Jimmie Johnson didn't have the car most suited for restarts, and he found himself in a two-lap sprint against the guy who might have.
In another sign that this may be the year that the teams of Hendrick Motorsports can't be touched, Johnson still came away with the victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, his spot in front protected by the last of a race-record 21 caution flags.
"Those last restarts were tough on me," Johnson said after holding off a stiff challenge by Ryan Newman before being rescued. He earned his third consecutive victory on the 0.526-mile oval, the shortest and trickiest in Nextel Cup racing.
With Newman on his bumper, the two-lap dash was halted halfway by the final caution of the day — the one that kept the Hendrick domination going.
Combined, Johnson and Jeff Gordon have now won eight of the last 10 events at Martinsville, and this victory moved Johnson closer in the Chase for the championship. With four races remaining, he trails Gordon by 53 points and, as Gordon said, has supplanted the four-time series champion as the man to beat in southwest Virginia.
"He's Mr. Martinsville," Gordon said. "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 got on the road to victory by making the pass he didn't allow Gordon to make in the spring, sneaking inside Gordon with 44 laps to go in regulation and holding on for his series-high seventh victory of the year and the 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 (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."
The slack, instead, came from the caution flags, assuring Johnson's victory.
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 the 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 until David Ragan's Turn 1 spin ended it.
"This thing's not over yet," said Johnson, the defending series champion.
Newman held on for second, Gordon was third and Kyle Busch fourth.
"Jimmie was strong, we were strong, and he got the best of us," Gordon said, adding that he was angry at first that Newman got so rough, but bore no ill will afterward.
"We had some trouble on pit road and to be able to rebound from that and come back and get a top-five finish, we're got to be real happy about that," Gordon said.
Newman thought he had a chance to overtake Johnson, but the cautions that limited green-flag chances to six laps or fewer after lap 463 made it difficult. "It was pedal to the metal and hopefully you have a good enough car to make a move," Newman said.
Shuffled back into the pack during the middle of the race by staggered pit stops, Johnson and Gordon moved to the front when all the leaders pitted with 158 laps to go, raising expectations that they would again stage a stirring duel to the finish.
In the spring, the first time the Car of Tomorrow was used at Martinsville, Johnson held off Gordon for the last 53 laps, his car withstanding some aggressive banging from behind by Gordon, to win his second straight race on the oval.
The victory gave Johnson a sweep of the four short-track races in Virginia this year. He also won both races at Richmond International Raceway and became the first driver to sweep those four races since Richard Petty in 1972.
Pit stops were staggered throughout the race, but when the 12th caution came out with 158 laps to go, all the leaders but one headed for pit road. Kyle Busch stayed out to retake the lead, and teammates Johnson and Gordon were the next two off pit road.
They both made quick work of Busch, then opened a large lead over third-place Kevin Harvick, even when they caught lapped traffic and had to navigate around slower cars.
Gordon was riding right on Johnson's bumper, but had made no effort to pass him, when David Stremme spun exiting Turn 2 and they all headed for their final pit stops.
Gordon's crew got him out first, and Newman also beat Johnson out, taking a gamble by taking only two tires and perhaps banking on some help from yellow flags.
Gordon had built a sizable lead over nine laps when Stremme spun again and hit the wall in Turns 1 and 2. Gordon quickly rebuilt it when it went back to green, and held it through a few restarts, too, before Johnson passed him one last time.