Jimmie Johnson wins at Martinsville, takes NASCAR Sprint Cup lead

Jimmie Johnson douses media members after winning the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville and taking the points lead.

Associated Press

Jimmie Johnson douses media members after winning the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville and taking the points lead.

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson's expectations are high at Martinsville Speedway. His results keep showing why.

The five-time series champion earned his seventh victory on NASCAR's trickiest oval Sunday, and the triumph helped him erase a seven-point deficit and pass Brad Keselowski as the Sprint Cup points leader with three events remaining.

But before handing Johnson the title, he cautioned, there's plenty of racing yet to do.

"I'm ecstatic about the win today and ecstatic about the points lead, but this is no cakewalk," Johnson said after the 59th victory, fourth of 2012. "These guys are bringing their best each and every week. … The next two races will tell the tale. Anything can happen. We could both (wreck) next week and (third-place) Clint Bowyer is your champion."

With his win in the Tums Fast Relief 500, Johnson moved two points ahead of Keselowski, who finished sixth for his best showing at the 0.526-mile oval.

"I know this championship's going to come down to (the finale at) Homestead," Keselow­ski said. "You've just got to be in position to where you've got a shot at it, and we're doing the things it's going to take."

Both drivers needed only to look at Denny Hamlin to be reminded that things can go south fast. An electrical problem that sent him to a 33rd-place finish and out of contention.

"When these things happen, you've just got to suck it up and move on," Hamlin said. "There's nothing I can do about it. One of these days it's going to be our time. It's just not right now."

Keselowski's day was nowhere near as adventurous as Hamlin's, but it was effective.

He started 32nd, methodically worked his way forward and was never really a factor until he took a late gamble to grab the lead — and a crucial bonus point. He led briefly when a caution flag flew as he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. opted to stay out, then watched as the other 16 lead-lap cars all headed for pit road for fresh tires.

"I think we've learned a lesson here in the past not pitting late, and that certainly came into play," Johnson said.

When the green flag flew with 19 laps to go, Keselowski was a sitting duck whose best bet was to hang on for as long as he could and avoid any Martinsville mayhem that cropped up in a furious dash to the finish.

He said the decision to stay out was his own, and he was shocked no one else followed.

"It's at the end of the race and half the field had just pitted 20 or 30 laps ago," Keselowski said. "If I was running 15th, I would have stayed out. … None of those guys did and I don't know why. Well Dale did. He had some sense."

Johnson, who led eight times for 193 laps, passed Keselowski on Lap 487 of 500.

Busch was second, followed by Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Bowyer and Keselowski.

Almirola matched his career best. The Tampa native was also fourth in 2010 at Homestead.

"We've just got a lot of momentum," Almirola, who doesn't have a contract for 2013, told NASCAR.com. "I've been having more fun these last five weeks at the racetrack than I've ever had."

David Reutimann of Zephyr­hills dropped out after 185 laps and was 36th.

>>fast facts

Sprint Cup points

With three races left in the Chase for the Championship, only these drivers are eligible to win the title.

Driver Pts. Back

Jimmie Johnson 2,291—

Brad Keselowski 2,289 2

Clint Bowyer 2,265 26

Kasey Kahne 2,262 29

Denny Hamlin 2,242 49

Jeff Gordon 2,237 54

Martin Truex 2,228 63

Matt Kenseth 2,226 65

Greg Biffle 2,222 69

Tony Stewart 2,220 71

Kevin Harvick 2,203 88

D. Earnhardt Jr. 2,151 140

Gearhead stats

Winner's average speed: 77.677 mph

Time of race: 3 hours, 23 minutes, 9 seconds

Margin of victory: 0.479 seconds

Caution flags: 11 for 64 laps

Lead changes: 22 among 9 drivers

Lap leaders: Johnson 1-47; Kvapil 48; Johnson 49-67; Gordon 68-98; Johnson 99-106; Gordon 107-146; Vickers 147-164; Hamlin 165-170; Johnson 171-182; Bowyer 183-200; Johnson 201-204; Gordon 205-225; Bowyer 226-234; Johnson 235-237; Bowyer 238-349; Hamlin 350-355; Vickers 356-364; Kenseth 365; Kahne 366-377; Bowyer 378-392; Johnson 393-477; Keselowski 478-485; Johnson 486-500

Up next

AAA Texas 500, 3 p.m. Sunday, Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth

TV: ESPN

Jimmie Johnson wins at Martinsville, takes NASCAR Sprint Cup lead 10/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 3, 2012 1:31am]

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