By JEFF WOLFE
The fastest car doesn’t always win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. But rarely is the outcome decided by the slowest car on the track.
But that was case Sunday at Martinsville as Ryan Newman eventually brought home the victory and the grandfather clock trophy on the famed .526-mile paper clip oval in front of an estimated crowd of 63,000 fans. He was fortunate and he knew it. That’s because race leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were unfortunate. Everyone knew that, too.
Johnson and Gordon appeared to be ready to battle for the race victory as they were side-by-side with four laps to go. They had combined to lead 440 laps of the race, including 328 by Gordon, with one of them set to deliver Hendrick Motorsports its 200th career Sprint Cup victory.
But in those final laps David Reutimann was trying to nurse home his No. 10 Chevrolet to keep the vehicle in the top-35 in owner’s points and therefore give the car a guaranteed starting spot in the April 14 race at Texas. Instead it turned into one big mess for Reutimann and eventually Gordon, Johnson and Clint Bowyer.
Reutimann felt a suspension part break in those final laps and while staying on the track at a snail-like pace, didn’t come into the pits. Then just after NASCAR gave him a black flag and ordered him into the pits, his engine and car stopped on the backstretch.
“I just hate that I was involved in anything that changed the complexion of the race,” Reutimann said. “I was just trying to limp around there to try and stay in 35th. would not have stopped on the freaking race track. I would have limped around there and come to pit road. The motor had been breaking up the last couple of laps. NASCAR gave me a black flag and I was going to come into the pits and the thing just quit going down the backstretch. I can’t get out and push the thing. Its just that simple. I know it sucks and I hate it for everybody affected.”
Nobody was hating more than Gordon or Johnson. The ensuing yellow flag put the race into NASCAR’s version of overtime, the green-white checkered, which is two extra laps. While Gordon, the leader, and Johnson, in second, did not pit, the rest of the cars on the lead lap did. So, when the restart happened, that left Gordon and Johnson spinning their well-worn tires a bit with the field immediately behind them with fresh tires. The result caused Bowyer, after a nice bump from Newman, to dive down into the inside of Gordon and Johnson, who was on the outside. Johnson also got a shove from Brad Keselowski. He went low into Gordon and Bowyer, and they all three spun. Newman snuck through on the low side to take the lead.
“It was just circumstances with the 10 doing whatever he did there,” Newman said. “We had a lot of long green flag runs today. I think my left foot was ready to retire. It was an awesome day for us. We just got the circumstances there at the end to put us back in position.”
Newman and Johnson had some bad circumstances early in the race when they were each caught speeding on pit road on lap 102 of the 500-lap race. Newman was even a lap down at one point, but he became the first Sprint Cup driver to win after a pit road speeding penalty since Carl Edwards at Michigan in June of 2007.
It looked like Johnson might be the guy to do that in the final 100 laps of the race. He worked his way back to the front and took the lead from Denny Hamlin with 107 laps to go. Gordon, however, gradually closed the gap to set up what looked to be another classic finish at Martinsville. But that ended when Bowyer made it a three-wide race on the first green-white-checkered attempt.
“I didn’t get the best restart,” Gordon said. “(Bowyer) came through with such speed. I had nowhere to go and Jmmie had nowhere to go.
“We didn’t want to see that last caution. We had such a great battle with the 48 (Johnson). I felt like I had the position to get the lead. My car was better on entry (to the turns) his was better on exit.”
Bowyer felt he didn’t have much choice on where to go on the restart.
“It was just a bad situation for everybody,” he said. “The Hendrick cars were the class of the field for the whole race. I don’t know what the 10 car was doing. He drove around there for ten laps with no brakes and finally just stopped. That was ridiculous. I hate it for those guys and hate for our guys. We ended up tenth, but we should’ve been easily a fourth-place finish. The 39 hit us in rear and if I didn’t go down there he would have.”
Johnson hung on to finish 12th, while Gordon finished a lap down in 14th.
“The 15 (Bowyer) threw a dive bomb in there and I’m sure once he was in there, he wished he was not,” Johnson said. “That inside is awfully inviting to dive bomb people here. It turned me around and the 24 (Gordon) around. It is what it is. Its short-track racing.”
Newman held off A.J. Allmendiger on the final restart to earn the win. The unusual ending also helped give Allmendinger a career-best second-place finish.
“We had a really good car on the long run,” said Allmendinger, who was feeling ill before the race and had to make a visit to the Infield Care Center. “On restarts, we didn’t have great runs. I would have loved to have won the race. These guys are used to running up front.”
The rest of the top-10 included Dale Earnhardt, Jr. third, Matt Kenseth fourth, Martin Truex, Jr. fifth, Hamlin sixth, Tony Stewart seventh, Aric Almirola eighth, Brad Keselowski ninth and Bowyer.
There were 19 lead changes among 10 drivers and seven cautions for 56 laps. It was the fifth green-white-checkered finish in Martinsville’s history. Whether it was necessary will remain a question this week, even for Earnhardt, Jr., who moved to within five points of Greg Biffle for the Sprint Cup points lead even as he saw his winless streak reach 135 races.
“I just don’t know what the 10 was thinking,” he said. “Driving around there at 15 mph with a broken sway bar or whatever for two or three laps. He just needed to get on pit road and get out of the race. It shouldn’t end like that.”
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series takes their traditional weekend off for Easter. However, they will return on April 14 for the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. A new wrinkle for 2012 will see the race moved to Saturday night from Sunday afternoon, which is sure to create excitement.
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