By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Judging by the way he raced, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed none the worse for wear in his return to competition after a two-week absence.
The concussions that kept Earnhardt out of competition at Charlotte and Kansas, however, weren't on his mind after Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Instead, Earnhardt was lamenting a decision that in all probability cost him a top-10 finish.
When caution flew on Lap 475 after Kevin Harvick's engine blew, Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski stayed on the track on old tires while the rest of the lead-lap drivers came to pit road for fresh rubber.
As the race leader, Keselowski restarted from the inside lane on Lap 481. As the second-place car, Earnhardt was trapped on the outside and dropped like a rock.
The No. 88 Chevrolet fell back through the field into harm's way, ultimately to be wiped out in a chain-reaction wreck that started with Sam Hornish Jr. knocking Carl Edwards' Ford sideways into Earnhardt's Chevrolet.
"It felt pretty good -- just a little frustrated how we ended the day," said Earnhardt, who finished 21st. "We kind of gambled a little too much there at the end and cost ourselves a pretty decent race. We worked hard all weekend, worked hard all race long -- and sold the farm at the end...
"That was really ridiculous. You've got to use a little common sense. That was not a good move."
KESELOWSKI HANGS TOUGH
Conventional wisdom said Jimmie Johnson would wrest the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup lead from Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, and that's exactly what happened.
Johnson started from the pole and won for the seventh time at the .526-mile short track.
Keselowski, however, kept the damage to a minimum in a situation that was fraught with danger to his championship aspirations. Starting 32nd after a lackluster qualifying effort, Keselowski patiently worked his way through the field, using pit strategy when the situation dictated.
Keselowski finished sixth and saw his seven-point lead entering the race transformed into a two-point advantage for Johnson, but the driver of the No. 2 Dodge was elated to leave Martinsville that close to his rival.
"You can't count this team out," Keselowski said. "This team has a tremendous amount of heart. I'm proud of them.
"This championship is going to come down to Homestead (the season finale). You have to be in a position where (you've got a) shot at it. We have to do what we need to do to be in contention at Homestead."
HAMLIN'S HOPES DASHED
Suddenly and without warning, Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota lost power late in the race, finally stopping on the frontstretch on Lap 391 of 500 and causing the eighth caution of the afternoon.
The culprit was a broken bolt on the master switch -- a freakish failure that shut the car off. Hamlin lost 34 laps in the garage as his team repaired the problem. He finished 33rd and dropped to fifth in the standings, 49 points behind Johnson, and, in his mind, out of the running for the championship.
"It's the little things that get us," Hamlin said. "I've been in these Chases for seven years, and I've had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that.
"All I can do is just drive my heart out, and it it's not meant to be, it's not meant to be. We'll have our time. It's just our time is not now."