Eerily similar to last spring’s race at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon were running 1-2-3 Sunday over the final 15 laps with a handful of cautions down the home stretch. This time, however, there wasn’t any green-white-checkered drama.
And while the Hendrick Motorsports team was denied win No. 200 a year ago, the team’s 212nd win wasn’t witheld Sunday.
Johnson dominated a restart with eight laps to go, cruising to his eighth-career Martinsville win by leading a race-long 346 laps and never falling farther than fourth to capture the STP Gas Booster 500 in Martinsville. By doing so, Johnson backed his win last fall in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500. It was Johnson’s second victory of the season and he became the active leader in wins at the .526-mile oval, trailing Richard Petty by seven in all-time wins at Martinsville Speedway.
“It was just a long-fought day. 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,” Johnson said. “Fortunately we didn’t have any craziness with two tires or four tires at the end. I feel like the fastest car won the race. I ‘ve got to thank (crew chief) Chad Knaus and all my guys and everybody back home at Hendrick Motorsports.”
The No. 48 car dominated the first half of the race before Matt Kenseth held the lead for a spell about midway through. Kenseth eventually gave it away for good with 137 laps remaining.
With the win, Johnson moved from third in the standings to first, six points ahead of defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski and 12 points ahead of former points leader and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 24th.
He was helped by getting maximum points for leading the most laps, earning the pole and winning the race.
“For a period of time there, I kind of thought Matt Kenseth was going to win this thing and he hates this race track,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe he ran that well here today. Fortunately we had control of the race late and held off a lot of hard-charging guys.”
Kenseth led the second-most laps with 96, but ended up finishing 14th.
“We ran really great — that’s the best we ever ran at Martinsville and the best car I’ve ever had here by far,” Kenseth said. “We just didn’t get the finish, which is disappointing — we’ve got to start getting some finishes. I had a great car and that’s the good part.
“We could still hang in the top-five, but then we got shoved back to sixth or seventh on a restart and then I just could not go anywhere on new tires.”
Clint Bowyer finished second and Gordon third, while Hendrick placed another one of its drivers in the top five as Kasey Kahne finished fourth. Kyle Busch rounded out the top five. Bowyer was right with Johnson most of the way over the final 50 laps but just couldn’t find the line to pass him.
“I’m telling you, after the car that we had all weekend long, the d*** 48 won,” Bowyer said. “I really thought I was going to be battling him for the win after practice (Saturday). Obviously second is decent in this world, in this sport, but it still sucks right now.”
Gordon was able to jump up in the point standings to 12th with another solid finish at Martinsville, trailing Johnson now by one win at the famed track. Gordon never led a lap, but was able to work back from 20th after a tough pit stop near the 300-lap mark. For the most part he ran in the top-five all race long.
“Well, we just didn’t need those cautions there at the end. I made a mistake on pit road and got us way behind,” Gordon said. “We were real tight there at the middle part of the race. And then boy that thing just took off and on the long runs I feel like we had the best car.”
Danica Patrick had an impressive showing in her Martinsville debut and gained back some momentum after a tough month since Daytona. She went from last to 12th Sunday to become the highest finishing rookie in her first trip to Martinsville Speedway.
After getting spun early in the race on lap 15, and even two laps down, the No. 10 car was nearly able to crack the top 10. She was even the best finisher for Stewart-Haas Racing.
One of Johnson’s biggest assets as the pole winner was grabbing that first pit stall. It paid dividends all race long on pit stops, never losing position, only gaining spots if needed. He had the second fastest pit time behind Busch.
Gordon said it made it difficult for anyone to gain that top position on him late in the race.
“You give the No. 48 that No. 1 pit stall at Martinsville, and I mean, it’s almost impossible to beat him,” he said.
There were a total of 12 cautions for 85 laps, the longest being the fourth running for 17 laps in an 11-car wreck that caused heavy damage to the front of Martin Truex Jr., who finished 40th. But the late red-flag stop at lap 487 was the most spectacular.
Kurt Busch hit the wall in Turn 1 and ran in halfway through the turn with his hood engulfed in flames. He was able to extinguish the fire and walk away safely.