Heading into the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, there was one thing many NASCAR fans and Chase drivers all needed relief from: Jimmie Johnson.
After dominating last week's NASCAR Banking 500 at "his house," Lowe's Motor Speedway, Johnson extended his championship lead over teammate Mark Martin to 90 points.
Unfortunately for the field, Martinsville happens to be Johnson's personal playground—in 15 career starts at the track, Johnson and company have six wins, 11 top fives, and hasn't finished in the top ten since his first race there back in 2002.
Mark Martin was fastest in the weekend's lone practice session, followed by teammate Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya, who was looking to rebound after his disappointing 36th-place finish last weekend.
Ryan Newman tied Buck Baker with career poles, winning his 45th on Friday.
With the fans giving the command to start engines, the “Rocket Man” led the 43-car field to the green flag at 1:47 local time.
It quickly fell to single file up front as Newman led Gordon, Truex, Jr., Martin, and Reutimann rounded out the top five. Chasers Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Denny Hamlin were stuck back in traffic, battling within the first five laps for 15th and back.
Trouble occurred on lap eight as Matt Kenseth got into the No. 47 of Marcos Ambrose, collecting Robby Gordon and Derrick Cope along with him. They would all beat leader Newman back to the start/finish line, remaining on the lead lap.
Choosing the inside lane, Newman led the field to the green on lap 13, quickly taking the lead and leaving Truex, Jr. to battle side-by-side with Gordon. The two battled hard, with Truex getting loose and nearly running the No. 24 into the wall.
Gordon took the lead from Newman on lap 23 as they went into turn four, while his teammate Johnson continued to pick up spots, moving up to sixth after starting 15th. Kyle Busch was also making strides, and ran 29th after starting all the way back in 41st.
On lap 43, Michael Waltrip—with a flat left rear tire—spun right in front of third place Johnson, but missed the championship leader. His spin would be the second caution of the day, and NASCAR used the yellow as their planned lap 50 competition caution.
At 30 miles per hour, Gordon led the field down pit road, and while the No. 24 took just two right side tires, his teammates Martin and Johnson took four, along with the majority of the lead lap cars. Hamlin nailed the back of the No. 88 of Earnhardt, Jr., giving both cars damage as they exited pit road.
Side-by-side, Gordon and Truex, Jr. led the field to the green on lap 51, with Gordon quickly taking the lead while Johnson stole second from the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet a lap later. Further back, Montoya, Earnhardt, Jr., Harvick, and Bowyer all battled for seventh through 10th, with Bowyer getting loose on the inside of his teammate, slipping back.
After starting 15th, it took Johnson just 60 laps to take the lead. By lap 61, all four Hendrick drivers ran in the top five. Gordon, though, would continue to fall back after losing the lead after taking two tires.
“We need to tighten this thing up,” Gordon said as he continued to lose spots. “Oh, and we need tires.”
Approaching 90 laps into the race, it was Johnson leading Newman, Martin, Montoya, and Hamlin as caution came out for Earnhardt, Jr. loosing a tire and hitting the wall. Johnson led the field down pit road, with everyone taking four tires.
On lap 94 Johnson was quick, as all the leaders had been on restarts, to jump out ahead of the field and leave his competitors in the dust. Newman and Martin and Gordon and Montoya all had great side-by-side battles for second through fifth, ending with Newman regaining the spot he'd lost on pit road.
Montoya and Gordon had a great side-by-side battle, trading fourth and fifth back and forth before JPM managed to get Gordon going into the turn and taking the position.
“I don't know what's wrong with him,” Gordon said over the radio after the contact. “But I'm [expletive] pissed!”
Meanwhile, Johnson continued to dominate 113 laps in, leading Newman by just over a second.
Truex, Jr. brought his No. 1 Chevrolet down pit road on lap 126, telling his crew he felt the right rear tire was coming off his car. He would lose two laps. Just as Truex came back onto pit road, Earnhardt, Jr., who would have been the lucky dog, brought out the day's fourth caution by once again making contact with the wall.
Johnson once again won the race off pit road, and restarted on lap 137 with an aggressive Montoya, who was able to clear the No. 39 to charge toward the lead.
Side-by-side, the pair ran and Montoya charged to the lead as they entered turn three on lap 141.
The fifth caution of the day came out on lap 157 for a large piece of debris. Chaser Greg Biffle was the lucky dog. Sixth place Denny Hamlin was the first car down pit road, leading most of the drivers behind him. Most of those who hit pit road chose to take two tires.
Montoya refused to give up the lead as the race went back to green on lap 164. Johnson and Gordon battled for half a lap before Johnson took second place back.
Kurt Busch, who started 37th , ran in 11th place; just ahead of Hamlin, who restarted 12th after pitting under the last caution.
Penske teammates Sam Hornish, Jr. and David Stremme found themselves after contact with Truex, Jr., bringing out the sixth caution of the race. Despite causing the caution after getting into the back of the No. 12, Truex was the lucky dog.
While Denny Hamlin stayed out, Montoya led the top 11 down pit road, and most of those who stopped chose to take four tires. Johnson, though, managed to beat the No. 42 off pit road.
It was Jeff Burton who led the field to the green flag on lap 183, as he'd stayed out under both cautions, but quickly lost the lead to the No. 11.
Meanwhile, Johnson was stuck in a cluster of traffic, restarting 18th, but immediately jumped up to 12th after the restart.
Hornish, Jr. found himself in trouble again as, on lap 195, he brought out the seventh caution on the day after contact with the No. 55 of Waltrip. Under the caution, Burton, Kurt Busch, Logano, and others hit pit road.
Hamlin and Busch raced side-by-side on the lap 202 restart, with Rowdy taking the lead just as the pair hit the start-finish line. Harvick restarted right behind them in third, and didn't let the leaders out of his sight.
On lap 205, Hamlin retook the lead from his teammate, as fourth place Johnson closed in on the leaders. Moving up from his 29th starting spot was Carl Edwards, who battled Montoya for sixth.
A pleasant surprise in the top five, making his last appearance in the No. 96 was Bobby Labonte, who ran fifth. Just ahead of him, Harvick lost third to the No. 48 of Kasey Kahne at the entrance of pit road. Much to the pleasure of Junior Nation, the No. 88 was the lucky dog.
Again it was Hamlin and Busch battling on the lap 216 restart, with Harvick on the outside stealing third from Johnson. Montoya lurked in sixth, just behind them, as the No. 29 fell back to fifth.
Johnson and Rowdy battled for second, but Busch's persistence was to no avail, and he was quickly passed by both the No. 48 and 42.
By lap 234, the three leaders had put a second between themselves and the rest of the field, led by fourth place Martin. A strong run for three of the four Richard Childress Racing drivers, as Harvick, Burton, and Bowyer all ran in the top ten.
A.J. Allmendinger ended his intense side-by-side battle with Joey Logano in the wall, bringing out the race's ninth caution. Earnhardt, Jr. was the only car a single lap down.
Hamlin brought the field once again down pit road, but lost the lead to Johnson. Montoya also lost a spot to Martin and fell to fourth.
Greg Biffle, who had been a lap down earlier in the race, led the field to the lap 260 restart, but was quickly passed by Johnson and eventually Martin. While the No. 48 and No. 5 were spread apart by several car lengths, Montoya was attached to Hamlin's FedEx Toyota, and made the pass on lap 267.
Sterling Marlin and John Andretti found themselves in trouble after Kahne spun Andretti's No. 34, bringing out the tenth caution. Kahne would have been the free pass, but because he was the cause of the caution, no lucky dog was given.
On lap 280, Johnson led the field to the restart, slowing up before taking off, costing his teammate Martin a position to Montoya.
Montoya didn't waste much time, challenging Johnson once again for the lead on lap 284, remaining on his bumper.
“To be the champ, you've got to beat the champ!” crew chief Brian Pattie told Montoya.
After falling two laps down, Earnhardt, Jr. had rebounded and on lap 299 was up to 17th.
Once again, Kahne was the reason behind the 11th caution of the day, after losing a tire and slamming into the wall on lap 303.
Johnson would again beat the field off pit road, and Montoya lost two spots during his stop. Earnhardt, Jr., who was 15th before the pit stop, dropped 15 spots on pit road and restarted 30th after missing his pit.
Reutimann, Stewart, and Elliott Sadler all stayed on track and led the field to the green. The No. 14 had a rough restart, allowed the No. 00 to take the lead. Johnson raced the No. 17 of Kenseth for fifth and sixth as Truex, Jr. was sent spinning, but no caution. Stremme, who got into the back of the No. 1, was warned by NASCAR about the contact.
On lap 319, Stewart battled side-by-side with former teammate Hamlin after losing a spot to Johnson, who was riding the bumper of the No. 00. Johnson completed the pass on lap 322.
Johnson paced the field until lap 358, when, thanks to lap traffic, Hamlin was able to catch the No. 48. Meanwhile, Earnhardt, Jr. again had a flat tire, but was able to make it down pit road and the race stayed green.
Three wide with Hamlin and Biffle on either side of Johnson, but neither the No. 11 or No. 48 gave up, continuing to run side-by-side as Hamlin challenged the points leader for the lead. Hamlin nudged ahead of the Lowe's Chevrolet, who tapped Hamlin just before the FedEx Toyota began to pull away.
Chaser Kurt Busch went a lap down with a little over 100 left in the Tums Fast Relief 500, and Jeff Gordon continued to battle up in the top ten. But up front it was all Hamlin and lap traffic as the field neared their final scheduled pit stop.
With 78 laps to go, just 14 cars sat on the lead lap, as Hamlin continued to dominate. He held a three-second lead over Johnson. Truex, Jr. and Stremme continued their beef with one another, nearly bringing out another caution as they battled for position.
Montoya came down pit road with 67 laps to go, taking four tires, fuel, and getting a chassis adjustment, with Johnson following with a 17.1-second stop after making both a chassis and air pressure change.
Hamlin gave up the lead three laps later, taking four tires and fuel and pulling off pit road with a 13.7-second stop.
Andretti once again was sent spinning in turn two, bringing out caution for the 12th time.
With 53 laps to go, Hamlin led the field to the green, and while the leaders ran single file, Edwards and Martin raced side-by-side for sixth, Martin taking the spot. Johnson began making a run at Hamlin, with Montoya closely following in third.
While Hamlin maintained the lead, Tony Stewart began charging toward the top five, and on lap 468 Gordon began battling the No. 42 of Montoya for third, taking the spot.
Debris off the No. 44 brought out caution with just 17 laps remaining. Kurt Busch was the free pass.
On the inside, Hamlin was able to pull away from the field with 12 laps to go. Montoya stayed to the outside of Gordon, beating and banging his way past the No. 24, before jumping to the bumper of Johnson.
An extremely loose Mears got bent out of shape, nearly hitting the wall, but was able to save it. Scott Speed, though, wasn't so lucky when he made heavy, heavy impact with six laps to go. He brought out the 14th caution of the day, and Bowyer was the lucky dog.
A green-white-checkered resulted as once again, Hamlin was able to take the lead with Johnson on his bumper and Montoya right on Johnson's. One lap remained when Andretti was sent spinning, but no caution was brought out and Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag to win the Tums Fast Relief 500.
"Hey, we don't need that car, buddy so you can burn it down," crew chief Mike Ford told Hamlin. And that's exactly what he did, celebrating another win in his home state with a huge burnout before parking his No. 11 FedEx Freight Toyota at the start/finish line.
"It's good, it's good to bounce back. I just gotta thank all my fans who stuck with me, on Twitter, giving me hope!" Hamlin said with a grin on his face.
Jimmie Johnson, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five. A nice run for Jamie McMurray, who came home sixth, Ryan Newman seventh, and a bad points day for Mark Martin, who ended his day eighth. Tony Stewart and RCR's Kevin Harvick rounded out the top ten.
Johnson is now 118 points ahead of second place Martin, with four races remaining in in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Montoya, Newman, and Hamlin each gained spots in points while Busch, Biffle, and Kahne all fell positions.
Next week is the ultimate wildcard weekend in the Chase as the Sprint Cup Series heads into Talladega Superspeedway for the Amp Energy 500. Coverage begins at noon eastern time on ABC.
This article also appears on SoCalSportsHub.com .
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