MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jeff Gordon has passed the torch to Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville Speedway, the track where Gordon has had more success than most anyone.
“He’s Mr. Martinsville,” Gordon said Sunday after his teammate won his third straight race on the 0.526-mile oval, the shortest and trickiest in Nextel Cup racing.
“That guy is unbelievable here.”
Johnson, who has four victories at Martinsville to Gordon’s seven, said he’s not ready to accept the title.
“I saw something where Richard Petty won how many?” he said of NASCAR’s career victories leader at the track with 15. “That’s Mr. Martinsville. That’s the king.”
It certainly looks like Johnson is a candidate to be next best.
Johnson made the pass he didn’t allow Gordon to make in the spring, sneaking inside his Hendrick Motorsports teammate with 44 laps to go in regulation Sunday and holding on for his series-high seventh victory of the year and 30th of his career.
“I was nervous with (Gordon) behind us and I was able to hold him off,” Johnson said in Victory Lane. “And then (Ryan Newman) got in there and I knew he was going to be real tough on a short run, too. … I know he’s hungry. He’s been working real hard to get back to Victory Lane, so I knew he wasn’t going to cut me any slack.”
Turns out the slack came from the caution flags. A record 21 of them flew, slowing the proceedings for 127 laps, and forcing the race to be extended by six laps. Even the hoped for two-lap dash to the finish was cut short by yet another accident.
“Those last restarts were tough on me,” Johnson said.
The Hendrick Motorsports teammates who have dominated the Nextel Cup Series all season did it again, and Johnson got some unexpected late help from a feisty Newman.
Newman challenged Gordon for second on lap 492, getting increasingly more physical, and finally passed him on the inside on the 494th circuit as Johnson opened a lead of nearly 2 seconds. He then had to withstand a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish, with Gordon lurking third and ready to take advantage if the leaders faltered.
They didn’t, and Johnson held on through one overtime green-flag lap before David Ragan’s Turn 1 spin ended it. Johnson gained in the championship chase with four races remaining, cutting Gordon’s lead to 53 points heading to Atlanta next weekend.
“This thing’s not over yet,” said Johnson, the defending series champion.
Newman held on for second, Gordon was third and Kyle Busch fourth.
After Sunday’s win by Johnson, either he or Gordon have won eight of the last 10 races at Martinsville.