What time is it? Jimmie Johnson time (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
So did Jimmie Johnson get 'a layup win' here, with rival Denny Hamlin on the sidelines?
The two have been the men to beat at this flat half-mile for years, and Hamlin's sub in Sunday's Martinsville 500, Mark Martin, wasn't quite up to the game.
"It wasn't that great," Martin conceded of his 10th. "We were capable of a little better, but we just kept stubbing our toe Friday. And then we had a setback (in the race) when we were about to get into position.
"I did not fill Denny Hamlin's shoes, I can tell you that. He is the master. But I enjoyed this opportunity; it was fun."
Brian Vickers, who had a wild afternoon here on his own, in one of Michael Waltrip's cars, will sub for Hamlin in Joe Gibbs' car next weekend at Texas.
Vickers, 11th, was all over the place all day, in a very energetic show. "Considering we got in that crash early, that 10-car pileup (lap 181 of the 500), it was a decent day, with everything we had to come through," Vickers said.
"Then at the end we drove all the way back up to the top-five and blew a left-rear."
The last lap Vickers and Kevin Harvick got into it. "I have to talk to Kevin about it," Vickers said. "We hadn't raced that much all day, and then he just wrecked us after the checkered flag. It was pretty blatant -- he just turned right into us.
"Danica and I were racing pretty hard; I got to her and got under her several times, and she ran me down into the marbles, ran me across the curb, blocking pretty bad. So I put the bumper to her a little.
"If you're going to block, you have to expect to get the same in return. I didn't try to wreck her. But if you're going to run me through the marbles, what am I going to do?"
Denny Hamlin didn't have a great Sunday. And neither did his car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For much of the gorgeous afternoon in these Blue Ridge foothills, Matt Kenseth looked like the man to beat. "We were pretty good until about lap 350, and then the track got a little tighter and we got a little off," Kenseth said.
It was a surprising run for Kenseth, who has not been this strong here before. This was his first Martinsville race with Toyota's Joe Gibbs.
"That's the best we've ever run here, and by far the best car I've ever had here," he said.
And much of the afternoon Kenseth's teammate Kyle Busch running top-three too.
Hamlin's absence was obvious.
"I hate that Denny's not here....and I still think Denny will be in the chase," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, says.
....then adding "I think it's pretty obvious that it's not Denny (here), it's the Gibbs cars. If you look at Matt Kenseth, he couldn't get out of his own way when he was in a Roush car here. And he went out there today and was making it happen.
"I think it's probably more car than driver here for that team.
"But Denny does a really good job here. He's fantastic at the short tracks."
Brian Vickers always makes things exciting at Martinsville (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Did a NASCAR call on pit road help take Brad Keselowski out of contention in Sunday's 500?
That's what some thought, after a pit road official ruled Keselowski's right-front tire out of the box on a routine stop late in the event.
However Keselowski didn't have a car strong enough to race in the top-five during most of the afternoon anyway, and he conceded as much.
"Sixth is good, but it's just not great," Keselowski said. "We want to be able to win here, and just haven't been strong enough to do that.
"Jimmie is on another level. His car is so much better than everybody else's that he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good. That's pretty obvious.
"But I feel if we can get our car where he's at, I can beat him."
Johnson made a commanding performance down the stretch: "We had a great weekend, and the stats clearly show that.
"But this was probably the most calm, relaxed, thought-out weekend that we've had. We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed. This track can play some games with you.
"The track changed more than we thought it would, and Chad put some great changes under the car. When Kyle and Matt got to us, we were able to get our car dialed in. I'm not sure where they went; but then Clint and Jeff showed up and I still had my hands full."
Several drivers tried to use her up, but Danica Patrick did more than just hold her own (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Knaus pointed to the tires here, a new setup, as making a difference in the quality of racing.
This track surface is well worn, and teams like that, because it allows Goodyear to bring tires that wear and fall off in speed.
But most of the newly repaved tracks have very smooth, non-abrasive asphalt, which creates no-wear/high-temperature issues, which limits what Goodyear can do. Goodyear in fact is studying that very issue, with hopes of finding a method -- or substance -- that will 'age' a track's asphalt and make it more abrasive. How far along that project is is not clear.
"Goodyear did a really good job with the tire here," Knaus said. "Obviously it's difficult for them to figure out what it is that they want to bring to the track, because when you test you don't necessarily get the same conditions you have in the race.
"This tire was good. It forced us to come in and take four tires; it was fun to watch somebody take tires and maneuver up through the field and pass. That was a big contributor to a great show.
"I think that Goodyear needs a little bit more time with this car so they can get us the tires that we need.
"They did a great job with this tire, and I think the more that they can do that -- the more experience they get -- is only going to help the racing as a whole, because as the tire falloff increases I think the racing gets better. We saw that today, and I think we'll see that next weekend.
"Texas is pretty abrasive, and difficult on the tires, so I think you'll see some good racing there, just like we did at Fontana.
"Tracks where the tire falloff is lower, the racing is not as good, because the line selection is minimized."
Jimmie Johnson leading the conga line (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson said, while he was worried about the final restart with four miles to go, "I felt if I could get two or three corners and maintain the lead on Clint that I could stretch it back out.
"The most concern I had was wondering who was going to pit and not pit.
"Then when everybody stayed out, I didn't have to worry about any tires coming, and I felt a lot better about things."
The outside lane never came in, and the drivers on the outside on restarts was at a distinct disadvantage. That's one reason winning the pole here gave Johnson such an edge.
"There are four or five cars we race with here that I don't want to see get the pole, because it could be that little advantage," Johnson said.
"We all could see how bad it was to start in the outside lane. And if you can come off pit road first, and not second, it makes all the difference in the world."
Next up, Texas Motor Speedway, Saturday night.
Johnson's take, looking ahead? "We ran really good at Vegas, but California didn't go as well as we wanted. But California is a much different track than Texas.
"I would say Texas and Vegas are closer.
"We're still learning this car on the big tracks."
After all the hype, nothing much happened to, or for, Joey Logano Sunday (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)