When the sun set over Martinsville Speedway Sunday night the Chase picture looked different, but yet the same. Johnson took over the points lead, Brad Keselowski made an amazing, almost magical run to stay in contention and Clint Bowyer continued to impress with a strong run that now has him well within range to win the title this season.
Jimmie Johnson was not going to be denied his seventh career win at Martinsville. He made a strong statement Friday by winning the pole and even stronger statement Sunday by leading the race high 193 laps en-route to his 59th career win. Johnson is back on top of the Chase and leads by a slim two points. It’s far from over, but Johnson is officially the one to beat.
“I’m ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the point lead, but this is no cake-walk,” Johnson said. “These guys are bringing their best each and every week and we’ve got to keep working hard to keep this Lowe’s Chevy up front; and we’re in good shape.”
Brad Keselowski knew that Martinsville would be a defining race for him. With a less than stellar record at NASCAR’s smallest track, many expected BK to suffer through a terrible day and end with a miserable finish; those people were wrong. Early on he looked as though the pundits would be correct, after starting 32nd, Keselowski was close to losing a lap. On lap 45 just as the leaders caught him though a caution came out keeping him on the lead lap. A decision by crew chief Paul Wolfe to only take two tires during the ensuing pit stop vaulted him to 17th. By lap 459, Keselowski was in sixth. During the last caution with about 20 to go, Keselowski gambled and elected to stay out while most of the leaders pitted. He had the lead at the green flag, but didn’t hold it for long. The gamble didn’t pay off with a win but Keselowski was able to hold on for sixth. While he did lose the point’s lead the day was the disaster some feared and BK is still very much in it.
Clint Bowyer continues to be the surprise of the Chase. With a new team Bowyer has been a contender each week and Sunday at Martinsville was no exception. He led for four times and 151 laps second only to Johnson. He moved into third spot and is 26 points behind and could surprise even more in the last three races.
Kasey Kahne has been slowly chipping away. Sunday he led once for 11 laps and ran among the leaders all race long. He came home third and moved up to fourth in the Chase, 29 points behind. Should those in front of him stumble and Kahne win a race, he could be in the mix to win it all at Homestead.
Denny Hamlin was expected to do well at Martinsville, after all he had won three of the last six races here. He did overcome two pit road speeding penalties to remain in contention for the win, but mechanical problems sent him to the garage. He would return but 44 laps down. He fell two spots in the standings and is 49 points back; Hamlin’s Chase hopes are gone, at least for this season.
Jeff Gordon nearly scored his eighth win at Martinsville Sunday. He led three times for 92 laps coming up short at the end to finish seventh. He moved up two spots to 6th and is 54 points behind first. He won’t win a title this season, but a solid top five finish in the points at season’s end isn’t out of the question.
Martin Truex Jr. was hoping that his recent success at Martinsville, two solid finishes in the last two events including a fifth in the spring, might translate into a decent finish. It wasn’t to be as he struggled all race long and came home a disappointing 23rd. He fell one spot in the standings.
Matt Kenseth went from king of the hill last week winning at Kansas to wondering how to move forward at Martinsville. He finished 14th and was credited with leading a lap under caution, but he was never in contention for the win. Kenseth moved up a spot to eighth and can only hope for better days ahead.
Greg Biffle recovered from a bad day at Kansas last week to finish a solid tenth Sunday at Martinsville. He ran inside the top ten until the final round of pit stops when the car seemed to lose grip. With his tenth place run however, Biffle moved up two spots into 9th. He won’t win a title this season but could make a run at a top five.
Tony Stewart never found the speed to stay on the lead lap, much less contend for the win. Stewart struggled all day and come 14th two laps down. He lost more spots in the Chase than any of the others and is 11th. It’s a sure bet Stewart won’t repeat as champion this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looked as though he would make a triumphant return after missing two races with a concussion. He ran strong all day only to see a solid run slip away after being caught up in a late race melee between Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish Jr. With the performance he showed during most of the race however, Earnhardt could score another win before season’s end.
NASCAR Chase standings after Martinsville
1 +1 Jimmie Johnson 2291
2 -1 Brad Keselowski 2288 -2
3 +1 Clint Bowyer 2265 -26
4 +1 Kasey Kahne 2262 -29
5 -2 Denny Hamlin 2242 -49
6 +2 Jeff Gordon 2238 -54
7 -1 Martin Truex Jr. 2228 -63
8 +1 Matt Kenseth 2226 -65
9 +2 Greg Biffle 2222 -69
10 -3 Tony Stewart 2220 -71
11 -1 Kevin Harvick 2203 -88
12 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.2151 -140
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