- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Twenty-four hours before Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway, Clint Bowyer looked over the numbers from the final practice and figured he'd be battling Jeff Gordon for the win.
Gordon figured at the time no one would touch Bowyer.
Neither considered Jimmie Johnson would be the top threat, which seems a bit odd considering the five-time champion was starting from the pole and had won here seven times previously.
In fact, Johnson's win was far less of a surprise than Danica Patrick finishing 12th, which, by the way, nobody would have figured considering this half-mile track has made many of today's and yesterday's top stars look bad on their first attempt.
Just ask Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick.
"I'm not surprised he won the race,'' he said of Johnson. "I'm surprised [Patrick] finished [12th].''
So how did Johnson fool Bowyer and Gordon?
"A faster car,'' Bowyer deadpanned of Johnson's 62nd career win. "And he's really -- turns out he's pretty good here. Number 1 pit stall, fast car, good driver. Yep, Did he lead every lap?''
Well, no. But he led 346 of 500.
"Pretty good,'' Bowyer said.
That's an understatement. Johnson is, by all counts, the modern-day master of this paper clip-shaped track. He now has eight of the famed grandfather clock trophies, more than anyone but Hall of Famers Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11). His average finish is an amazing 5.3 in 23 attempts, the best in track history for anybody who has more than five starts.
His organization, Hendrick Motorsports, is pretty good here, too, with 20 victories. That's a record.
So the biggest surprise on this day had to be Patrick, who came from two laps down to post a higher finish than her boss, Tony Stewart (20th), her former boss, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (26th), Matt Kenseth (21st), Kurt Busch (37th) and Kyle Busch (39th) in their first trip to the Virginia foothills.
Oh, and Johnson. He was 35th in his first race here in 2002.
"I got behind Danica [once] and couldn't pass her,'' Bowyer said.
He seemed serious, too, but you never know with Bowyer.
The only other surprise was the lack of drama, at least compared to the past two Cup weekends in which there were feuds on the track, pushing and shoving between drivers and crew chiefs after the checkered flag and even a trip to the hospital for Denny Hamlin.
Oh, there were mini-dramas. Brian Vickers shoved Patrick's car up the track on the final lap because she blocked him while battling for 11th, and Kevin Harvick flat out dumped Vickers after crossing the start-finish line for reasons unbeknownst to Vickers.
Joey Logano, who was on the other end of the feuds and postrace squabbles with Hamlin and Stewart at Bristol and California, got a little extra-hard racing from Kurt Busch after forcing Busch up the track earlier.
But for the most part, this was calm for Martinsville.
A big reason was Johnson, who also regained the points lead from Earnhardt, who struggled to a 24th-place finish.
In a nutshell, it was one of the calmest and relaxed weekends the No. 48 team has had -- ever. That's saying a lot, particularly when the team seemed a bit off with practice speeds on Saturday, which led to Bowyer and Gordon assuming it would carry over.
Maybe it would have been different had Hamlin been in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing car instead of on the pit box recovering from the fracture in his lower back, suffered two weeks ago in a last-lap wreck with Logano at Fontana. Hamlin has won four times and led more than 1,100 laps here.
As he told reporters after the race: "Jimmie got a layup today. He's going to have to work for it in the fall [when the series returns here].''
But it's doubtful even Hamlin would have had anything for Johnson on this picture-perfect day. Whatever the 48 was missing on Saturday was found on Sunday.
"Saturday is just a different day,'' Johnson said. "We have very little laps. The truck race changes [the track], and then our race is so long the track continues to evolve and change.''
And as we've seen repeatedly over the year, few teams adjust to change better than Johnson's.
Not that this was a complete slam dunk. Kenseth looked like a serious threat early, taking the lead on Lap 222 with the help of a nudge on the rear bumper of Johnson's car.
Kenseth, by the way, immediately had his spotter tell Johnson's spotter he was sorry, that he was a bit excited to be in the position of taking the lead. In 26 previous trips to Martinsville for Roush Fenway Racing, he led a combined 73 laps. He led 96 on Sunday before fading to 14th for JGR.
Jimmie got a layup today. He's going to have to work for it in the fall [race at Martinsville].
”-- Denny Hamlin
"I've never taken the lead under green at Martinsville before,'' Kenseth radioed his spotter to relay in the message.
And as Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said wryly, "I think it's pretty obvious it's not Denny, 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 today and was making it happen.''
The sport needed some.
But in the end, the current King of Martinsville got the last laugh.
About the only thing that could have messed this up was a repeat of last year, when Bowyer dive-bombed Johnson and Gordon racing for the lead on a green-white-checkered finish.
Johnson and Gordon wrecked, depriving Hendrick of his 200th win at his favorite track.
But Johnson and Gordon were somewhat sitting ducks on that day because cars behind them had fresh tires. When the top five stayed out Sunday following a late red-flag stoppage, Johnson pretty much knew he had it won.
"I feel like we've got it covered,'' Johnson radioed Knaus.
So today's lesson for Bowyer, Gordon and everybody else was simple: Never overlook Johnson at Martinsville.
All the drama and promise of paybacks took a backseat Sunday to a familiar story: Five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson dominated the field at Martinsville Speedway.