The anticipation going into Martinsville was that it would be a battle of the titans between Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, two guys that had that place figured out, along with Jeff Gordon and a few other big names in the sport.
But quite honestly, the battle was decided on Friday.
The thing about Martinsville that we sometimes overlook or doesn't get emphasized enough is the importance of that No. 1 pit stall that goes to the pole winner. It means so, so much at Martinsville. The pit road there is treacherous -- it's narrow, you are pitting in the turns, there's just not a lot of good pit selections there. So when you win the pole and get that No. 1 pit stall, half of your battle is already won. And you saw that on Sunday -- every time Johnson, who won the pole, pitted, he would either leave in the lead or pick up a spot or two while in the pits.
If you look at the winning move of the race, Johnson and his No. 48 team choosing to take two tires during the final pit stop was possible because of his pit stall. As a result, he lined up on the preferred line on the inside, which gave him a big advantage.
You just can't give a driver or team the caliber of Johnson and his No. 48 bunch any advantage at Martinsville -- they are going to wear you out if you do. And that's what happened Sunday as that group won maximum points as they led the most laps and won the race to take over the championship lead.
That's what they needed and that's what they got.
Now, was it easy? No. I was actually a little concerned for Jimmie watching his car in practice on Friday and Saturday. The car didn't look that good to me -- the nose was really high up in the air coming off the corner, which is alright because you want a car that rocks back there and gets a lot of rear bite -- but you can go overboard and I thought as I watched that car that the No. 48 team did go a bit overboard with that setup. But who am I to say? Crew chief Chad Knaus has probably forgotten more about Martinsville than I ever knew. But during the practices there were other cars that looked better than Jimmie's.
But that team had so much going for it starting from the pole on Sunday. It got out to an early lead -- anytime you are out front at Martinsville, you can save your equipment and drive your own line -- which becomes a huge advantage.
There were other guys, like Gordon, who looked to have a better car that Jimmie. But again the pits and track position weren't as good for him and he had to start on the outside on some restarts and couldn't go anywhere. I think Hamlin also had a better car, but the ignition switch problem they had late in the race after a few speeding penalties took him and his team out of contention.
So at the end of the race, it came down to Brad Keselowski doing a great job to get as many points as possible and not fall further behind in the championship fight. And I've got to tip my hat to Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, they started 32nd but knew they needed a decent day at Martinsville so they worked hard throughout the race and made a bold move in the end to not pit when everybody else did and it resulted into a sixth-place finish.
Johnson maximized his opportunity, and Keselowski was able to minimize his losses Sunday. Both these things could prove to be big in the final three races this season.
People always ask me what makes a good driver at Martinsville? It's in the feet.
I know you have to have good, quick hand-eye coordination -- that's true everywhere. But at Martinsville, it's how you use the brakes and gas that determines your success. The finesse -- how you ease into the throttle and how you lay into the brakes -- is what makes you better than the average bear at that short track. The driver who can push down on that gas pedal like it's got an egg under it so you don't bust the rear tires loose, and can get on the brakes without locking the left front tire and slide up into the corner is the one that will find success. Being smooth at Martinsville means you can't be jacking around on the steering wheel.
What really makes a car go fast around Martinsville is the driver who can put the brakes on and know exactly when to get off it so the car will turn and can ease back into the throttle off the corner without buzzing the rear tires.
I've always told Jeff Hammond "It's not how smart you are, it's how good your feet are." You've got to have happy feet to run well at Martinsville.
Sometimes you hear drivers talk about road course racers running well at Martinsville. I think a lot of that has to do with those happy feet.
Did you realize that Sunday marked Johnson's 59th Sprint Cup Series win? That was his seventh win at Martinsville, his fourth of the year and 21st win in Chase for the Sprint Cup races (Twice the number of races anybody else has won in the Chase).
Every time I think about the Chase and who could be the champion, I think about those last 10 racetracks and how they are all in Johnson's wheelhouse. They are all his favorite tracks and where he runs well at and wins on.
So this thing is playing out about as expected -- it's a two-man race. Sure, Clint Bowyer did a great job by hanging in there and leading a lot of laps to get to third in the standings, 26 points behind. It's that point margin that will be a mountain to climb. So with three races remaining, I think it's down to just two guys.
But it comes back to Johnson and his performance on these final 10 racetracks.
A couple of other guys had good runs this weekend.
I was very impressed with Aric Almirola -- a nice run for him and crew chief Todd Parrott. The recent teaming of the two seems to be paying off. And speaking of change, the other part of that equation now has Mike Ford leaving Richard Petty Motorsports and Drew Blickensderfer in as crew chief for Marcos Ambrose.
Good run for Bobby Labonte. He got his best finish of the year (ninth) on Sunday.
Overall it was an interesting race. A lot of ebbing and flowing, but when it was all set and done, Johnson, Mr. Martinsville, turned the joint into Johnsonville.
Oh by the way:
I'm thinking of Rick Hendrick this week. It's been eight years since the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash near Martinsville that led to the loss of a lot of people that meant a lot to that organization. Emotionally I was glad to see Jimmie win and for Rick to be there -- I know it meant a lot to him.
Oh by the way II:
We had our awesome golf tournament in Franklin, Tenn., this past week. It was an unbelievable turnout and we raised more than $400,000 for Feed the Children and Motor Racing Outreach.
We had unbelievable attendance -- more than 350 people at our dinner including Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie George and other celebrities. It was a great evening and a lot of money was raised for two great charities.
That's it for this week. It's time to get up on that pony and ride. It's time to man up because it's big boy racing when we get to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend.
Fast, fast, fast, fast.