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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The Martinsville Speedway is a living, breathing stock-racing history museum, the lone remaining racetrack from NASCAR's inaugural 1949 Sprint Cup Series (then Strictly Stock) schedule.
On Sunday morning, the grand old half-mile bullring paid tribute to that history. Junior Johnson served as grand marshal. The family of local hero Wendell Scott showed up to celebrate with Saturday's Camping World Truck Series winner Darrell Wallace Jr., the first African-American driver to win a major NASCAR stock car race since Scott 50 years ago. Richard Petty Motorsports brought The King's brother, Maurice, to the track and put his old number -- 41 instead of 43 -- on the side of the family ride.
|Jeff Gordon closed the gap on Chase front-runners Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth with his first victory of the season Sunday at Martinsville.|
In the garage it seemed as though you couldn't have thrown a sledgehammer (which actually happened during Saturday's Trucks race) without hitting a NASCAR Hall of Famer. On Sunday afternoon, those greats witnessed one of their own, and one of the greatest in Martinsville Speedway history, take the checkered flag. Only the legend being sprayed with champagne wasn't the racer they'd all expected to see in Victory Lane.
"I asked myself, 'What would Jimmie Johnson do?' " Jeff Gordon said, laughing over the cheers of his Hendrick Motorsports team when thinking back on his mindset as he approached the pass with 20 laps remaining that proved to be the win-clinching move. "Or better yet, what would Richard Petty do?"
A week of prerace chatter had all but handed then-points leader Jimmie Johnson his ninth grandfather clock, Martinsville's coveted traditional trophy. But it was Gordon, Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate and team co-owner, who moved into a tie with his one-time protege for third on the all-time Martinsville wins list. Their eight career victories at the short track trail only the Hall of Fame duo of Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11).
"It seems like even when we've had a great car, we still weren't able to win," Gordon said of 32-race winless streak that was finally snapped. "Over time, when you don't win, it starts to accumulate and it really wears on you and the team. People stop looking at you as a threat to win. They stop talking about you as a threat to win. Winning is always the best feeling. Winning when you've been written off is pretty good, too."
Even more unexpected than Gordon's first Martinsville win since '05 was who he had to get around to earn it. Matt Kenseth once joked that the worst thing about racing on the flat half-mile, paper clip-shaped track was making the drive up from his home in North Carolina and the best thing was making the drive back once the race was over. One look at his career statistics -- zero wins and eight top-10 finishes in 27 starts -- and those feelings seemed well-justified. But on Sunday he led a race-high four times for 202 laps before surrendering the day to Gordon, hanging on to match a career-best second-place finish from way back in 2002.
"I just got beat by experience," Kenseth admitted of his futile efforts to hold off Gordon. "But for how Martinsville's been for me, I'm real happy. The only person who is happier is Jeff."
Though he lost three points in ceding the win, Kenseth earned one bonus point each for leading a lap and leading the most laps. He also out-dueled Clint Bowyer to barely flash beneath the waving checkered flag in second, salvaging another precious point. Just two weeks ago he led Johnson by four points. Last week he trailed by four. But his performance, paired with a fifth-place finish from Johnson, means that with just three races remaining they are tied atop the standings, the tiebreaker going to Kenseth via his seven wins versus Johnson's five.
"I felt like today was an opportunity to get our point lead back. I honestly did," Kenseth said, admitting to doing a little sandbagging about his own chances while everyone gushed over Johnson's ridiculous Martinsville stats. "I know Jimmie is always the man here and he's still the man here, along with Jeff and Denny [Hamlin, who started on the pole and finished seventh]. But I woke up this morning feeling like ... we had a chance to win a clock."
"It's going to be a dogfight to the end. The way that I would want to go racing for a championship," Johnson said, admittedly frustrated with repeatedly having to restart in the outside lane following nearly all of the race's grueling 17 caution periods. "It's been a great battle with the 20 car [Kenseth], and the 24 [Gordon] is really showing he wants to be a part of this deal as well."
Just as no one gave Kenseth a chance at Martinsville, few will give Gordon a chance at his long-elusive fifth Cup series title. Even after a victory that launched him two positions into third in the Sprint Cup standings, he still trails Kenseth and Johnson by 27 points, a scant one point ahead of Kevin Harvick, who finished sixth.
However, like Kenseth, Gordon will hit the pillow this week believing what others will not.
"We can't get the cart in front of the horse, but we need to take advantage of this momentum," Gordon said, weighing his Cup chances against his excitement over the victory and already pointing to a Tuesday test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, host of the 2013 season finale in three weeks. "But I can't wait to get to Texas and try to make a run at this championship."
It's a run that started from outside the original Chase field. It was Gordon who was added as an unprecedented 13th driver after the bizarre cheating scandal at Richmond the night of Sept. 7.
"Right now it's a two-man Chase. We need to make it a three-man Chase," Gordon said before departing the track to celebrate with his two children at home. "We have to go and from here on out, do something extraordinary. To pull that off would definitely be extraordinary."
More than that, it would be history, the kind of history that the old-timers love to talk about on fall race mornings in the Martinsville Speedway garage.