After salvaging an eighth place finish after crashing at Kansas, Jimmie Johnson and team pointed to Sunday's race at Martinsville as their launching pad towards a sixth championship.
They had very good reason to. Johnson's average finish at the half mile paperclip was a striking 5.8, and Brad Keselowski, the man they trailed in the points standings by seven points, finished ninth at Martinsville in the spring, his highest career finish at the track.
And now, Johnson's stats at Martinsville are even better. He took the lead from Keselowski on a restart with 20 laps to go and held off Kyle Busch on a restart with five laps to go to win the TUMS Fast Relief 500 and take the lead from Keselowski by two points with three races remaining in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Keselowski found himself with significant ground to make up on Johnson as soon as the green flag flew to start the race, as he started 32nd while Johnson started on pole. And throughout the first half of the race, he meticulously worked his way through the field, avoiding trouble and staying on the lead lap, while Johnson ran in the top five for most of the day.
Keselowski had moved his way up to sixth -- his highest running position of the day -- when the caution flag flew on lap 474 of the 500 lap race for Kevin Harvick's engine, he and Paul Wolfe had a decision to make.
Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who were running 1-2 at the time, hit pit road, as did the three cars immediately behind them. Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't.
That meant that Keselowski restarted the race at the point, with Johnson immediately on his back bumper. Keselowski cleared Junior before the two reached turn one, but he couldn't shake off Johnson, who dove to the inside on the backstretch on lap 485 to take the lead for the final time.
"I felt like (staying out) was going to be a problem for him," Johnson said. "We've stayed out before and been beat. I expected him to drop a bit further back, so to have a two point margin on him he must have stayed up in the top five somewhere, but you just can't count out good race teams. When you get to the playoffs, it doesn't matter what sport it is, teams step up and show what they're made of and we've seen a lot of teams do it this Chase. Our team came out on top today and a few more races of doing that and we should be in good shape."
[Related: Junior admits concussion was scary]
Keselowski fought valiantly on old tires to the drivers on two tires behind him, and fended off Jeff Gordon on the final lap to finish sixth, exactly where he was when the caution flew for Harvick's engine. But no one was stopping Johnson over the final laps of the race, and as the white flag flew, Busch was only able to close in on Johnson's bumper and unable to prevent him from swiping the points lead from Keselowski.
And as the Cup Series heads to Texas, it's certainly easy to draw conclusions with the five-time champion's name atop the points standings. But this wasn't a case of Keselowski folding to the pressure from a champion, or choking with the win on the line and the chance to extend the points lead. He instead made about the best of what he could in a daunting situation. It's just that Johnson did about the best he could do too.
It's going to be a fun final three weeks.
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