MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It was supposed to be a showdown between Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the only two drivers able to win at tricky Martinsville Speedway of late.
Instead, the end of Sunday’s race became a battle among the unexpected.
First it was Kyle Busch, a master at seemingly every short track except this one, in the lead. Then, with a bump to get to the front came Dale Earnhardt Jr., loser of 99 consecutive races. But closing quickly was Kevin Harvick, driving for a Richard Childress Racing team that hadn’t won at Martinsville since 1995.
The race went to Harvick for the second consecutive week in another come-from-nowhere victory. He passed Earnhardt with four laps remaining, and knew denying NASCAR’s most popular driver the win might not have been, well, popular.
“As I was catching him, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going to be the bad guy here,’ ” Harvick said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I know the fans want to see him win. I want to see him win. It would be great for the sport and I think today went a long ways to showing how competitive (Earnhardt) can be and that’s what we need. We all need him to win.
“But I’m not going to back down.”
Earnhardt settled for second and still has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. But he’s running much better this season, and Sunday pushed him to eighth in the standings, the highest he’s been since Texas this time last year.
“I am frustrated. I got close,” Earnhardt said. “I ain’t won in a long time. I was thinking at the end I was meant to win the damn race.”
Busch was third. And the favorites? Well, they were nowhere near the leaders during the action-packed final 20 laps.
Hamlin and Johnson had combined to win the last nine races at Martinsville, and ran most of the day as if one of them would again make the trip to Victory Lane. Both failed to finish inside the top 10.
Harvick, last year’s third-place finisher in the final Sprint Cup standings, already has two wins and is in spectacular shape for a berth in the Chase for the championship. His two victories could be enough to ensure him at minimum a wild card in the new Chase qualifying rules, and could give his RCR team the luxury of racing aggressive the next few months.
Busch led a race-high 151 laps, the second consecutive Sprint Cup race he’s dominated, only to fade to third. He took over the points lead despite coming up short of the win.
Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth, followed by Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, who rallied from an early penalty that dropped him a lap down.
Robert Hight roared to his second win of the season in his Funny Car on Sunday at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, giving John Force Racing its fifth consecutive victory dating to last season.
Hight used a 4.149-second run at 307.79 mph to edge Johnny Gray, who posted a 4.169 at 301.81 at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
Antron Brown won the Top Fuel final, defeating Brandon Bernstein for his 26th career victory.
Mike Edwards beat first-time finalist Vincent Nobile in Pro Stock.