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Johnson Bumps Way to Martinsville Win

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2009
 Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)


Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)


By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 provided some quick relief for race fans looking for some old-fashioned slam-bang racing.

Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin put on a short-track racing clinic in the closing stages of the race, with Hamlin first taking the lead from Johnson with a bold move into turn one on a restart with 44 laps to go. Then with 16 laps remaining, Johnson reclaimed the lead for good with a bump-and-run maneuver that sent them both sliding up the track before they regained control.

The win solidified Johnson’s position as the new king at Martinsville. He’s now won five of the past six races and six overall on the half-mile oval where his car owner Rick Hendrick got his first Cup win in this race 25 years ago. Hendrick now has 18 wins at Martinsville, second to Richard Petty’s 19, and 176 in all. Johnson ran his career total to 41.

Hamlin, the defending winner of the race and the leader of the most laps (296 of 500), was as gracious as can be in defeat.

“It’s an honor to be on the race track with people like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon,” he said. “I would have done the same thing to him, and if it comes around again I will.”

Johnson also had praise for Hamlin, saying he was surprised Hamlin was able to save his car and salvage second place.

The victory also was a huge one for Chevrolet, the embattled automaker which had been shut out in Sprint Cup this season. Chevy took seven of the top eight finishing positions, with all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers in that group.

Tony Stewart had his best day yet as an owner/driver. He finished third, while his teammate Ryan Newman was sixth.

And it was a big day for NASCAR and its fans. The skies cleared after a rainy Friday and Saturday and the crowd, estimated at 63,000 was strong given the weather and the economy. The race was entertaining too. All told there were 13 lead changes among seven drivers, while 12 cautions slowed the pace for just 66 laps.

And the sport’s biggest star, Dale Earnhardt Jr., had a much needed respectable run after a week in which many were calling for the dumping of his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. Earnhardt ran in the lead pack most of the race and finished eighth.

His teammate Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole, led 147 laps early on but faded at the end with a car that was difficult to turn in the center of the corner, a factor Gordon blamed on the new right side tire compound Goodyear chose for this race. Still he finished fourth and maintained his points lead heading into next week’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. 

Gordon holds an 89-point lead over Clint Bowyer, who continued his strong start with the new No. 33 team at Richard Childress Racing by finishing fifth.

Gordon said he finds himself with a fresh attitude about heading from the short tracks, where he often dominates, to the intermediate tracks, where since the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow, he hasn’t been so strong. But this year is different.

“I seem to be better on the bigger tracks,” he said.

The five drivers from Roush Fenway Racing ought to be glad the two-week stretch of short track racing is behind them. After being so good elsewhere earlier in the season, including Matt Kenseth’s sweep of the first two races, they’ve struggled badly at Bristol and Martinsville. At Martinsville the best Roush Ford was Jamie McMurray’s No. 26, which finished 10th. The rest were outside the top 20 with Matt Kenseth 23rd, Carl Edwards 26th, David Ragan 27th and Greg Biffle 28th.

McMurray said his car was good.

“Our car had a tremendous amount of speed in it, but I just could not pass,” he said. “I could catch guys pretty easy and I just couldn’t pass them, so we struggled just to get track position, but we had really good pit stops and that helped us out a lot.” 

Biffle said he and Martinsville just don’t mix.

“This track is just not my track,” he said. “I’ve run as good as we can here, but it’s tough for us. We could never get the thing to turn and get good grip off. Every once in a while we run good, but we’re just missing that little bit of something. We’ll keep working on it and we’ll get it one of these days.”

Biffle offered little enlightenment about his team’s struggles the past two weeks other than to say they sink or swim together. 

 “When you say Fords that’s our whole team, and we’re running all the same thing, so you don’t have any variety,” he said. “That’s part of the issue so when we’re good, we’re all good, and when we’re bad, we’re all bad.”

Marcos Ambrose likely feels differently. The Australian driver backed up his top 10 at Bristol with a strong 14th-place run at Martinsville.

“If you had said that we would get away with two top-15s (finishes) in my first two short tracks with a COT – I’ll take it,” he said. “We had old tires on there at the end and we were able to stay on the lead lap all day. I just have to thank my crew so much – Frank Kerr (crew chief) and everyone involved. They give me awesome cars and we just keep getting better and better….

 “We’re reliable, we’re fast and it’s just been a lot of fun. I’m kind of over this short track stuff. Let’s go back to a normal speedway.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2009
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