Chad Knaus' crew was spot-on for Jimmie Johnson Sunday at Martinsville Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson didn't have it all that easy, but he did just what was expected here in Sunday's Martinsville 500 -- winning.
And it puts him atop the Sprint Cup standings, albeit by just two points over Brad Keselowski, who made a stunning rebound in the nearly four-hour race after a very poor starting position.
However Denny Hamlin's championship hopes all but vanished when his car developed an electrical problem with just over 100 laps to go, while he was contending for the win.
Hamlin wound up 33rd, and he thus lost a whopping 36 points to Johnson, going to Texas Motor Speedway 49 points down. The most points a driver can earn in a race is 48.
"I am so torn by emotion right now," Johnson said. He dominated the race, leading the most laps. "Ecstatic about this win, ecstatic about the points lead...."
The win clinches the NASCAR manufacturers championship for Chevrolet, over Ford, Toyota and Dodge.
Keselowski, ironically, may have been the day's big winner, by avoiding a completely disastrous weekend, which appeared in the offing after he blew Friday qualifying and had to start 32nd, far, far behind pole winner Johnson.
And Keselowski clearly sensed that: "This team has a tremendous amount of heart. This championship will come to Homestead. You have to be in a position where you're in shot of it.
"You can't count this team out.
"Now, Texas, very similar to Chicago (where Keselowski snookered Johnson at the end to win), and I'm sure it will be another battle with Jimmie there."
Johnson thus had somewhat mixed emotions: he had expected to play Hamlin to a draw here, since this is one of Hamlin's best tracks, and he had expected to gain on Keselowski, particularly after Keselowski qualified so poorly.
"I felt starting back there would be a problem for him; we've been there before," Johnson said. "But good teams step up in the chase."
Denny Hamlin's crew scrambles to fix a late-race electrical problem, which cost Hamlin not only a shot at the win, at one of his best tracks on the stock car tour, but also all but cost him a shot at the championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Instead it was Hamlin who left Martinsville Speedway heartbroken. He'd overcome two pit road speeding penalties, which forced him to the rear of the field for restarts, and fought back to the lead. Then it all ended, with his car stalling out.
"It ended in disappointment," Hamlin said.
"We overcame the pit road penalties... things like that. Just had a great car.
"When these things happen, you've just got to suck it up and move on. There's nothing I can do about it.
"One of these days it's going to be our time. It's just not right now."
The pit road penalties baffled him: "I was doing what the crew chief said," Hamlin said.
"I don't know if that's the right thing as far as NASCAR is concerned. They assured me there was no way the speed on entry (was excessive), with the timing lines. There's a little bit of underestimation on how quick these cars can launch when you do take off.
"I think there was something more to that than what we thought. Nothing we couldn't overcome. We still drove our tails right back up to the front twice, passed Jimmie about three times, four times....
"It sucks it's got to end this way.
"Just got to suck it up and move on."
The issue Hamlin said was with the master electrical switch. "The bolt broke off," he said, "and it shut the car off. Bad luck.....
"It's frustrating. But you can't blame anyone on this.
"To go through a day like this, and have it end like this...on our best race track. It's ended our chase chances.
"We'll try to turn the table and get a lot of wins...but definitely disappointing."
The championship now looks like a two-man race. But then it looked like a two-man race before the green, and Hamlin before the race conceded things weren't going all that well lately:
"I'm okay with it," Hamlin said quietly. "I'd rather the spotlight be on them, -- because the more media you have, the more pressure
you build on yourself.
"We haven't executed well. We don't deserve to be in the conversation right now. Until we get within 10 points, they can leave us out of everything.
"We need to gain six to seven points (in Sunday's race here), and the way to do that is to win. If you don't win, then it's going to be very hard to gain the points we need for the last three races.
"We can't afford really to even finish second and let those guys finish three, five, six. That's just not a big enough chunk. We need to win races, and we know it."
Now it appears to be too late.
Brad Keselowski's crew chief Paul Wolfe, played it masterfully, to keep his team in the title hunt (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)