NASCAR: Round 6 – Fast Pain Relief 500, Martinsville – 29 March

The Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway was dominated by two drivers – Jeff Gordon leading all but 13 laps in the first 160, and then Denny Hamlin commanding the rest of the race almost to the end. But the “almost” is key – because neither man emerged the actual winner.

It was a careful, low-key start to this week’s NASCAR race, as the cars had barely had any running time at Martinsville thanks to both qualifying and Saturday practice being rained out. It also meant that the track was washed clean and was very ‘green’, and on a tight track such as this lacking the type of banking that we’ve come to expect, that made this a tricky proposition indeed.

NASCAR organised a scheduled competition caution on lap 40 to check how things were going, but long before that point Michael Waltrip brought out a genuine first yellow on lap 21 with a slow speed, light touch encounter backed into the wall after losing downforce in traffic that bright out a real caution. Most cars stayed out until the scheduled yellow, however, whereupon the incredibly claustrophobic pit lane became evident when packed with 43 stock cars at the same time.

Jeff Gordon led all the laps up to this point, with Kurt Busch riding shotgun to Gordon, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart. The field was actually led at the restart by Scott Speed and Robby Gordon, who had opted not to pit at all for the time being and who were quickly dispatched by the leaders.

Kyle Busch found it hard going in the traffic and seemed to struggle with handling, as well as getting blocked out by the pit lane crush. Dale Earnhardt Jr was having even less luck, falling almost to the back of the field with transmission problems. His pit stop was particularly long because of several changes made to the car, and a crewman helping to install a bungee cord around the gear shift so that the car would remain in gear: but it seemed to sort the problem, and Dale started to work his way up to the top ten after these changes. Other cars that started to have handling problems included the number 48 of Johnson who slipped backwards though the field with extended pit stops as they battled to set the car to rights.

The third yellow came out on lap 71 when Kyle spun his car and nudged Scott Speed into a sympathetic spin of his own: Kyle held it off the wall, but Speed was less fortunate and sustained some minor damage. Kyle apologised on the radio to the 82 crew.

Matt Kenseth got a black flag for a pit lane tyre violation (a discarded tyre rolled into Jimmie Johnson’s pit area during the pit stops under yellow) and as a result he went a lap down after he served the drive-thru penalty. He just missed out on getting it back when Robby Gordon had a tyre go down, and spun on lap 91 – because Robbie Gordon had just been lapped by Jeff Gordon and Kenseth was therefore no longer in the lucky dog spot. He never did make up that lap for the rest of the race.

Robby was also the cause of the fifth yellow, when he made contact with David Ragan, puncturing Gordon’s tyre and sending him up the road into Ragan on lap 139. Everyone pitted this time, and Jeff Gordon exited on front of Denny Hamlin only by the narrowest of margins: but Hamlin had made a declaration and he spent the next dozen laps hounding Gordon for the leap until he finally achieved it on lap 156. Gordon only narrowly held Tony Stewart from slipping through at the same time. But Gordon was complaining of the car getting tight, and on lap 170 Gordon finally had to cede second as well.

So on lap 183, Hamlin led Gordon, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, a fully recovered Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann rounding off the top 10. Jimmie Johnson was back in 14th, while Kyle Busch had fallen to 23rd after getting hit with a pit lane speeding penalty at the last yellow flag stops. His day went from bad to worse on lap 203 when he understeered up to within a hairs width of the wall and had to pit.

The green flag racing lasted 110 laps – enough to make the teams squirm with the idea of a green flag stop in this tiny pit lane – and that’s despite Aric Almirola trying his best to bring out cautions with no less than three separate flat tyres during this time. Finally it was Scott Speed blowing a tyre and there simply being to much debris on the track that brought out the sixth caution on lap 254, just past halfway.

At the restart: Hamlin led Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer, a recovering Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, Stewart, Kurt Busch, Harvick and Brian Vickers finishing up the top ten. Carl Edwards was 11th after a lugnut fumble in the pits, while further back Greg Biffle was 27th ahead of Matt Kenseth (still a lap down), Sam Hornish and Juan Montoya, a frustrated 30th. Kyle Busch was a distant 33rd and two laps down and out. Edwards subsequently fell back two laps down to 31st after having a tyre go down after contact with Reutimann on lap 280, putting him emphatically out of contention.

Denny Hamlin’s lead evaporated as he got stuck behind traffic, leading to a four-way fight for the lead from lap 330. Jeff Gordon briefly grabbed it on lap 346 only for Hamlin to snatch it straight back, while Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr were right behind ready to pounce if the front duo made the slightest error.

The tension was relieved on lap 351 for the seventh caution of the day (for debris – a drinks can from the crowd – on the track). After 87 laps of green flag racing, the break in proceedings was much appreciated as everyone came in for pit stops. With Reed Sorenson getting the free pass, there were now 19 cars on the lead lap. The eighth yellow followed quickly with Robby Gordon again the cause with a spin off turn 4 on lap 367.

Jeff Gordon lot second place to Jimmie Johnson on lap 420, and five laps later he fell to fifth place behind Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart just as the 9th caution of the afternoon came out – this time for Jeremy Mayfield’s slide into the wall. The leaders all stopped for tyres and fuel, and Jimmie Johnson emerged from pit lane ahead of Hamlin for the lead.

It was now a four-way battle between Johnson, Hamlin, Stewart and Bowyer, with with the rest of the runners trapped behind lapped traffic. Johnson maintained the lead until lap 457 – through a caution period for an Aric Amirola spin and a quick clean-up of on-track debris – only to have Denny Hamlin reassert himself and take the lead again.

There was an 11th yellow flag on lap 467 when David Reutimann spun coming out of turn 4 with a cut tyre following contact with David Stremme. Reutimann heavily damaged the rear bumper backing into the wall, but was able to drive away from the scene of the crime. And there was a final caution on lap 473, a lap after the restart, when Bobby Labonte spun out and Martin truex Jr was left with no where to go but straight into him. Again, both were able to carry on – albeit with significant damage to Truex’s car.

With no one prepared to pit with just 22 laps to go, the race was quick to restart. Hamlin looked in control, with Jimmie Johnson getting dangerously loose trying to stay in touch with him. Then on lap 484, Johnson made a bold and somewhat aggressive move on Hamlin, nudging the number 11 up the track before moving his own car down to overtake on the inside. Once past, Johnson was able to establish a stable lead of around three quarters of a second. Hamlin didn’t seem to have anything left to do anything about it: Johnson was able to take the last 15 laps in cruise mode, and crossed the line to take the chequered flag ahead of Hamlin, Stewart, Gordon, Bowyer – and Ryan Newman in 6th, meaning that the new Stewart-Haas team got both cars to the end in top 6 positions, an excellent result for Tony Stewart’s new operation.

Race result:

FIN ST CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS STATUS
1   9  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  190/5   500  Running
2   8  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     180/10  500  Running
3   7  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  165/0   500  Running
4   1  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  165/5   500  Running
5   3  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  155/0   500  Running
6   27 39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  150/0   500  Running
7   31 5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  146/0   500  Running
8   19 88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  142/0   500  Running
9   16 44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      138/0   500  Running
10  28 26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       134/0   500  Running
11  12 29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  130/0   500  Running
12  15 42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  127/0   500  Running
13  21 55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     124/0   500  Running
14  24 47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     121/0   500  Running
15  13 31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  118/0   500  Running
16  23 96  Bobby Labonte      Ford       120/5   500  Running
17  29 43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      112/0   500  Running
18  2  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      109/0   500  Running
19  6  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      106/0   500  Running
20  11 00  David Reutimann    Toyota     103/0   499  Running
21  25 07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  100/0   499  Running
22  22 12  David Stremme      Dodge      97/0    499  Running
23  10 17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       94/0    499  Running
24  4  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     91/0    498  Running
25  38 98  Paul Menard        Ford       88/0    498  Running
26  5  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       85/0    498  Running
27  26 6   David Ragan        Ford       82/0    498  Running
28  18 16  Greg Biffle        Ford       79/0    498  Running
29  20 1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  76/0    498  Running
30  40 36  Scott Riggs        Toyota     73/0    497  Running
31  17 19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      70/0    497  Running
32  34 20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     67/0    496  Running
33  14 83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     64/0    496  Running
34  32 77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      61/0    496  Running
35  33 34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  58/0    496  Running
36  35 171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet  55/0    492  Running
37  37 8   Aric Almirola      Chevrolet  52/0    490  Running
38  42 41  Jeremy Mayfield    Toyota     54/5    441  Running
39  36 82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     51/5    424  Running
40  30 7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     43/0    349  Engine
41  41 187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     40/0    90   Brakes
42  39 66  Dave Blaney        Toyota     42/5    49   Rear Gear
43  43 64  Todd Bodine        Toyota     34/0    3    Engine

Sprint Cup Standings:

RANK +/- DRIVER             PTS  BEHIND  ST P  W  T5 T10
1    --  Jeff Gordon        959  Leader  6  0  0  4   5
2    +1  Clint Bowyer       870  -89     6  0  0  3   4
3    -1  Kurt Busch         827  -132    6  0  1  2   3
4    +5  Jimmie Johnson     817  -142    6  0  1  2   4
5    +3  Denny Hamlin       811  -148    6  0  0  2   3
6    -2  Kyle Busch         800  -159    6  1  2  3   3
7    --  Tony Stewart       798  -161    6  0  0  1   4
8    -3  Carl Edwards       750  -209    6  0  0  1   2
9    -3  Kasey Kahne        745  -214    6  0  0  1   2
10   +2  Kevin Harvick      714  -245    6  0  0  2   2
11   --  David Reutimann    710  -249    6  0  0  1   1
12   -2  Matt Kenseth       704  -255    6  0  2  2   2
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13   --  Jeff Burton        697  -262    6  0  0  1   2
14   +1  Juan Montoya       673  -286    6  0  0  0   1
15   +1  A.J. Allmendinger  670  -289    6  0  0  1   2
16   +3  Dale Earnhardt Jr. 660  -299    6  0  0  0   2
17   +4  Michael Waltrip    630  -329    6  0  0  0   1
18   +9  Ryan Newman        625  -334    6  0  0  0   2
19   +4  Bobby Labonte      620  -339    6  0  0  1   1
20   -6  Brian Vickers      617  -342    6  1  0  1   3
21   +3  Marcos Ambrose     616  -343    6  0  0  0   1
22   +6  Jamie McMurray     609  -350    6  0  0  0   2
23   -5  Greg Biffle        605  -354    6  0  0  1   2
24   -7  Elliott Sadler     600  -359    6  0  0  1   1
25   -3  David Stremme      599  -360    6  0  0  0   0
26   -1  Casey Mears        588  -371    6  0  0  0   0
27   +4  Mark Martin        587  -372    6  2  0  0   2
28   -8  Martin Truex Jr.   584  -375    6  1  0  0   1
29   -3  David Ragan        569  -390    6  0  0  0   1
30   -1  Reed Sorenson      569  -390    6  0  0  0   1
31   +1  Sam Hornish Jr.    459  -500    6  0  0  0   0
32   +1  John Andretti      455  -504    6  0  0  0   0
33   -3  Earl Baker         442  -517    5  0  0  0   0
34   --  Joey Logano*       437  -522    6  0  0  0   0
35   +3  Paul Menard        414  -545    6  0  0  0   0
36   --  Aric Almirola      387  -572    6  0  0  0   0
37   --  David Gilliland    386  -573    5  0  0  0   0
38   -3  Scott Speed*       386  -573    6  0  0  0   0
39   --  Travis Kvapil      292  -667    4  0  0  0   0
40   +3  Scott Riggs        216  -743    3  0  0  0   0
41   -1  Regan Smith        206  -753    2  0  0  0   0
42   -1  Joe Nemechek       205  -754    5  0  0  0   0
43   +2  Jeremy Mayfield    158  -801    3  0  0  0   0
44   --  Dave Blaney        153  -806    4  0  0  0   0
45   -3  Bill Elliott       149  -810    2  0  0  0   0
46   +1  Todd Bodine        123  -836    3  0  0  0   0
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