down was Mike Bliss on lap 23 of 500 when pole sitter Jimmie Johnson blasted past him.

The major concern of the early laps for several of the cars was that they were running very low and rubbing their front splitters on the ground, sending up clouds of smoke into the air and inviting disaster should the splitter break on such a tight track. And with the cars so tightly packed on the track – it looked more like a car park at times – there was plenty of jostling and bumping going on with cars touching almost every lap: finally on lap 28 the first yellow came out when David Reutimann knocked Travis Kvapil into a spin that left him against the wall, pointing the wrong direction.

All but the top 18 cars pitted under yellow – Dale Earnhard Jr. getting sent to the back for a speeding violation – and when the green flag came out Jimmie Johnson led the way and was promptly passed by Jeff Gordon who got a great restart, having worked his way up the standings with evident purpose during the first green stint. The two of them quickly opened up a 3s lead over the rest of the field – quite an achievement on such a small track, and Johnson took his lead back on lap 55.

Kasey Kahne lost power on lap 59 and ground to a halt, bringing out the second yellow of the afternoon, and this time all but 12 cars came into the miniature pit road, allowing the teams to fix some loose handling and tackle the downforce issue affecting the diffuser, which was stopping those most badly afflicted from being able to brake fully going into the corners. Jimmie Johnson won the battle out of pit road and rejoined 13th, while Aric Almirola – who had pitted under the first yellow – stayed out this time and took the lead. But Kurt Busch hit problems with his stop and was sent to the garage with a brake problem, going 24 laps down by the time he returned.

Dale Earnhardt Jr bumped Jamie McMurray into a spin on lap 81 just ahead of Jimmie Johnson who was working his way back to the front and already back up to 6th. McMurray stayed out of the wall but it brought out the third yellow of the day, and the fourth followed within half a lap of the restart as Regan Smith spun all by himself going into turn 2 – either overcooking the corner or a problem with his brakes, blames shooting out of the front right brake disc.

The rookie Almirola continued to lead rather impressively until the fifth yellow on lap 114, when Matt Kenseth oversteered and ripped his rear end off against the side of Joe Nemechek, who himself was spun into heavy contact with the wall. Jamie McMurray stayed out as the others pitted, giving him the lead at the restart; Kenseth was able to rejoin with his rear end duct taped back on, albeit a lap down; innocent party Nemechek was out for the day, however.

Jimmie Johnson finally retook the lead on lap 154 from McMurray, before the sixth yellow on lap 161 for a peculiar incident where three cars all seemed to suffer simultaneous front right punctures: Kyle Busch got the worst of it and hit the wall pretty hard, while Sam Hornish Jr and Tony Raines had a more sedate coast to a crawl behind him. Was it a systemic tyre problem, or debris on the track that they all ran over, more overheating brake issues – or just coincidence? As well as losing positions from the puncture, Busch also got a two lap penalty for stopping on the track and bringing out the yellow when he could have made it to pit road, while Hornish went to the garage for fixes for 25 laps. Greg Biffle stayed out as everyone hit the pits, inheriting the lead and getting his five extra points before Johnson resumed his rightful place, and McMurray soon passed Biffle for second as well as Biffle sank back on old tyre.

The next yellow came out on lap 196 when Aric Almirola blotted his copybook after that impressive early run by tapping Elliott Sadler into a spin and crunching impact with the wall. After the restart on lap 202 there were some 31 cars still on the lead lap, and the top five were running with only about a second’s worth of space between them with Johnson, naturally, still setting the pace up front – until lap 242 when there was the unexpected sight of Johnson up to full speed nd yet still getting passed, by Jeff Gordon.

The longest caution-free period of the day so far meant that Greg Biffle’s policy of staying out during the earlier yellows backfired pretty badly – resulting in a pit stop under green on lap 246 putting him two laps down. And naturally the yellow flew shortly afterwards on lap 256 after another puncture this time afflicting Tony Raines, and a separate incident in which AJ Allmendinger impatiently tapped Bobby Labonte into a spin that ended up with Labonte against the wall. Everyone pitted under yellow – Biffle’s nightmare scenario which left him in 28th position and a lap down – and Johnson’s prime pit box saw him retake the lead for the green flag ahead of Gordon. Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya both got speeding penalties and sent to the back of the lead lap in 23rd and 24th.

Johnson and Gordon continued to trade the lead, seemingly in a mutual effort to preserve brakes and maintain attention spans during the long, long afternoon’s racing, with Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr closing up right on their tails. Despite a few close calls – David Reutimann with a puncture on lap 298, Martin Truex Jr lurching high up the track on lap 303 but just keeping it off the wall, a second puncture for Kurt Busch on lap 319, brother Kyle on lap 346 and Tony Stewart on lap 362 – the race ran caution-free for an impressive 113 laps, during which time Gordon started to fade somewhat and dropped back behind Carl and Dale, all the way back to 7th. Even Johnson had a scare when he encountered problems while trying to lap Bill Elliott, sustaining some front fender damage when Elliott turned down on him.

It was Kurt Busch’s third puncture of the afternoon on lap 380 that finally brought the green flag racing to a temporary close (Kurt’s despairing plea to be allowed to park it up was denied by his pit chief) – and just when everyone really, really needed to make pit stops so it was actually ideal timing. Jeff Gordon was particularly pleased with the chance to reverse some handling changes made earlier in the day that were clearly no longer working.

After the restart on lap 388, the battle upfront was starting to heat up. While running in fourth, Jamie McMurray’s excellent run came to an abrupt halt on lap 398 when a broken axle consigned him to the garage; but better news for Jeff Gordon, who had benefited from the changes done under the pit stop  was up to fourth. But crucially, Dale Earnhardt Jr finally worked his way past Edwards for 2nd and he then proceeded to work hard to cut the lead to Johnson: his style of easing off the throttle rather than hitting the brakes proving particularly effective, and giving him more brake disc left for the final section of the race than many of his rivals.

Lap 437 saw Bobby Labonte take the number 43 to the garage for a gear change, and Kyle Busch have yet another right front tire go down and he is on pit road; Kyle’sl team mate Tony Stewart also had another blown front right tyre on lap 453, emphasising that someone was amiss with the team’s technical approach here. Up front, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle were both reporting oil leaking onto the track from someone, and Johnson had a scary moment when the lapped Michael McDowell had problems ahead of him and eased off, requiring the number 48 to go sideways to avoid rear-ending him.

There was little chance that the cars could make it to the end of the race without one more pit stop, and the opportunity came on lap 457 when Reed Sorenson spun and hit the wall going into turn 1. Almost everyone followed Johnson’s lead to pit and take four tyres – it was surprising that almost no one tried to stay out and do something different – except Matt Kenseth did decide to stay out and found himself easy meat for Johnson, Earnhardt and then Gordon at the restart. Jeff Burton managed to incur a pit lane penalty when he failed to keep the car inside the pit box white lines, throwing away multiple places by going a lap down and losing valuable Chase points in the process as a result – meaning he drops from 2nd to 3rd in the title race.

An eleventh yellow flag made an appearance on lap 485 when David Reutimann hit David Gilliland and propelled him into a heavy impact with the wall. Greg Biffle finally got the free pass and returned to the lead lap just in time for the finish, and Matt Kenseth took the chance to pit this time along with Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer from the lead lap, in an effort to make up some positions with fresh rubber in the closing laps.

But their strategy was frustrated when the eight-lap race for the finish was interrupted by one final yellow: Kenseth bumped David Ragan off turn 4, Ragan went low but controlled the car but then tried to maintain speed and position going into the next turn and simply couldn’t do it, spinning as a result. That left the race to finish on a green-white chequered two-lap shoot out, but now one had anything left to challenge the driver who had absolutely dominated the afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson took the win, while the next three – Earnhardt, Edwards and Gordon – had also been the main consistent challengers throughout the afternoon. The result gives Johnson a huge lead in the NASCAR Chase – the biggest at this stage that any driver has had since the Chase format was brought in – and while a historic back-to-back title is by no means secure for him yet, you get the sense that his rivals at least ARE starting to see it as inevitable and are beginning to lose heart with just four races to go before the end of the season.

Race result:

Pos St  Car Driver              Make        Pts/Bns Laps
1   1   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   195/10  504
2   10  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   170/0   504
3   4   99  Carl Edwards        Ford        165/0   504
4   8   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   165/5   504
5   12  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      155/0   504
6   23  5   Casey Mears         Chevrolet   150/0   504
7   6   29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   146/0   504
8   11  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        147/5   504
9   18  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   138/0   504
10  5   07  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   134/0   504
11  17  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      130/0   504
12  3   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        132/5   504
13  13  6   David Ragan         Ford        124/0   504
14  24  42  Juan Montoya        Dodge       121/0   502
15  39  10  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       118/0   502
16  37  21  Bill Elliott        Ford        115/0   502
17  2   31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   112/0   502
18  31  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      109/0   502
19  25  28  Travis Kvapil       Ford        106/0   501
20  15  8   Aric Almirola       Chevrolet   108/5   501
21  32  66  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   105/5   501
22  33  22  Dave Blaney         Toyota      97/0    501
23  16  12  Ryan Newman         Dodge       94/0    500
24  26  44  David Reutimann     Toyota      91/0    500
25  41  45  Chad McCumbee       Dodge       88/0    500
26  7   20  Tony Stewart        Toyota      85/0    499
27  27  15  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   82/0    499
28  40  96  Ken Schrader        Toyota      79/0    499
29  9   18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      76/0    496
30  35  84  Scott Speed         Toyota      73/0    496
31  43  70  Tony Raines         Chevrolet   70/0    495
32  28  38  David Gilliland     Ford        67/0    483
33  14  9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       64/0    475
34  36  77  Sam Hornish Jr. *   Dodge       61/0    472
35  29  41  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       58/0    472
36  19  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       55/0    469
37  21  43  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       52/0    469
38  20  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        54/5    465
39  38  00  Mike Bliss          Toyota      46/0    455
40  34  7   Robby Gordon        Dodge       43/0    452
41  22  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       40/0    436
42  30  01  Regan Smith *       Chevroleat  37/0    416
43  42  78  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   34/0    115

Sprint Chase standings:

1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6073   
2   +1  Greg Biffle         5924    -149   
3   -1  Jeff Burton         5921    -152   
4   --  Carl Edwards        5875    -198   
5   --  Clint Bowyer        5827    -246   
6   --  Kevin Harvick       5817    -256   
7   +1  Jeff Gordon         5798    -275   
8   -1  Tony Stewart        5735    -338   
9   +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  5694    -379   
10  +1  Matt Kenseth        5665    -408   
11  +1  Denny Hamlin        5653    -420   
12  -3  Kyle Busch          5628    -445

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