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So Denny Hamlin beats Jimmie Johnson to win the Martinsville 500....but Johnson stretches his championship lead over Gordon and Martin

  Denny Hamlin and his crew celebrate a rockin' win at Martinsville...and concedes it was something of a bittersweet win, because he could -- with better luck -- have three chase wins now and be in the thick of the championship hunt with Jimmie Johnson...instead of 352 points down and out of it. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Jimmie Johnson didn't win, for a change. He only finished second.
   To Denny Hamlin, who avenged his loss to Johnson here in the spring, but who is already long out of the NASCAR championship chase.
   So Johnson, once again, padded his Sprint Cup points lead in his bid for an unprecedented fourth NASCAR Cup title.
   With four races and four weeks left this season Johnson heads to wild-card Talladega with a 118-point lead over second place Mark Martin, and a 150-point lead over third place Jeff Gordon. Martin led just one lap and finished eighth; Gordon led 36 laps and finished fifth.
    This championship? Johnson says he's not that interested in talking about it much, with four races still to go:  "Hell, I'm tired of talking about the 'what ifs.'"
    And indeed there really isn't much to talk about any more. Gordon before this 3-1/2 hour race even started said "This championship is Jimmie's to lose."
   And Johnson certainly isn't faltering. No sir, not one bit.
   Johnson led 164 laps and battled Hamlin hard all afternoon at Martinsville Speedway. And in the final moments Johnson did have one shot at squeezing inside of Hamlin for the lead, but – remembering the bit of controversy he created with just such a move in the spring here, and Hamlin's sharp reaction then – Johnson this time gave ground.
    With Johnson's methodical march toward another championship, and with no one able even to run with him much less outrun him, the big story in the next few days will likely be the race's TV ratings. After all this was Race Six of the made-for-TV 10-race championship chase.
    And so far this fall NASCAR's TV ratings have been off significantly.
   Whether that's because of Johnson's latest hot streak – he's NASCAR's Mr. October – or his cool, low-keyed personality, or the general lack of hard-nosed racing at the tour's bigger tracks, or maybe even America's growing boredom with this once trendy sport, well that's all fodder for the water cooler Monday.
   But the crowd was off at Martinsville Speedway. This place holds about 65,000, and there were maybe 10,000 empty seats.
   Certainly if action were the criteria for good ratings, this event would have good numbers, and give Juan Pablo Montoya credit for that. He was an animal out there. Gordon and Montoya got into it several times, and they exchanged a few words. Montoya later shrugged it off, saying that he just wanted some respect out there and Gordon kept crowding him up in the corners, so he finally returned the favor.
   And if there is to be any drama in the final weeks of the championship run, maybe it will be Montoya and Gordon. Montoya says he's had trouble racing with Gordon at other tracks too.
   On Gordon's side, this is one of his best tracks, and he not only didn't gain ground on his teammate in their title battle but he lost more ground. Johnson has now beaten Gordon in five of the six chase races (Gordon finished second at Kansas; Johnson, ninth).
   So Gordon, at 150 points down, faces an almost insurmountable hurdle if he's to get back into title contention.
   The line, over the years, has been that title challengers need to be within 30 points or so of the leader going into the season's final race.


  Denny Hamlin, in the victory lane crowd (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  The results from the Martinsville 500, Race Six of the 10-race championship



Martinsville, another boring,

Martinsville, another boring, poorly attended CHASE race. Wake-up NASCAR, the light at the end of the tunnel is reality coming straight for you. Scrap the COT, do whatever it takes to get GM on board with the Camaro and then run Camaro's, Mustang's, Challenger's, and whatever Toyota has in Sprint Cup. Go back to "run what you brung" racing. Open testing again and bury the Chase. Cut all the races except for maybe Charlotte (600) and Daytona (500) to 300 miles. Martinsville, you're living on borrowed time.

Keep up the great column Mike, you're the best and you call it like you see it!!!

Mike Hogan, Danville, VA

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