The Tums Fast Relief at Martinsville this Sunday turned out to be a typical short-track race. Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon dominated throughout, and there was, of course, some bumping and banging between cars.
However, other drivers, like Denny Hamlin, saw an early end to their day. Hamlin himself saw an end to his chase chances.
The chase itself began to change, and with three races left before the season is finished, there are still four drivers who might be able to make a big run at the championship.
The biggest question with the chase, though, was who would be leading it when the checkered flag waved at Martinsville? Would Keselowski be able to hold back a dominant short-track expert like Johnson?
In the end, Johnson moved up to first, and Keselowski dropped down a spot. He sits two points behind first, and still has time to take a shot at the title.
Martinsville managed to shake things up a bit, as the NASCAR season boils down to these last three races.
Here are 10 lessons we learned at the Paper Clip.
For a driver who only has a limited amount of rides this season, Brian Vickers is taking advantage of his situation.
He has been solid in most of the races he has driven in this year, and Martinsville would be one of his best performances.
Vickers ended the day in eighth position, but ran in the top 10 for most of the race. He might be in the 55 for only a handful of races, but he seems to be hanging in with the other top drivers and is making his presence known.
His improvement from the Red Bull Racing team he was a part of in 2011 has been dramatic. When he raced a full schedule in 2011, for example, Vickers only managed to get noticed when he would try to butt heads with drivers like Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
Now, with a new team and much less of a racing schedule, Vickers has clearly improved.
Hopefully he can keep impressing next season as well, as he continues to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Martinsville was a last stand for Tony Stewart.
He was sitting seventh in the standings and might have been considered too far gone to make a real impact on the chase, but winning this race—or even ending with a top-five finish—might have been enough to make Smoke look like a contender.
Instead, on the track where Smoke beat Johnson with three laps to go last year, he would have a horrible day, finishing the race in 27th place.
Tony ended up dropping three places in the standings, and now has no chance of making any impact on the chase.
He has had somewhat of a backwards season, compared to last year. Stewart was hot early this year, and when he barely made the chase, Stewart wouldn't win a single race.
Last season, Martinsville was where Stewart climbed to second in the standings and began his move to win the championship.
The defending champ won’t be pulling out any moves like that this season, and should focus on improving and looking forward to next season.
There are three races left, and Stewart could always end up winning at least one of them,—but as far as winning another championship is concerned, Smoke is out of the running.
Sadly for Jr. though, his NASCAR return would end late in the race, as bumping between Sam Hornish Jr. and Carl Edwards caused Edwards to knock into Jr., and took him from racing in the top 10 to ending his day in 21st place.
“That it was just a tough deal,” Earnhardt said over at the Examiner.com. “Somebody had run over somebody from way back.”
Dale Jr. didn't start the race from a good position, but drove the 88 all the way up to 6th place at one point during the race.
All eyes would be on Jr. as well, since not only was he coming back from a concussion, but his replacement driver, Regan Smith, delivered a solid performance at Kansas.
He might be far from winning the championship, but Jr. returned at Martinsville and made his presence known.
Unfortunately though, he ended up being a victim of the typical banging and bumping that comes along with a Martinsville race.
Martinsville isn't one of Kyle Busch's better tracks. He had a third-place finish back in 2011, but hasn't managed to win a race at the Paper Clip, and had some pretty bad finishes as well.
This Sunday, though, turned out to be different.
He finished in second and almost passed Jimmie Johnson for the win.
Part of Kyle's success at this track can be traced to his teammate, Denny Hamlin. With Hamlin being one of the dominant drivers at Martinsville in the past several years, some of his success has begun to rub off on Kyle Busch.
Busch was quoted earlier this week at Motorsport.com as saying:
"I think the biggest strides of improvement have come from just working with Denny and really getting his knowledge of how to get around the place."
Busch clearly knows how to get around Martinsville.
He spun out at one point of the race, and ended up in 30th. He rallied back, and was fighting for the lead by the last lap of the race.
"Jimmie did a good job," said Busch over at AOL Sports. "I got to his rear bumper (but) didn’t want to move him out of the way. He really, really slowed the corner down and protected the bottom so that when I went back to the gas, I spun my tires, got loose off the corner and he just squirted away from me."
Busch has made a major improvement when it comes to racing at Martinsville.
This Sunday, he proved it.
Jeff Gordon was a major factor throughout the entire Martinsville race. He ran up in the front, and regardless of how far back he was, Gordon seemed unstoppable as he pushed through the pack to make it back to the front.
He hasn't won this race since 2005, but Martinsville is still Gordon's playground.
Only a handful of other drivers can handle the Paper Clip like Gordon, and he’s so dominant there that he makes short-track racing look easy.
He's not afraid to bump and bang when he needs to, as Gordon and Clint Bowyer would get into each other during the last laps of the race.
Gordon was quoted over at Huffington Post as saying:
"We were on the outside and I mean we were sitting ducks on the outside. I was just trying to get down. I felt like I got down in front of him, but maybe I didn't. I don't know. I like Clint a lot. We race really hard together and we were just racing hard right there."
Gordon might not have won the race, but he did run down Jimmie Johnson when he was leading. He continues to be impressive at Martinsville year after year, and this season was no different.
Clint Bowyer has been on the outskirts of the championship window. Even with his win at Charlotte, the three drivers everyone seemed focused on were Keselowski, Johnson, and Hamlin.
After his performance at Martinsville, it's time to take Bowyer seriously as a championship contender.
Bowyer managed to run up in first for some of the race, and ended up finishing in fifth place. He now sits third in the chase standings, 26 points behind the new leader, Jimmie Johnson.
With his performance at Martinsville and with Denny Hamlin's bad luck, Bowyer moved up in the chase, and is now clearly one driver who could make a serious run at the title.
Bowyer was quoted over at USA Today as saying:
"For whatever reason, it seems like we just keep finding a way to fight back and be a part of it. It's been like that all year long. We keep getting better and better as anyone would think a new team would do."
His window to win is slowly closing with only three races left in the season, but now Bowyer has managed to stand out and change the way the chase is turning out.
It's more than just about moving up in points, though. Bowyer and Jeff Gordon would start banging into one another during the last laps of the race. Instead of getting overly aggressive, Bowyer remained calm. He did bump back and forth with Gordon, but never enough to ruin his car, or his spot in the chase.
After the race at Martinsville, it's clear that Clint Bowyer is a serious title contender.
Martinsville is the track where Denny Hamlin had a big opportunity to make a move in the chase. He is extremely successful at the track, and has proven it with a handful of wins at the Paper Clip.
Hamlin would miss a big opportunity, and it ended up costing him hugely.
His problems weren't with his driving ability, but instead, Hamlin ended up in the garage because of problems with his car.
Still, Hamlin was penalized for speeding on pit road twice, and didn't do anything to help himself throughout the day. He managed to drive up toward the front after suffering those penalties, but Hamlin would never make run up in first place.
Hamlin was quoted over at Yahoo Sports as saying:
"When these things happen, you've just got to suck it up and move on. There's nothing I can do about it. One of these days it's going to be our time. It's just not right now.''
After Hamlin ended up in the garage, he would drop two spots in the chase. He now sits 49 points behind the leader, and it seems unlikely that with only three races left in the season, he will be able to make a comeback and take the lead.
Hamlin and the 11 team missed out on their biggest opportunity to take the lead in the chase. Instead of managing at least a solid finish, they ended up in the garage, and Denny Hamlin's chances of winning a championship have diminished.
After Martinsville, and with only three races left in the chase, four drivers have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.
Jimmie Johnson pulled off the win at Martinsville, and placed himself in first in the chase standings, two points ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski himself has been solid throughout the chase, scoring two wins and maintaining solid finishes on tracks where he tends to struggle.
Bowyer has emerged as a clear chase contender ever since his win at Charlotte. He has been up in front for several races in the chase, and has constantly made his presence known.
Kasey Kahne is the last driver in the top four who still has a chance of winning the championship. He is clearly the long shot, but with three races left, if Kahne can manage to win one or two of these last three—and if the others in front of him suffer from bad luck—Kahne could pull off the major upset.
Denny Hamlin saw his chase chances end at Martinsville, which is ironic because of how well Hamlin does at the Paper Clip. He now sits 49 points behind Jimmie Johnson. He was only 20 points away from first place after the Kansas race a week ago.
There are only three races left to go in the chase, but four drivers still have a chance to win the title.
Keselowski and Johnson seem to be in the better positions to win the title, but if Bowyer or Kahne can win some of these last races, and the others end up stumbling, the chase could change dramatically.
Martinsville hasn't been a great track for Brad Keselowski. He doesn't struggle at the Paper Clip like other drivers do, but he seems to struggle when it comes to moving to the front.
This race was extremely important for the Blue Deuce. With two drivers right behind him in the chase who are successful at Martinsville, if Keselowski could beat both Johnson and Hamlin at their own game, he would have huge momentum and look like a true champion.
Hamlin ended up struggling, but Johnson proved to be too much for Keselowski.
While Brad did make it to the front in this race at one point, he couldn't hold back Johnson, and had to give up first place.
It's not like Keselowski performed badly at Martinsville, he did manage to finish in sixth, but he slipped in the point standings to second place.
And while he might not have to worry about Denny Hamlin anymore, Clint Bowyer is slowly creeping up, and the last place any driver wants to be is behind Jimmie Johnson in the chase.
He is a five-time champion, after all.
Still, Keselowski is still in the championship, and with only three races left, it looks like this chase might come down to the race at Homestead.
Keselowski was quoted over at sbnation as saying:
"I believe we can do this, I really do. We've got work ahead of us, and I know that, but we're doing all the right things. And if you do the right things for long enough, good things will happen to you."
Keselowski lost his first place throne, but there is still time left for him to win the championship.
It really shouldn't surprise anyone that Jimmie Johnson ended up winning this race.
With his seventh win at Martinsville, Johnson proved that he is one of the kings of short-track racing. He dominated throughout the race, and like Jeff Gordon, seems to be able to move easily through the field to get to the front.
Not only was Johnson able to prove his dominance throughout the entire race, he was also able to take the points lead away from Brad Keselowski.
"I'm ecstatic about winning and the points lead, but this is no cake walk," said Johnson over at AOL Sports.
Now that there are only three races left in the chase, Johnson made his big move at the right time and was able to take full advantage of a track where he is known to have success.
Johnson was dominant before they even began racing on Sunday, though.
He managed to grab the pole for the race as well, so he was already out to a great start before the race even began. Keselowski would lead the race eventually, choosing not to pit and remained out for the last stretch of the race.
Johnson was all over his bumper, and would eventually pass Keselowski for the lead.
"I think we've learned a lesson here in the past not pitting late, and that certainly came into play," Johnson said over at ESPN.com. "I felt like it was going to be a problem for him. We've been there before and stayed out and got beat."
Jimmie Johnson remains one of the best drivers to race at Martinsville, and his success on the track paid off greatly for him as the chase starts to come to an end.