Number Eight at Martinsville for Jimmie Johnson...right by the book (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
After all the hoopla and pre-race hype, the Joey Logano-Tony Stewart race day storyline was a no-show, as were those two drivers.
Mark Martin didn't do much either with his potentially winning ride as sub for injured Denny Hamlin, despite radio-coaching by Hamlin.
And it was, yet again, Jimmie Johnson cruising to victory at Martinsville Speedway, a track he has dominated for so many years.
Sunday's victory was Johnson's eighth here.
"It was just a long day, and you have to dig in and get a rhythm," Johnson, now back atop the Sprint Cup tour standings heading this week to Texas, said. "Fortunately the fastest car won the race.
"Fortunately we didn’t have any craziness with two tires or four tires at the end."
But he had the car last spring too, only to get pushed out of the way on the final restart by Clint Bowyer. And on the final restart with eight laps to go, Johnson and Bowyer were on the front row, with Jeff Gordon right behind....with memories of the Gordon-Bowyer run-ins of late still not forgotten.
Johnson didn't mess around though, jumping to a quick lead and winning comfortably over Bowyer and Gordon.
However the day wasn't all Jimmie Johnson, though he led 346 of the 500 laps. Matt Kenseth in fact dominated much of the four-hour race.
"For a long time I thought Matt Kenseth would win this race, and he hates this track, so I've got to give him some grief over that," Johnson said with a grin.
A stunner: Danica Patrick, solid workmanship in finishing 12th in her Martinsville debut, and outrunning her famous teammates (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The day's weather was perfect, blue skies and 70-plus temps. And the crowd was nearly a full house....watching a race sparked by 12 cautions for assorted bumps and spins, some intentional, some not.
Kurt Busch's fiery crash with less than 10 miles to go brought out a red flag to clear debris. He said his brakes failed. That was the final nail for him in a rough day.
Johnson won from the pole, and he used the best pit here to excellent advantage. This is one of the tightest pit roads on the tour.
"You give Jimmie that number one pit stall here at Martinsville, and it's darned near impossible to beat him," third-place finisher Gordon said.
One of the stories of the afternoon was, surprisingly, Danica Patrick. She started dead last, after a pre-race engine change, and she battled her way to an impressive 12th in her debut at this wickedly difficult track.
Patrick not only survived a typically rough day here but she even outran her teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman. Stewart is a three-time winner here, and Newman won this race a year ago. She lost two laps and made both of them up, rather impressive in itself.
"It was a fun little track," she said. "Never having been at Martinsville before I didn't know what to expect...and it sure did get crazy," she said.
"I made a lot of passes. And I was proud of getting back those two laps lost. Honestly I felt pretty comfortable from the git-go. I've had a lot worse weekends, like Fontana."
A nice crowd, a great afternoon at Martinsville Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
She didn't have a clean afternoon, not that a clean day should be expected here by anyone.
The last lap she wound up racing three-wide with Brian Vickers and Kevin Harvick for 11th, "and we got into a little dust-up," she said.
Harvick apparently got a little miffed at getting squeezed and bumped Vickers, who spun and tagged Patrick.
"I guarded down into three, and then Harvick had us three-wide, and Brian suddenly wound up spinning around really hard," Patrick said.
"The sport is exciting... the late red (flag) made it chaotic... and it was cool to see the fans up in the stands with their shirts off. Means spring is coming. And it was just snowing up here Thursday."
Patrick drew praise from her fellow drivers, who were perhaps caught unexpected by her feistiness and savvy.
"I got a lot of advice on keeping cool," she said. "You'll have good days and bad days, and after the last few weeks it's nice to have a good one for a change."
Not an easy afternoon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kurt Busch's fiery finish? “Something let go in the brakes. The brakes got real spongy and then the pedal went straight to the floor. I had to turn the car to the right otherwise I was going to hit harder than what we did. Fuel pump issue and then a brake issue, bummer day.
"Couldn’t get the window net down as quick as I needed to, so we will look at exactly what that was.
"It’s one of those things where we were running 38th 20 laps down what more can go wrong? But I will find it out there for sure."