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Johnson was at his best while dominating field

Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

Like most tracks that make up the Sprint Cup Series, Martinsville is a track where you want to sit on the pole, pick the number one pit stall and lead the most laps. The track’s half-mile paperclip-shaped layout not only makes passing difficult, but also improves a driver’s chances of getting caught up in another driver’s problems.

Jimmie Johnson took care of most of the problems the rest of the field had to contend with on Sunday when on Friday he qualified on the pole. That assured him of not only starting the race in the preferred lane but equally important with as many pit stops that take place during 500 laps at the Virginia track, he and crew chief Chad Knaus had the first choice in picking their pit stall.

The two took advantage of the perks of winning the pole by leading 347 laps on the way to posting Johnson’s second win of the season. The race may have been the most dominating performance of his career, as it was the most laps he had ever led in a race. He was so strong on the day that the lowest he was in the standings at any point was fifth. The performance and win shouldn’t come as a total surprise as he has now led 2,327 laps and has won a total of eight Martinsville Sprint Cup races.

The win was also a milestone win for his owner Rick Hendrick at the shortest track on the schedule. It was the 20th win for Hendrick Motor Sports, breaking a tie with Petty Enterprises for the most wins at the track.

Johnson’s trip to victory lane on Sunday also returned him to a familiar position as points leader. He now has a 6-point lead over second-place Brad Keselowski and 12 points over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in third. Earnhardt had entered the race as the points leader. Johnson and Earnhardt are joined in the top 12 by Hendrick teammates Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.

It is worth mentioning that it is the top 10 in points at the end of the first 26 races of the season that automatically moves into the Chase with a chance to win the title. The reason that the top 12 was mentioned here is that until a driver outside of the top 10 wins a race, it is the top 12 that automatically move into the championship round. All six wins on the season have been posted by drivers in the top 12, with Johnson the only driver to post more than one.

Chase rules state that the two drivers not in the top 10 but in the top 20 with the most wins will occupy the last two spots in the Chase. It is one of these two spots that some believe will give Denny Hamlin hope of being able to make the Chase when he returns. Posting the wins is something that may prove easier for Hamlin than climbing his way back into the top 20 in what is expected to be a sixrace absence.

Even in his absence, Hamlin’s No. 11 Fed Ex team will still be earning points for the manufacturer’s championship that awards points just like the driver’s championship. The difference is that a driver only gets his points when he starts the race behind the wheel even if he has to use a relief driver while the owner’s points are awarded regardless of who starts the race behind the wheel.

Mark Martin took over for Hamlin at Martinsville and the weekend proved to be anything but normal for Hamlin’s team. The track has always been one of the best for Hamlin and his team, but Martin struggled throughout practice and qualified 35th.

The 500 laps proved to be eventful for Martin as he had handling issues for most of the days, but the low point was when he tried to exit his pits before the left front tire was mounted. Being the veteran that he is, Martin and the team worked on the car all day and eventually got the car good enough for a 10thplace finish

The task of keeping the Fed Ex Toyota in the title hunt for the manufacturer title now shifts to Brian Vickers. He will drive the remaining races until Hamlin is able to return while Martin now moves back to his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Race Preview
Event: NRA 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway
(1.5-mile tri-oval, 24 degrees of
banking in the turns)
Date: April 13, 7 p.m.
Radio: PRN
Defending Champion: Greg

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