Philadelphia, PA – Based on his performance in Sunday's STP Gas Booster 500, Jimmie Johnson certainly hasn't lost his touch at Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson collected his eighth win at Martinsville, which is the oldest and shortest racetrack on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. He led 346 of 500 laps and beat Clint Bowyer to the finish line by 0.6 seconds to move up to third on the track's all-time race winners list. Richard Petty has the most victories there with 15, followed by Darrell Waltrip with 11.
Johnson not only gave Hendrick Motorsports its 212th win in NASCAR's premier series but its 20th victory at Martinsville as well, which is now more than any other team there. Hendrick had been tied with Petty Enterprises for most wins with 19.
Just how good has Johnson been at Martinsville throughout his career? Since his 35th-place finish in April 2002 -- his rookie season in Cup -- Johnson has placed no worse than 12th at this track. The five-time series champion also has led laps in 13 of the last 15 races there.
Johnson won the pole position on Friday, which allowed him to select the first pit stall at this 0.525-mile, paperclip-shaped track. He also started on the pole and won there last October. If one thing is true about Martinsville, having that coveted pit stall can be very beneficial.
"You make your day so much easier when you qualify up front, qualify on pole and get that first pit stall," Johnson said. "(Teammate) Jeff (Gordon) sent me a funny text Friday. You're tough enough to beat when you qualify 15th, but on the pole, it's going to be impossible to beat you. I got a good laugh out of that."
Gordon, who has won at Martinsville seven times, finished third.
"(Johnson) is so impressive here, but the thing that impresses me the most are those darn poles," Gordon said. "He used to at least give us a shot when he would qualify like 15th. So when those guys get that number one pit stall, they're almost impossible to beat."
Johnson, Bowyer and Gordon were running in the top three just before the 12th and final caution set up an eight-lap shootout to the finish. The front end of Kurt Busch's car erupted into flames after he hit the wall, which forced the caution and briefly halted the race for cleanup efforts.
Johnson was hoping the end of this race wouldn't be a repeat of last year's spring event at Martinsville. He was denied a victory in that race after he was involved in a crash with Bowyer and Gordon while all three drivers were battling for the lead following a restart in the closing laps. Ryan Newman benefited from the wreck by taking the lead and then picking up the win.
"I was looking at the scoreboard wondering where Clint was," Johnson said. "I expected him to roll right up there with how awesome he was (in Saturday's final practice). And Jeff on the longer run probably had the car to beat. Jeff has a really good line here on the long run, and he started catching me before the last caution, and I was thinking, 'Man, if this stays green, this could be a Jeff Gordon day.' But when the caution came out, I knew it was swinging back my direction, because we had such a good car on the short run."
All in all, it was a good day for team owner Rick Hendrick at Martinsville. Hendrick had three of his drivers in the top four, with Kasey Kahne taking the fourth spot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been running among the top 10 for most of the race until Danica Patrick made contact with Earnhardt and spun him out with 35 laps to go. Earnhardt entered this race with the points lead, but after his 24th-place run, he fell 12 points behind new leader Johnson.
"We've been very fortunate to have some great drivers, and this track has been awful good to us," Hendrick said. "I'm really proud of these guys and proud of the organization, because they all ran good.
"(Dale Earnhardt) Junior had some trouble, but I was worried that we were going to end up like we did this race last year when that caution came out, because I didn't know who was going to take tires and who was going to stay out. But it played out, and it's been a great day for us."
Martinsville has been a special place for Hendrick. On April 29, 1984, Geoff Bodine gave Hendrick his first win as a car owner in Cup. The victory came in just the team's eighth start.
Hendrick founded his racing organization in '84, which was then known as All- Star Racing. There were just five employees, including driver Bodine and crew chief Harry Hyde, at the time. Twenty-nine years ago, Hendrick would've never imagined he would be the all-time winning car owner at Martinsville.
"I'm guessing Hendrick has got something figured out pretty good here," Gordon said. "There's just certain tracks where the drivers that Hendrick has had over the past as well as now and just our race cars, it just really suits that."
The series returns to Martinsville the last weekend in October for the seventh race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.