Martinsville Speedway marked the turning point of Tony Stewart’s Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, as his third win of the 10-race playoff put him back within striking distance of leader Carl Edwards. This year, the same track became a lightning rod for Jimmie Johnson, a struggle for Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin’s worst nightmare.
Johnson made up for losing the spring Martinsville race to an accident by scoring his fourth win of the season in Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500. The victory enabled him to pass Keselowski in the standings by two points, though Keselowski’s decision not to pit late in the race enabled him to finish sixth and minimize the points damage. Keselowski had started 32nd, but managed to lead eight laps due to the decision and hung on with a set of worn tires.
But for Hamlin, Martinsville represented the end of his championship hopes after electrical failure cost him 34 laps. After entering the event third in points and 20 back of leader Keselowski, Hamlin left in fifth, 49 points out and likely no longer a factor in the season’s final three races.
Hamlin’s disappointment was especially poignant given the fact that he had won the Camping World Truck Series race at the speedway the day prior. After starting in the back due to missing the drivers’ meeting, Hamlin lined up next to leader Matt Crafton on the restart and took the lead after a single lap, leading only the final six laps to take the Kroger 200 for the second year in a row.
Behind Hamlin, ex-Formula 1 driver Nelson Piquet Jr. utilized his truck’s front bumper to climb to a strong second place at the checkered flag. His aggressive driving frustrated Brian Scott, who attempted to spin Piquet on pit road after the race, but the strong battle excited and entertained both fans and drivers.
Meanwhile, incoming points leader Ty Dillon saw his championship hopes take a hit when a flat tire cost him six laps and knocked him down to a 28th place finish. James Buescher, who had entered the race a single point down to Dillon in the standings, finished sixth to take a 21-point lead into next week’s race at Phoenix.
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