Jeff Gordon passed Matt Kenseth in lap traffic with 21 laps to go in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Sunday and drove on to the win to claim his first victory of the season and clinch the 2013 manufacturers’ championship for Chevrolet.
“There’s nothing better than getting a clock at Martinsville,” Gordon said of the grandfather clock awarded as a trophy to race winners at the track. “It’s hard to top what it feels like to win.”
The win was Gordon’s eighth at Martinsville, tying him with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for most at the track among active drivers. It was also the 21st win at the Virginia short track for Hendrick Motorsports.
Kenseth finished second and Clint Bowyer was third.
“I have nothing to complain about,” Kenseth said of his runner-up finish. “You’re always disappointed when your running up front late (and don’t win).”
Kenseth and Johnson combined to dominate the top spot of the running order with Kenseth running up front for 200 laps in the 500-lap race, while Johnson led 123. Johnson wound up finishing fifth. Johnson had a four-point lead over Kenseth in the championship standings heading into Martinsville. The two frontrunners left Sunday’s race tied atop the standings.
“It’s going to be a dog fight to the end,” Johnson said.
Also finishing in the top-five was Brad Keselowski in fourth.
Kenseth and Johnson were mainstays up front in the first 200 laps of the race before pit strategies began to vary throughout the race field with the large number of cautions that plagued the remainder of the event. The yellow flag waved 17 times, with 12 of those cautions coming after lap 200.
With Kenseth leading and Johnson second on a restart following a lap 218 caution, Johnson lost several spots on the restart and then gave up additional spots to head down pit road during a caution on lap 229.
Kenseth continued on up front, but after he lost the lead to Bowyer a few laps later, he fell back through the field, eventually dropping outside the top-10.
With Johnson and Kenseth nowhere to be found up front, Bowyer and Gordon spent time in front of the pack. Gordon took the lead and Johnson rejoined him up front, restarting second following a caution that came out on lap 285.
Kenseth made multiple pit stops that kept him from gaining track position but kept him on newer tires for later on in the race. Johnson, once again, joined Kenseth back in the field after losing spots on another restart that following a lap-309 caution.
Gordon continued on up front, joined by the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin, among others. In the final 140 laps, though, Kenseth worked his way back up to second in the running order and Johnson re-entered the top-10. Gordon and Busch, meanwhile, were mired back in the field after giving up their positions up front to pit.
“I though we had given it away a couple of times, there,” Gordon said.
Kenseth got back to the front, retaking the lead from Hamlin on a restart with about 130 laps to go. On fresher tires, Gordon worked his way back up to second with 80 laps remaining. Johnson was third at that point.
Kenseth and Gordon then battled side-by-side in lap traffic for several laps following the final restart before Gordon was able to take the top spot for good with 21 laps remaining.
“Every time I saw him (Kenseth) slip a wheel, I just did whatever I could do to conserve the tires,” Gordon said. “The tires really went away on us at the end.”
Kenseth attributed losing the late lead to Gordon, at least in part, to not having much experience running up front at Martinsville.
Finishing sixth through 10th Kevin Harvick, Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and Jamie McMurray.
– Photo courtesy of Getty Images for NASCAR