NASCAR: Round 32 – Tums Fast Relief 500, Martinsville – 25 October

After a rain-beset build-up, the drivers came to the tight half mile oval at Martinsville with a degree of trepidation: on such a tight, claustrophobic circuit anything can happen – Martinsville is the shortest circuit on the Sprint Cup calendar. Small mistakes can become big ones, and Chase hopes can turn to ashes, so for Jimmie Johnson the aim was to finish and maintain momentum, not necessarily to win.

Since all the rain had washed the circuit on Saturday, a competition caution had been arranged for lap 50, but the race didn’t make anything like that distance before the first real caution came out on lap 7 when Matt Kenseth got loose in turn 4 and moved up into Marcos Ambrose, spinning the 47 into a collision with his own car and the two of them collecting Robby Gordon in the process.

Ryan Newman led from pole for the first 22 laps before getting usurped by seven-time winner Jeff Gordon, and Newman then started to get shuffled back through the order. On the way up and recovering from poor qualifying positions were Jimmie Johnson and Juan Montoya, but it was less cheerful news for Chase contenders Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne who were still stuck around 30th position in heavy traffic and showing little sign of life.

The race was still six laps shy of the official competition caution when Michael Waltrip spun with a flat left rear tyre to bring out the second caution of the day. NASCAR decided it was close enough the declared it the competition yellow after all, meaning that for the first time the cars could come in for proper fuel and tyre stops. With almost everyone still on the lead lap, it was very tight in the crowded pit lane, with Jeff Gordon notably almost exiting right into the path of Bobby Labonte. Fortunately no harm was done and Gordon resumed in the lead after taking only two tyres – unusually for the leaders who mainly went for four. The big gainer was Jamie McMurray, up 11 spots into 4th on a two-tyre stop.

But two tyres was quickly exposed as a mistake; McMurray started to fall back almost at once, and shortly afterwards Gordon started to lose positions too, ceding the lead to Jimmie Johnson on lap 59. Gordon seemed unable to keep the car down low on the track and was repeatedly beaten by cars diving down the inside line. Montoya was once again a man in a hurry and when it was his turn to pass he was impatient, catching Gordon on the left rear and nearly tipping the 24 into a spin before Gordon caught it.

Gordon was relieved when a blown tyre on the 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr gave him and the other leaders a chance to pit once again on lap 89. At the restart, Johnson led Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Juan Montoya and Jeff Gordon to the green; at the other end, Kasey Kahne’s day went from bad to worse with a pit lane speeding penalty.

Montoya and Gordon were once again side-by-side vying for track position, and once again Montoya got physical in doing it – Gordon was not amused to be pushed out of the way a second time in one afternoon by the 42.

This green flag went untroubled for some time, a yellow only coming out again on lap 128 – once again for Earnhardt, who got into the wall on lap 128. It was good timing for everyone and the pit lane was once again frenetically busy, Johnson returning back out in the lead with Montoya, Newman, Gordon and Martin making up the rest of the top five. Montoya was quick to challenge for the lead, and on lap 141 he recorded his first lap in front as he put Johnson back into second place.

Debris on the start/finish straight brought out the fifth caution on lap 157 but the leaders mainly stayed out, Denny Hamlin the highest car to pit from sixth place; the next caution wa lap 176 after David Stremme and Sam Hornish Jr tangled.

This time around the pit stops showed diverging strategy, and the top five at the restart were Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Kyle and Kurt Busch, and Bobby Labonte in fifth. Hamlin was quick to take the lead away from Burton after he restart on lap 182, while further back Johnson was shown in 14th, Montoya 17 and Gordon all the way back in 25th.

Sam Hornish Jr was the cause for the seventh caution of the afternoon when he spun on th front stretch and backed into a crunching impact against the wall; he crawled back to the garage area streaming smoke from the damaged bodywork as he went, looking very much out of the running for the rest of the afternoon. Burton and Kurt Busch were among those to pit, and now the restart had Hamlin leading Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Labonte and Carl Edwards.

Kasey Kahne’s miserable day now saw his left front tyre blow on lap 210, spinning him around so that the back of the 9 car thudded into the wall bringing out the eighth caution of the afternoon. Hamlin still held the lead after Kyle Busch had briefly got his nose in front to get points for leading a lap, and the two of them were now ahead of Johnson and Harvick, with Montoya creeping up to sixth behind Labonte.

As the race hit the halfway point, a series of collisions between AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano inevitably resulted in Logano hitting the rear of the 44 hard enough to send it into a spin and a heavy contact with the wall: Allmendinger’s car was extensively beaten up and was the first car not able to limp back to the pits afterwards, and was collected by the tow-truck instead as the remainder of the field came in for their long-awaited pit stops.

Showing some canny knowledge of where the pit lane speed check equipment was deployed and where it was safe to gas it up just a little bit more, Johnson beat Denny Hamlin, Mark Marin, Juan Montoya, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch out of pit lane – Hamlin and Busch now back on the same strategy having consolidated their position gain. But Greg Biffle was alone in staying out, and took up the lead for the restart; but the advantage of fresh rubber and a better car saw Johnson fly past for the lead within half a lap, and five laps later he was out of the top five altogether.

A clash with Kasey Kahne left John Andretti spun across the path of Sterling Marlin on lap 275 bringing out the tenth caution of the day, and at the restart battle was joined between Johnson and Montoya for the lead. Johnson kept the top spot, but Montoya was not shy in giving the back of the 48 more than a few not-so-gentle taps to try and press his claim.

The battle between the two was still going on when the race hit the 300 lap mark and the 11th caution came out for Kasey Kahne, whose right front tyre let go sending the already-battered 9 car straight into the wall. Montoya had a sluggish stop and lost position on Johnson during the ensuing pit stops, but in any case the top five now consisted of cars that hadn’t come in at all – David Reutimann, Tony Stewart, Elliot Sadler, Matt Kenseth and John Andretti. Stewart had a poor restart and was soon caught and past by Johnson, but Reutimann wasn’t passed for the lead until 15 laps later on lap 321.

Further back down the field, Martin Truex Jr and David Stremme were having a spat which ended inevitably with Stremme thumping Truex into a smoky spin, but Truex was able to gather it up without hitting anything and get the car going in the right direction again before NASCAR threw a caution.

But Johnson was back in the lead: no matter the type of track or where he qualifies, it seems that Johnson can simply work his way to the front everytime – and win. The only car that had looked a real threat during this race had been Montoya, but his aggressive style and heavy-on-the-brakes driving suggested the car wouldn’t last in one piece or at least at this level of performance to the end. So it was a relief to see a new threat to a Johnson win emerge in the shape of Denny Hamlin, who seemed to grow stronger and faster as the green flag stint wore on to that by lap 363 the 11 and the 48 were side-by-side, trading the lead until finally Hamlin broke through and claimed the outright lead.

The green flag stint had survived Sterling Marlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr both losing tyres but not bring out a caution, even when Earnhardt slid the 88 into a long scrape against the wall. It meant that the green lasted remarkably well over a hundred laps, and soon the cars were forced into pitting under green for their final stop for fuel, starting from around lap 420: Montoya was in on lap 433, Johnson one lap later (with a bad delay on the right rear tyre) and Hamlin in from the lead a lap longer still.

Ironically, once the stops had cycled through the 12th caution of the afternoon was quick to follow after Elliott Sadler gave John Andretti a tap on the rear and sent the 34 into a spin. At the restart, Hamlin, Johnson and Montoya headed the field with Brian Vickers 4th, Jeff Gordon 5th and Mark Martin ever-present near in the lead in 6th.

As the race drew to its climax, the car got up close and personal, jostling each other up and down the running order. At the front, Jimmie Johnson made his intention to bump Denny Hamlin very clear, while further back Mark Martin was tapped by Carl Edwards which cost him position. At least Jeff Gordon – now back near the front after divergent pit stop strategies had seen him back in the midfield for much of the afternoon – passed Juan Montoya cleanly for third place.

A 13th caution for debris allowed Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray to roll the dice on pitting for fresh rubber, and the race went green again on lap 488 with twelve to go. Once again Hamlin got a great start and pulled away from the danger of Jimmie Johnson, and once again his hopes of a clear run to the chequered were dashed when the 14th caution came out on lap 14: Scott Speed went into turn 1 far too fast, lost the back end and wrecked it against the wall, scattering debris over the track and making a yellow unavoidable.

That left a two lap sprint to the finish, and once again Hamlin excelled at the restart: this time, it seemed, Jimmie Johnson had met his match and wouldn’t be able to take the victory. Not that it would do his Sprint Cup campaign any harm, as all the main rivals were safely behind him and this result would only extend his considerable lead still further.

The race finished under green – somewhat incredibly, as John Andretti had spun at the end of the penultimate lap and then stalled the car perpendicular on the start-finish line. Despite this huge hazard, NASCAR failed to throw the yellow in order to allow the race to finish, but more than a few cars on the inside line were startled to find a stationary car in the middle of the track ahead of them and no warning yellows in sight. Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus looked astonished at NASCAR’s call, which appeared incredibly dangerous and only luck and skilful reactions avoided a disastrous end to proceedings.

But as controversial as that incident might prove to be, there was no question as to the winner – a great run by Hamlin to lead the final 139 laps and hold off Johnson, and Montoya did indeed make it to the end of the race in one piece in an impressive 3rd. Arguably the best run of the day, however, belonged to Kyle Busch who finished 4th after starting 41st on the grid, ahead of Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray.

Race result

 	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS 
1   17  11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     195/10  501  
2   15  48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  175/5   501  
3   21  42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  170/5   501  
4   41  18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     165/5   501  
5   2   24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  160/5   501  
6   23  26   Jamie McMurray     Ford       150/0   501  
7   1   39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  151/5   501  
8   4   5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  147/5   501  
9   10  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  138/0   501  
10  13  14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  134/0   501  
11  24  83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     130/0   501  
12  7   20   Joey Logano *      Toyota     127/0   501  
13  8   96   Bobby Labonte      Ford       124/0   501  
14  32  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       121/0   501  
15  22  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  123/5   501  
16  37  2    Kurt Busch         Dodge      115/0   501  
17  5   00   David Reutimann    Toyota     117/5   501  
18  6   07   Casey Mears        Chevrolet  109/0   501  
19  19  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  106/0   501  
20  29  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       103/0   501  
21  40  19   Elliott Sadler     Dodge      100/0   501  
22  14  6    David Ragan        Ford       97/0    501  
23  30  98   Paul Menard        Ford       94/0    501  
24  9   43   Reed Sorenson      Dodge      91/0    501  
25  20  16   Greg Biffle        Ford       93/5    501  
26  27  34   John Andretti      Chevrolet  90/5    499  
27  34  47   Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     82/0    499  
28  3   1    Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  79/0    499  
29  12  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  76/0    499  
30  36  55   Michael Waltrip    Toyota     73/0    497  
31  18  82   Scott Speed *      Toyota     70/0    495  
32  26  9    Kasey Kahne        Dodge      67/0    494  
33  11  12   David Stremme      Dodge      64/0    439  
34  16  44   A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      61/0    414  
35  38  09   Sterling Marlin    Dodge      58/0    355  
36  31  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      55/0    248  
37  33  7    Robby Gordon       Toyota     52/0    130  
38  28  187  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     49/0    52   
39  35  171  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  51/5    48   
40  39  66   Dave Blaney        Toyota     43/0    38   
41  42  36   Michael McDowell   Toyota     40/0    36   
42  43  64   Derrike Cope       Toyota     37/0    31   
43  25  37   Travis Kvapil      Dodge      34/0    30   

Sprint Cup standings

Johnson’s lead is extended by 28pts and the top four are unchanged, but Montoya’s aggressive drive to third place gives him a boost after last week’s disappointment.

Kyle Busch’s fourth place finish puts him back into “best of the rest” position in 13th.

	 	 	 	 	 	 	 	
    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6098    Leader  32  3   6   14  21
2   --  Mark Martin         5980    -118    32  7   5   12  19
3   --  Jeff Gordon         5948    -150    32  0   1   16  23
4   --  Tony Stewart        5902    -196    32  0   4   15  22
5   +1  Juan Montoya        5898    -200    32  2   0   7   17
6   -1  Kurt Busch          5861    -237    32  0   1   8   18
7   +1  Ryan Newman         5786    -312    32  2   0   5   15
8   -1  Greg Biffle         5748    -350    32  0   0   9   14
9   +2  Denny Hamlin        5746    -352    32  1   3   12  17
10  --  Carl Edwards        5685    -413    32  0   0   7   13
11  -2  Kasey Kahne         5659    -439    32  0   2   6   13
12  --  Brian Vickers       5568    -530    32  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +1  Kyle Busch          3920    -2178   32  1   4   9   12
14  -1  Matt Kenseth        3895    -2203   32  1   2   6   11
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3805    -2293   32  0   0   4   14
16  --  David Reutimann     3761    -2337   32  2   1   5   9
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3453    -2645   32  0   0   4   7
18  +1  Jeff Burton         3379    -2719   32  0   0   2   6
19  -1  Casey Mears         3378    -2720   32  0   0   0   4
20  --  Joey Logano*        3324    -2774   32  0   1   2   6
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3279    -2819   32  0   0   3   7
22  +3  Jamie McMurray      3091    -3007   32  0   0   0   4
23  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3064    -3034   32  2   0   0   4
24  -2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3062    -3036   32  0   0   2   5
25  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   3020    -3078   32  0   0   1   4
26  --  Elliott Sadler      2991    -3107   32  0   0   1   4
27  --  Sam Hornish Jr.     2905    -3193   32  0   0   2   7
28  --  David Ragan         2873    -3225   32  0   0   0   2
29  --  Reed Sorenson       2849    -3249   32  0   0   0   1
30  --  David Stremme       2817    -3281   32  0   0   0   0
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2808    -3290   32  0   0   1   1
32  --  Paul Menard         2705    -3393   32  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2461    -3637   30  0   0   0   1
34  --  Robby Gordon        2402    -3696   31  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2353    -3745   31  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2282    -3816   30  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1700    -4398   28  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1260    -4838   15  0   0   0   0
39  +1  Joe Nemechek        1228    -4870   27  0   0   0   0
40  -1  Brad Keselowski     1183    -4915   11  0   1   1   3
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