Johnson wins at Martinsville
All times Eastern
Johnson is cruising a full second ahead on the white-flag lap, then eases through Turns 3 and 4 and wins for the fifth time in his past six races here.
Hamlin breaks out front on the green, but again, Johnson stays right with him.
All the leaders stay out, so the running order up front remains the same.
Green with 23 to go. Hamlin slips a couple of car lengths ahead of Johnson, but Johnson continues to roll up close in the corners.
Johnson goes inside Hamlin and turns him sideways in Turn 4, and Johnson slips into the lead.
Now Johnson breaks cleanly away, and Stewart is on Hamlin's bumper challenging him for second.
If Hamlin can catch Johnson, there's probably gonna be a big wreck before this race is over.
But with 10 to go, Hamlin isn't making up any ground and is a full second behind.
Aric Almirola spins with 446 down to bring out the 10th caution.
Hamlin dives inside right at the green flag and takes the lead from Johnson -- maybe with a little help from Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch, who was starting beside Johnson in a lapped car. Could they have agreed during caution that Busch would let Hamlin dive in there?
Hamlin turns the fastest lap of the race on Lap 458. But Johnson is hanging with him.
Gordon breaks into third, past Bowyer, and takes off after Stewart for third.
Johnson is now rolling so freely through the corners that he's banging on Hamlin's bumper. And Johnson, unlike Gordon earlier in the race, isn't losing much ground to Hamlin coming off the corners.
Eleventh caution cools the duel with 33 to go, as David Reutimann spins.
Jeremy Mayfield smacks the wall on Lap 426 and brings out the ninth caution.
Now comes the critical stop for Hamlin, whose crew has cost him races in the pits in the past. All the leaders pit.
Hamlin has a clean stop with a minor adjustment. That could be risky -- he was running so nearly perfectly already.
Johnson wins the race out of the pits and says his car is working nicely, though a little bit loose. But Johnson doesn't mind a loose car.
Restart with 67 laps to go, and if Johnson comes out of nowhere to win here again, it'll be a major heartbreaker for Hamlin, who has dominated from the middle stages until now.
Johnson has the lead for the first time all race. Hamlin tries to take it away only one lap into green but can't manage it. Now Stewart is right on Hamlin's bumper to pester him for second.
Hamlin will have to prove better than Johnson on the long run to win this race. Early in this run, Johnson is holding his own, no problem.
As the race winds down toward 100 laps to go, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon have separated themselves from the rest by more than a second. But it's hard to tell whether Gordon really has anything for Hamlin -- at times Gordon closes, but then falls back slightly.
With 100 to go, Gordon is staying right on Hamlin's bumper but isn't really making a move to pass. Gordon seems to be settling into the patient rhythm he often talks about as the key to winning here. But has Hamlin just got too much car and too much of his own patience?
Gordon seems to have a better roll through the corners, to close, but Hamlin pulls away off the corners.
Gordon makes a move on Lap 334, but now they hit a major group of lapped cars. Hamlin hangs on to the lead as both work the traffic.
Gordon grabs the lead on Lap 343, but Hamlin takes it back on 348. Now Johnson is big time in the mix, right on both their bumpers.
The seventh caution, for debris on Lap 352, cools off the dogfight. Running order under caution is Hamlin, Johnson, Gordon, Bowyer and Earnhardt. All the leaders pit.
Labonte pits on 356, leaving Hamlin in the lead. Labonte gets the "beneficiary" pass into the lead lap.
Restart with 358 down, and Johnson and Gordon spend time battling each other for second, letting Hamlin slip easily out front.
Gordon wins the duel and goes after Hamlin, closing fast on 363. Bowyer is beating on Johnson's rear bumper for third.
Robby Gordon, spinning yet again, brings out the eighth caution with 367 down.
Leaders stay out under caution, and the running order is Hamlin, Gordon, Johnson, Bowyer, Stewart, Earnhardt.
Restart with 371 down. A cloud cover is now changing the track surface, tightening up the cars. But Hamlin continues to check out on Gordon, et al, leading by nearly a second at 375.
With 305 down, Hamlin is hitting lapped traffic that is slowing him down. Gordon, Earnhardt, Bowyer and Johnson are closing. Michael Waltrip gives Hamlin a big problem for nearly a lap before Hamlin can clear him.
But Hamlin's pursuers catch the traffic in turn, so Hamlin is back in a comfortable .84-second lead over Gordon after 315 laps.
Restart off the sixth caution with 264 laps complete, working on 265.
Carl Edwards languishes in 11th after a lug-nut problem in his pits dropped him out of third place.
Hamlin, his Toyota still working optimally for this place, moves out to a 1.3-second lead over second-place Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt is only 1.6 behind, followed by Johnson and Mark Martin, who has patiently worked his way up.
Gordon is complaining of a push on corner entry in his Chevy, but he's hanging on to Hamlin, only about a second behind through 280 laps.
What could have been Edwards' best run ever here is snuffed on Lap 281 when a tire is cut by the splitter on David Reutimann's car. Edwards pits for a tire change, and falls back to 31st, two laps down -- this after running as high as third.
Kyle Busch smacks the wall, but doesn't bring out a caution, with 205 laps down. But he was having a lousy day anyway. He's now 35th, three laps down, just ahead of his struggling rookie teammate, Joey Logano.
It's a mixed-emotions kind of day for Joe Gibbs Racing, what with Denny Hamlin still dominating up front.
It just might be that Carl Edwards has finally found the "rhythm" of this racetrack that Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson say they've relied on for their long dominance here. It's a matter of being patient, and not driving too deep into the corners -- just letting your car roll through the middle, then getting a strong bite up off the corner.
Edwards is running fourth after 222 laps, and now we'll see whether he has this place figured out. If he does, there could be a special back-flip -- this place has baffled him more than any other track on the tour.
Jeff Gordon is back in second place and Edwards has moved up to third with 240 laps down, nearing the halfway point. But Hamlin maintains an easy 2.6-second lead.
Halfway point, 250 laps down: Hamlin has expanded his lead to more than three seconds over Gordon and nearly four seconds over Edwards.
Jimmie Johnson, after fighting a tight car early, has moved back up to eighth and could be getting ready to make a run at his fifth win in the last six races here.
The sixth caution flies on Lap 255, the pit road is open with 256 down, and here come all the leaders.
Edwards has to be sick over his pit stop, having come in third and gone out 11th.
Gordon is reporting that his car has fallen way off from what it was the first 150 laps of the race.
Joey Logano is having a tough rookie outing at Martinsville, running 36th, three laps down, after 191.
But Stewart falls back after Gordon regains momentum from the door-to-door fight with Hamlin.
Hamlin pulls out to better than a half-second lead, running comfortably, and pads it to .8 of a second through 166 laps, indicating he has a slightly better car than Gordon, who appeared dominant through the first 150.
So Gordon not only retains the lead, he gets a tire change with perfect timing -- he hadn't pitted since Lap 42.
The first pit stall gives Gordon a slight edge over Hamlin in the race out of the pits, but he loses the lead briefly as Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs -- from two independent teams -- stay out. Mayfield gets the precious points for leading a lap before both pit.
Gordon is back in the lead with 142 down, but now Hamlin is bunched up behind him and trying to give Gordon his first real challenge of the race.
But Gordon pulls out into a half-second lead, and into clean air. Kurt Busch is third behind Hamlin, followed by Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, who suddenly is making one of his better showings at the little paper-clip-shaped track that has perplexed him so in the past.
With 100 of the 500 laps complete, the running order remains the same up front.
And confidential to Junior Nation: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running a mediocre 12th. A big day for him is doubtful at this point.
Under the third caution, Jimmie Johnson pits again in hopes of correcting his Chevy's push through the middle of the corner and falls all the way back to 22nd. The guy who has won four of the past five races here is working at a severe handicap.
Matt Kenseth is sent to the end of the longest line because his crew didn't control tires during his stop. But hey -- Kenseth never expects to do very well at Martinsville anyway. Kenseth is back to 39th, one lap down.
Busch and Johnson are around Speed on Lap 60, and Hamlin is around on 61.
So now Martinsville is down to the regular favorites -- Gordon, Johnson and Hamlin -- plus Kurt Busch. Kyle Busch still appears to be nursing his mental block back in 11th place.
Third caution is out on Lap 69 as Kyle Busch tries to dive under Speed for ninth and spins them both.
Running order up front is still Gordon, Kurt Busch and Hamlin.
Here's the competition yellow after 40 laps. But stops are optional thanks to the previous caution.
Some back markers pitted previously. If they stay out and Jeff Gordon pits, he could be stuck in traffic rather than sailing through clean air.
Jimmie Johnson gets a chassis adjustment trying to correct the usual problem at Martinsville, a push through the center of the tight corners.
Green flag with 47 down, Speed still leads. Jeff Gordon is held up by Robby Gordon, but breaks free on Lap 50 and is going after Speed.
2:32 p.m.First caution with 21 laps down when -- another surprise, surprise -- Michael Waltrip spins.
But none of the front-runners stops because there'll be a competition caution after 40 laps to check the rapidly wearing tires.
Gordon, remember, has the only really good pit stall here on the cramped little Martinsville pit road -- the first stall, down inside Turn 2.
For everybody else, it'll be slam-bang bedlam in the pits all day. But Gordon gets to slip straight out of his pits into the track-entry lane. That's a huge advantage, and every driver knows it.
Green flag with 29 laps down, Gordon still leads, Kurt Busch second, Jimmie Johnson third, Stewart back to fourth.
Green-green-green-green and surprise, surprise, surprise. Jeff Gordon leads -- Fox reports this is the 25th time in his career he has led the first lap at Martinsville.
Gordon has the Busch boys on his bumper, Kurt second, Kyle third.
But after nine laps, Kyle has faded to sixth. Must be that mental block of his about this place.
The frontstretch grandstands are almost full, and the stands in the turns are active with fans still coming in.
Traffic reportedly is backed up heavily coming into the speedway, largely thanks to slow entry into the parking lots. Most of the lots here are grass, on hillsides, so the heavy rain of the past two days has left them soggy and boggy for vehicles.
Thousands of fans may miss the start because of the gridlock outside, so if the stands show gaps when the green flag drops, don't assume they won't fill up more as the race goes on.
Martinsville seats only 65,000, with no room for an infield crowd. But already it looks as though there'll be a bigger crowd here than at the worst-attended Cup race of the season, three weeks ago at Atlanta, where only about a third of the 124,000 seats were occupied.
So the trend continues: the falloff in NASCAR attendance due to the bad economy is not nearly as bad circuit-wide as we gloom-and-doom forecasters had feared in the preseason.
Another race, another question about tires. Cup cars didn't get to practice Saturday, and pole-sitter Jeff Gordon, for one, was baffled by tire behavior in Friday's brief practices.
Gordon was perturbed to notice an unusual amount of rubber dust and fragments all around the outside lanes of the track. Gordon said it was "the most I've seen in years."
Plus, "Our normal setup that we would come here with that would be pretty close was very far off," Gordon said.
Goodyear had promised a softer tire for Martinsville, but the inordinate piles of rubber rubble may indicate it's too soft.
The good news is that unlike at places such as Indianapolis and Talladega, where Goodyear had serious tire issues last year, Martinsville is so small (.526 of a mile), flat and slow that even with tire failures, drivers don't hit the wall very hard here.
But if tire wear is worse than normal, there could be bedlam on the cramped little pit road here throughout the race.
High winds were tearing at the flags around Martinsville Speedway all morning, but at least it's sunny -- a welcome sight after two days of almost incessant drizzle and rain.
On any race morning here, I still miss the uproarious company of the inimitable H. Clay Earles, founder of the tiniest track on the Cup tour.
I thought of him a few minutes ago as some country band played "Sweet Home Alabama" on a stage at the start-finish line.
I don't think Earles would have put up with that foreign music here in quaint southern Virginia.
He just might have pulled the .38 revolver he always kept close at hand and ordered the band to play "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny," as he always liked.
Earles always thought it added a touch, sort of like "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Kentucky Derby.
Come to think of it, though, they haven't played "Old Virginny" in a number of years here. So I asked around among my more senior colleagues as to why.
Maybe it had to do with political correctness.
No, one colleague said. "Don't you remember how bad that high school band that played it was? They stopped because that high school band was just terrible."
Earles died in 1999, and his family sold its remaining interest in this track to International Speedway Corp.
That ended Martinsville's long-running maverick status, as directed by Earles, among tracks.
He always had his eye on that France family, all right. And he would say as much as he hung out with the old-line media types on race mornings.
Again, a rumor (or two) has circulated that Martinsville might lose a race date because of the small market and the flat little .526-mile track.
But that's just an old rumor coming back around. ISC has made too many improvements here, several million dollars' worth in the past few years.
And with Bristol widened into a de facto mini-Michigan where the racing isn't slam-bang anymore, NASCAR knows good and well it needs Martinsville more than ever to provide the best beatin' and bangin' on the tour.
Rumors of losing a date were common here 15 to 20 years ago, and one morning I asked Earles what he would do if NASCAR were to try to take one or both of his Cup dates.
"I'll sue their a--," he said. "And I'll win, too."
Did he really think so?
"Can you imagine a federal judge that would let 'em take a man's race dates away from him when he's been running since 1949?"
Actually, he'd been running since 1947. But he'd been running what is now the Cup division since it began in '49.
Time was when he protected his race dates his own way. He used to tell about when his old friend/rival Big Bill France was getting ready to open Talladega in the late '60s. Martinsville had beautiful spring and fall dates, and Earles heard France meant to move both to his new track in Alabama and give Martinsville less-desirable dates.
Earles drove south on U.S. 220 to the Greensboro, N.C., airport, his .38 tucked firmly in his waistband underneath his sport coat. That was in the days before airports had metal detectors.
Earles boarded a plane, connected in Atlanta and landed in Daytona Beach. He drove to NASCAR headquarters.
As he told it, he walked into Big Bill's office unannounced, produced the revolver, pointed it at France and said, "Bill, if you don't give me back my race dates right now, I'm going to kill you."
At which point Big Bill lifted the phone on his desk and ordered his lieutenants to restore Martinsville's dates -- where they remain today.
Once, Earles didn't get all the way to Greensboro airport before feeling compelled to produce his pistol.
He was headed out on a trip, but just shy of the North Carolina line he felt he was wronged -- cut off, or something -- by another motorist of similar seniority of citizenry.
Earles climbed out and commenced fire. To his surprise, the other old boy returned fire. They were darting and dodging, hiding behind their cars and shooting, until they emptied both six-shooters.
When authorities arrived, it turned out Earles had winged the other guy.
But Earles had a lot of clout in this part of Virginia, so the charges later were dropped.
When Earles died, he received a massive obituary in The New York Times, which began: "H. Clay Earles, who 53 years ago carved a hardscrabble racetrack out of the red clay of southern Virginia and then painstakingly turned it into a cash-spewing shrine to the cult of the stock car, died Tuesday at his home in Martinsville, Va. He was 86."
On race mornings, if Earles didn't have a fresh confrontation-with-arms story to tell you, he would describe in great detail how he laid layers of gravel and stone deep beneath the track for a drainage system so the track would dry quickly when the surface was dirt.
Its paved surface still dries quicker than most, when the rain stops and jet dryers are applied.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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