Commentary

Johnson strikes again at Martinsville

Updated: March 30, 2009, 12:50 AM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- How's this for a twist in the fender-banging art of NASCAR short-track racing? The winner feels wronged, and the loser says everything was nice and fair.

You start with a typical Martinsville late-race scenario: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin were gunning for the win, they made contact, they both got sideways, Hamlin lost the lead to Johnson and Johnson went on to win.

So who was offended after Sunday's Goody's 500?

Hamlin, right?

Not at all. It was Johnson who felt like the victim -- or at least the near-victim.

"Unfortunately, on short tracks, when you find yourself in the lead, you know you're vulnerable," Hamlin said. "Your bumper is pretty big. The guy who is second, who is hungry to win, sees it, sees an opportunity.

"That's what [Johnson] did. He took advantage."

Jimmy Johnson & Denny Hamlin
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson muscled past Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go Sunday at Martinsville.

Hamlin was smiling all the way, even laughing at times. And he gave Johnson even more credit, in an admiring voice, for pushing him up so high on the racetrack that "I couldn't get back to him."

Johnson made the pass -- or the bump and run, as Hamlin viewed it -- with 15 laps to go, and in a situation in which Hamlin was expected by a nearly full house at Martinsville Speedway to return the slam-bang favor, Hamlin had nothing left for a rundown and retribution.

"He was smart," Hamlin continued merrily. "He got us up high enough to where we got trash on our tires. I was done after that."

Told of the intended compliment, Johnson bristled a bit and his voice grew somber.

"If Denny wants to think that I tried to move him out of the way, he can believe that," Johnson said, and then got rolling.

"But he should watch the video and realize that I was inside of him. And I did everything I could to miss him. I climbed up on the curb [on the inside of Turn 3 of the little .526-mile track], and he was still coming down.

"So the only reason we touched, and the only reason he ended up in the rubber [fragments on the outside lane] where he couldn't come back and get me was the fact that he chopped me."

Johnson had gotten an excellent run to the inside of Hamlin entering Turn 3, but there they collided, with Johnson's right-front bouncing off Hamlin's left-rear enough that it helped Johnson regain control.

Johnson felt he clearly had the inside, and once he had it he wasn't going to back off as Hamlin squeezed him.

"With 15 to go, if somebody's gonna chop you, you race him," Johnson said. "You gotta fight for your position. And I worked to get to that spot, to get to the inside of him, and he crowded me down on the bottom."

Johnson did pay Hamlin one compliment: "He did a helluva job of saving it. I thought I was going around too, and fortunately there was enough distance for the next guy [Tony Stewart, who finished third] not to have any trouble."

Hamlin figured he and teammate Kyle Busch had wound up outsmarting themselves when Hamlin took the lead on a restart with 45 laps to go -- "maybe I shouldn't have passed Jimmie for the lead," Hamlin said.

With 15 to go, if somebody's gonna chop you, you race him. You gotta fight for your position. And I worked to get to that spot, to get to the inside of him, and he crowded me down on the bottom.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"You know, with 15 to go, I'd rather be in second than first," Hamlin admitted, "because I'm going to move the guy out of the way."

Busch, who was several laps down, was restarting on the inside of leader Johnson. Hamlin radioed his spotter to ask Busch's spotter to pass on a message "to let me clear getting into Turn 1."

Then the second the green flag flew, with Busch leaving room, Hamlin darted inside Johnson and snatched the lead.

Johnson admitted "that surprised me," but shrugged off their ganging up on him.

Busch would have been a much bigger nuisance had he taken off and raced Johnson on the restart.

"If he'd wanted to, he could have been a big pain in the ass," Johnson said, "and it could have taken me two or three laps to get by him. But he didn't do that."

Both Hamlin and Johnson were seriously hungry -- Hamlin hadn't won since this race last year, and Johnson hadn't won this season in his bid for a record fourth straight Sprint Cup championship.

So as they went into Turn 3, "I think Denny was trying real hard to protect his lead and win the race in his home state, and I wanted to get to the front really bad because I wanted to win one, and, too, I wanted to win one on the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports' first win."

It was to this race in 1984 that team owner Rick Hendrick sent driver Geoff Bodine for what was to be the team's last race. Hendrick was going to fold the team for lack of sponsorship and lack of success.

After Bodine won that race, Hendrick was encouraged to continue for a little while longer, and the rest is history: eight Cup championships and 171 Cup wins, including Sunday's.

The soft-spoken Hendrick said simply, "It was really neat to win one to celebrate the 25th [anniversary]."

It was Hendrick's 18th win at Martinsville, Johnson's sixth, and Johnson's fifth in his past six starts here.

The only driver who has beaten Johnson here since 2006 was Hamlin, in this race last year.

For most of the race, Hamlin appeared to be sailing free toward another win. He led far and away the most laps, 296 of the 500.

Johnson's magic appeared to have vanished as he struggled in mid-pack, fighting a tight race car and falling even farther back when crew chief Chad Knaus pitted him to try to adjust the car.

But finally, with 70 laps left, Johnson took the lead and was a contender with Hamlin for the rest of the race.

The win moved Johnson up five spots in the point standings, to fourth. Hamlin's finish moved him up to fifth.

Johnson's senior teammate, Jeff Gordon, who led the second-most laps (147) but fell back late and finished fourth, retained the points lead.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.

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