Johnson further proves dominance at Martinsville; more Thoughts
Jimmie Johnson snagged the points lead with a victory Sunday at Martinsville
Brad Keselowski might have cost the checkered flag with his late-race strategy
Plus: Hamlin's disappointment, Junior's rough return; more from Martinsville
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Forgive Kyle Busch for his confusion. It's hard to keep track of all that Jimmie Johnson has accomplished in a Hall-of-Fame career decorated with championships, wins and other accolades.
As Busch discussed his last-ditch effort to beat Johnson on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he said that Johnson did what he needed to do to earn the victory.
"He's a six-time champion, five-time champion, whatever it is, probably six, for a reason,'' Busch said.
Well, not quite, but getting closer.
Johnson erased a seven-point deficit and took the points lead Sunday from Brad Keselowski. That was expected based on Johnson's dominance at this historic half-mile track -- Sunday was Johnson's seventh win there -- and Keselowski's struggles. What was unexpected was that Keselowski remains so close. A career-best sixth-place finish at Martinsville left Keselowski two points behind with three races to go.
"I felt we needed to come out of here and be within 10 points of (Johnson) to feel like we're still in this,'' said Keselowski's crew chief, Paul Wolfe.
No one else is within 25 points of Johnson as the series head next to Texas Motor Speedway.
"The focus,'' Johnson said, "becomes a little more precise on (Keselowski).''
1. Statement race. This was the type of performance many expected from Jimmie Johnson even before he won the pole Friday. He showed his strength, leading a race-high 193 laps to score his sixth win in the last 12 races at Martinsville.
"We need every point we can get,'' Johnson said after his 59th career Sprint Cup victory.
He got every point possible.
"We'll take whatever mental momentum and confidence that today's race brings us, but we have to go to work again next week,'' he said. "It's a whole new battle.''
Sunday was the same old Martinsville for Johnson. who has 19 top-10s in 22 starts at this track.
"I think it's a true testament to Jimmie the way he can go out there and manage the race even if we're not leading, fall back if we need to a little and then he's able to charge back up after his gets groove and some of the other guys burn their tires off,'' crew chief Chad Knaus said. "Jimmie's experience came into play today, maybe more so than we've seen in the Chase so far. That's pretty impressive to be able to come back from the race car we had, where he could have easily pushed the car too hard, burned up the brakes, blown a right front tire and he had the wherewithal not to do that.''
2. "I want the shot." Brad Keselowski made the decision of whether or not to pit on the next-to-last caution. He stayed out. Sixteen of the 18 cars on the lead lap pitted. The only other driver who didn't pit was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who would later lament "some poor choices at the end'' by his team.
"I want the shot when it comes down to the end of the game,'' Keselowski said. "I took it. I wouldn't say we made it but we didn't miss it either. We broke even.''
Keselowski's decision not to pit wasn't a bad one. It got him the lead for the first time in the race, giving him a bonus point for leading. Plus, he was running sixth at the time of the caution, so he finished where he ran.
It wasn't like he'd been running at the front all day or showed the ability to do so. He was about as high as he was going to be. He admitted afterward that "we probably had a 10th- or an 11th-place car.''
"I'm proud that we were able to find a way to get a decent finish,'' Keselowski said. "Certainly we would have liked to get more spots yet, but it's always good when you out-finish what you have in a car speed-wise.''
3. MAX disappointment. After last weekend's 13th-place finish at Kansas, Denny Hamlin wrote on Twitter that he was looking for "MAX points'' at Martinsville, a track where he's won four times.
Instead he left with max disappointment after the master control switch failed -- "just a dumb part,'' crew chief Darian Grubb said afterward -- shutting down his car and ending his title hopes. It was just part of a rough day for Hamlin, who was caught speeding on pit road twice.
Hamlin fell to fifth in the standings and trails Johnson by 49 points with three races to go.
"One of these days it's going to be our time,'' Hamlin said. "It's just not going to be right now.''
4. Unhappy return. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was back after missing the last two races because of a concussion suffered Oct. 7 at Talladega, his second concussion within a six-week period, but he didn't leave happy.
Earnhardt was one of two drivers, Keselowski the other, who did not pit during the next-to-last pit stop. With new tires significantly better than older ones, Earnhardt had no shot. He was then victimized by a chain-reaction incident in the final laps and finished 21st.
"We didn't have a really good car and fought some issues all day long,'' Earnhardt said. "Just made some poor choices at the end that got us run over."
About being back in the car, Earnhardt said: "It felt pretty good. I was just really pissed off about how we finished that race. That was really ridiculous. I mean you've got to use a little common sense that was not a good move."
5. Last ride (for now). Brian Vickers finished eighth in his final Cup ride of the season for Michael Waltrip Racing. He's shared the No. 55 car this season with Mark Martin and Michael Waltrip, and it was announced earlier this weekend he'll do the same next year, running nine races in that car. It also should add to a busy schedule for Vickers, who is expected to drive in the Nationwide series next season for Joe Gibbs Racing.
In eight Cup races for MWR this season, Vickers had three top-five finishes and five top-10s.
"It was a short year, but we made the most of it,'' Vickers said.
Cazeneuve: Senators "running on empty" heading back to Pittsburgh
Kings take 3-2 series lead with 3-0 shutout of Sharks