Jimmie Johnson grabs Martinsville win, Chase lead

jutter@charlotteobserver.comOctober 29, 2012 

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RIDGEWAY, VA - OCTOBER 28: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 28, 2012 in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Tyler Barrick/Getty Images)

TYLER BARRICK — Getty

— Sunday’s Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway had a familiar ending.

Its ramifications, however, have produced a new look to the Sprint Cup Series title hunt.

Jimmie Johnson showed again why has been the master of Martinsville, starting on the pole and leading the most laps on his way to his seventh career victory at the Virginia short track.

In the process, Johnson propelled himself into the series points lead, and with three races remaining, put himself in good position for a sixth Cup championship.

The race also changed what was largely a three-man battle for the title into what looks like a one-on-one fight to the finish.

Johnson holds a two-point advantage over Brad Keselowski heading into next weekend’s race at Texas. No other driver is closer than 26 points.

“We’ve done a very nice job over these seven races to put ourselves in the points lead. We’ve had a variety of different races finish with fuel mileage and things like that ,which have kept us out of Victory Lane,” said Johnson, who earned his fourth win of the season and 59th of his career.

“We’re ready to race under any conditions. (Keselowski) is a great driver. It’s a great team. The next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen.”

Denny Hamlin – himself a strong performer at Martinsville – can certainly attest to that.

Anything that could go wrong for Hamlin on Sunday did. He twice was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to drive from the rear of the field to the front.

Then late in the race – twice in 10 laps – his car lost power and restarted before it finally came to a stop on Lap 392 of 500. He finished 33rd.

In the span of an afternoon Hamlin went from championship contender to 49 points back and essentially out of the title picture.

“All I can do is drive my heart out and if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have our time, it’s just not our time now.”

And then there were two.

Keselowski came into the race the points leader but faced a big hurdle by qualifying poorly on Friday. He started 32nd but made his way into the Top 10 by Lap 250.

Johnson was leading the race when Kevin Harvick blew his engine on Lap 476 to bring out the 10th caution.

Keselowski, who was running seventh at the time, took a gamble and elected not to pit. He inherited the lead on Lap 478 while most of the rest of the field took on new tires.

On the restart on Lap 482, Keselowski led the way followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also stayed out, and Johnson, who was the first car with new tires.

Four laps later, Johnson had made his way back to the lead, where he remained the rest of the race and held off a furious charge from Kyle Busch. Kasey Kahne finished third, Aric Almirola was fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth.

Keselowski still managed to finish sixth – a remarkable run considering how his weekend began – and he remains in a neck-and-neck battle with Johnson for the series championship.

“In the championships I’ve won, I saw a lot of amazing things out of my competition,” Johnson said. “I’m certainly seeing that with Brad.

“I guess I see more of a familiar never quit, fight-to-the-end attitude out of (Keselowski’s) team that I’ve seen with some of the best in the sport.”

While Johnson is most known for his NASCAR-record five consecutive titles between 2006 and 2010, his crew chief, Chad Knaus, said the big picture is a better indicator of the No. 48 team’s legacy.

“I can’t think of a season where we weren’t in the championship hunt. I think that’s something this team and Jimmie is built around,” he said.

“When it’s time to go and make this stuff happen, I think that’s when this team excels.”

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