- Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 April 2012 23:02
- Published on Tuesday, 03 April 2012 23:02
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If last season’s victory lane celebration at Martinsville Speedway seemed a bit odd, consider that 2011 was the first time since 2002 that one of the track’s current Big Three - Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, or Denny Hamlin - failed to win at least one race at the flat 1/2 mile track. Going into last Sunday’s race the trio had combined to win 14 of the track’s past 18 races.
Gordon had season sweeps in 2003 and 2005. Johnson did the same in 2007. Hamlin swept both Martinsville races in 2010. The only driver besides Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin to score multiple victories at Martinsville in the last nine years was Tony Stewart who won the fall Martinsville race last year. That win started Stewart on his
drive to the Sprint Cup Championship last season.
Virginia native Denny Hamlin returned to Martinsville last weekend with plenty of momentum. He won at Phoenix and sat on the pole at Auto Club Speedway where weather and pit strategy left Hamlin with a disappointing 11th place finish. Hamlin has six wins in his home state of Virginia. Incidentally, the driver with the most wins in his home state? That would be Richard Petty with 54 wins in North Carolina.
Jimmie Johnson’s fortunes were trending upward since NASCAR reinstated the points taken away from the dustup over illegal C pillars on the No. 48 Chevrolet at Daytona. He finished 10th at California to move into the top 10 in the cup standings. A major rebound since his 42nd place in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Gordon badly needs some magic to restore the swagger the four-time champion enjoyed during last year’s three win campaign. He went into last Sunday’s race with just one top ten finish in the season’s first five races.
For the first 497 laps of Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500, it looked like Johnson, Gordon or Hamlin would be taking home another one of the speedway’s unique grandfather clock winners trophies. Gordon led 326 laps and Johnson 112. Denny Hamlin beat both Johnson and Gordon off pit road on lap 363, during pit stops following a spin by Travis Kvapil, but Johnson regained the lead on lap 393 after dogging the No. 11 Toyota for 11 laps.
Gordon got back past Johnson for the lead on lap 497, just moments before David Reutiman brought out the caution flag when his car stopped on the race track. Gordon and Johnson stayed on the track during the caution as all of the lead lap cars behind them stopped for fresh tires and fuel.
On the green/white checkered restart on lap 504. Clint Boyer took Johnson and Gordon three wide into the first corner, and all three cars spun out ruining the potential for Hendrick Motorsports 200th win.
After the dust cleared they lined up for the second attempt at a green/white checkered finish with Ryan Newnan and A. J. Almendinger on the front row. Newnan passed Almendinger on the second lap after the restart to capture his first Martinsville victory and the 16th Cup win of his career.
“I felt like I wasn’t racing A. J. on that restart. I felt like I was racing Dale Jr. who was behind me,” said Newman in a post race interview. “It was really important to me to not spin my tires and get a good start and race A.J. and try to eliminate the No. 88 from the race to win.”
That’s exactly what Newman did. Over the final two laps Newman and Almendinger raced each other hard and cleanly with Newman taking the green flag from the inside lane. Almendinger started at the front of the outside lane.
It’s pretty heady times for Stewart-Haas Racing. Six races into the 2012 season and a Stewart Haas driver has won three of them. Team Co-owner Tony Stewart sits third in the standings 12 points behind the leader Greg Biffle. Ryan Newman is in 8th place, 24 points behind Biffle.
The Sprint Cup Circuit has this weekend off before travelling to Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung Mobile 500 Saturday night April 14th.