MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship wasn’t decided on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway but Denny Hamlin’s victory in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota sent a huge message to four-time title holder Jimmie Johnson: Don’t order that fifth ring just yet.
For the record, Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet — that finished fifth in the Tums Fast Relief 500 — retain top spot but the margin shrunk from 41 points to just six over Hamlin.
And Kevin Harvick, who came into Martinsville admitting he needed a home run, didn’t get it, but his third-place finish has to count as at least a ground rule double.
Harvick’s No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet now is just 62 points behind Johnson going into Talladega Superspeedway next Sunday.
In a playoff scenario the whole 500 laps of the Sunday’s race was a three man event.
While others occasionally led on the tight, half-mile oval, most notably Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 89 laps, the three chase leaders — Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick — acted like the other 40 cars on the track were just there to fill out the field.
They ran nose to tail for dozens of laps at a time and never were separated by more than three or four places at any time all afternoon.
Even when — like after a pit stop on Lap 171 — when they found themselves back in the pack, the three of them stayed together as if connected by a tow chain.
Hamlin admitted after the race that it was a lightening quick pit stop near the end of the race that brought the victory home.
“I don’t think I’ve ever closed that well, ever,” he said. “We did not have a race-winning car until the very end. My pit crew got me from sixth to third before the last restart and that was the key.”
So the tightest championship since Johnson won his first crown in 2006, now goes to the wildest, wild card of all — Talladega.
The big 2.66-mile high banked oval is the great equalizer, where a car that runs mid pack all season long can come from the back to win. And where winners are turned into losers by the big crash that appears around every turn at the Alabama track.
Mark Martin, Johnson’s Hendrick teammate, may have put it best in the post race media scrum when he was asked what he thought of the championship fight going into Talladega.
“Well, it means the real Chase doesn’t start until after Talladega.”
With races at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami left on the NASCAR calendar after Talladega — three tracks were Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin all have good records — the 2010 championship might just well go down as the closest three-way race in stock car racing history.
NASCAR legend Richard Petty was at Martinsville on Sunday but chose not to comment on rumours he was trying to buy back his troubled Richard Petty Motorsports team ... Former Red Bull Formula One driver Scott Speed insists he has a contract to drive he No. 82 NASCAR Sprint Cup Red Bull Toyota next season in spite of team manager Jay Frye saying that Speed’s status for 2011 has not be finalized, something about performance clauses in the deal ... Canada’s Jacques Villeneuve finished fifth in Sunday’s Australian V8 SuperCar Gold Coast 600 ... Jeff Gordon’s streak of 11 consecutive finishes in the top ended Sunday with a 20th-place finish.