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Denny Hamlin takes the measure of Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville, but not by much

  Denny Hamlin, seven tour wins now this season, and within six points of the Sprint Cup lead (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   Denny Hamlin struggled more than he or crew chief Mike Ford anticipated, Kevin Harvick ran stronger than some might have thought, and Jimmie Johnson – for the first time in years here – never led a lap.
   Hamlin won by half a second, capping a sweep of both Sprint Cup events this season at Martinsville Speedway. Harvick finished third, Johnson fifth.

   Those are the three men still in the title chase. And in the big picture Sunday's Martinsville 500 was a wash, as far as the NASCAR championship. Hamlin, 41 points down at the start of the four-hour race, closed to within six points of Johnson, still the leader six races into the 10 race chase and heading to Talladega this week.
   Harvick, who appeared on his way to victory until Hamlin's late-race charge, was subdued afterwards, despite chopping points off Johnson's lead. Harvick came to the starting line 77 points down, and he leaves just 62 down.
   Hamlin, though he started from the pole, wasn't strong until the final miles.
   "I don't think I've ever closed that well," Hamlin said. "We didn't have a race-winning car until the end. Then my pit crew got me from sixth to third on the last stop, and that was big."
   Harvick got good pit stops, with a crew borrowed from teammate Clint Bowyer, in a move orchestrated by team owner Richard Childress (who missed this race, while hunting in Mongolia).
   "I going to kiss Clint Bowyer, his guys really kept up in the game on pit road today," Harvick said, after picking up 15 points on Johnson in the Sprint Cup chase. "Nobody gave us a chance to even run close to the front, so this was a great day for us.
   "It was unbelievable the stops those guys had today."
    Harvick and teammate Jeff Burton had some angry moments, unexpectedly, during the race, with the two arguing over the radio. But at the end of the day Harvick dismissed the issue: "We were just racing."
   Mark Martin, seemingly dormant much of the season, came alive down the stretch to beat Harvick for third, rallying from a flat tire under green that put him two laps down at one point. "I'm glad we finished second. Another 20 laps and we could have caught him," Martin said after his best finish of the year. "At lap 30 (of 500) I started overheating my brakes and didn't think we could make 500 laps.
   "I've never really enjoyed this place, to be honest. But that last 100 laps was fun. It was a great recovery from two laps down.
   "It was a good summer and hopefully we're turning things around.
   "Those last 50 laps were unbelievable."
   "It was a good day," Johnson said after finishing fifth. "We can't be disappointed."
    NASCAR didn't throw as many cautions as it could have, Johnson said. "I'm not complaining...but it is odd sometimes – we can get a caution at the end for a minor piece of debris, and here today we had guys blowing right-fronts all day and no yellows."
   Johnson said he was still sweating Talladega, next Sunday's stop. "I'm not sweating things until after Talladega," Johnson said. "Anything can happen there."
    Johnson and Kyle Busch ran each other very hard late. "That's fine, I understand, in the corner, but when he started hitting me into the corner, that's when I let him know I didn't think that was cool,"  Johnson said.
   Busch's teammate of course is Hamlin, and Johnson and Busch ran each other very, very hard last week at Charlotte too – with overtones of Hamlin being right there to gain or lose five or 10 points, depending on how Busch and Johnson handled each other. But Johnson insisted he and Kyle didn't go over the line at Charlotte or here Sunday. "If it does go over the line, I'll do my best to let him know," Johnson said.
   Johnson's crew had a problem with the transmission cover on his car during pre-race inspection, but he said he didn't know anything about that. And NASCAR officials didn't seem to be making much of the issue, though there was no clear explanation of what the issue was. Opening up the transmission cover could allow air trapped under the car to escape, creating some downforce; that was the claim made two years ago when Carl Edwards had an apparently similar issue at Las Vegas, with a loose oil-tank cover. That issue cost Edwards 100 points.
    One of the day's surprises was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who led for a while and appeared to have one of the best cars in the field. He wound up seventh.
   Another surprise, the other way, was Greg Biffle, who started up front but had problems throughout the warm, sunny afternoon. He wound up a very disappointed 33rd.
   The best Ford finisher was Carl Edwards, eighth.
               The results of Sunday's Tums 500 at Martinsville Speedway



   Denny Hamlin had a longer, harder day than he anticipated, but at the finish line he was comfortably in front of Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





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