Five lessons from Martinsville
Denny Hamlin proved Jimmie Johnson's not unbeatable with a win at Martinsville
Mark Martin's running out of time to make history and win the Chase
Juan Pablo Montoya reacted the right way to an ESPN announcer's racist comment
1. Jimmie Johnson can be beaten at Martinsville. Denny Hamlin's Chase may be all but over -- consecutive finishes of 37th and 42nd at Fontana and Charlotte, respectively, took care of that -- but his victory at Martinsville proved that he's still got plenty in the tank. He led a race-high 206 laps and dominated the final stages of the action. The win, his second at Martinsville since the spring of 2008, and his third of the season, makes him the only driver to best Johnson in the Cup series' last seven races at the track. Last March, Johnson bumped Hamlin out of the way en route to victory. Yesterday, he never got a chance.
2. Jimmie Johnson tightened his grip on a fourth straight championship. While his winning streak at Martinsville might have been broken, the reigning champion was still able to pad his lead yesterday. He picked up 28 points on second-place Mark Martin (118 points back) and 15 on Jeff Gordon (150 points back). JJ loves almost every track in the Chase except for Talladega, so if there's going to be a window for anybody to make a move on him, it will be next week. Johnson has just one career victory at the track and 30th last spring, his worst finish in almost four years.
3. Mark Martin is running out of time. A month ago, after he ran second to Johnson at Dover, Martin commented, "It's only been two races. Let's see what happens in the next four or five." Unfortunately for Martin, Johnson has only increased his lead in the last four races and, by his own timetable, Talladega might be Martin's last chance to make up some ground. Still, that might be a tall order; Martin has only won twice at Talladega, and finished 43rd at the track last spring, when he got caught up in a wreck after running just six laps.
4. Jeff Gordon loves Martinsville too. The four-time Cup champion finished fifth in his run at Martinsville yesterday and now has 10 straight top-five finishes and 14 straight top-10s on the short track. While it's doubtful that Gordon will catch Johnson, it's clear that if JJ slips, Gordon's going to be close enough to pick up the pieces and make a run for a fifth title. Save for a 15th-place run in the Chase opener at Loudon, Gordon's average finish over the last five races is 3.8.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya isn't out of the picture yet. On the heels of his 35th-place run at Charlotte last weekend, Montoya responded with a major statement at Martinsville, running up front all day and finishing third. Save for his disastrous run, he hasn't finished outside of the top-five in the Chase. He also played off a budding controversy; during a college football broadcast on Saturday, ESPN's Bob Griese joked that the Colombian Montoya was not listed among the top-five drivers in a NASCAR promotion because he was "out getting a taco." When Montoya was asked about it after the race, he responded, "I don't care, to tell you the truth." He then went on to add, "I could say I just spent the last three hours eating tacos, but I was driving the car." End of story. Let's move on -- he has Talladega to worry about.