Martinsville, Va. It was supposed to be a showdown between Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the only two drivers able to win at tricky Martinsville Speedway of late.
Instead, the end of Sunday’s race became a battle among the unexpected.
First it was Kyle Busch, a master at seemingly every short track except this one, in the lead. Then, with a bump to get to the front came Dale Earnhardt Jr., loser of 99 consecutive races. But closing quickly was Kevin Harvick, driving for a Richard Childress Racing team that hadn’t won at Martinsville since 1995.
The race went to Harvick for the second consecutive week in another come-from-nowhere victory. He passed Earnhardt with four laps remaining and knew denying NASCAR’s most popular driver the win might not have been, well, popular.
“As I was catching him, I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going to be the bad guy here,”’ Harvick said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I know the fans want to see him win. I want to see him win. It would be great for the sport, and I think today went a long ways to showing how competitive (Earnhardt) can be and that’s what we need. We all need him to win.
“But I’m not going to back down.”
Earnhardt settled for second and still has not won since Michigan in June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. But he’s running much better this season, and Sunday pushed him to eighth in the standings, the highest he’s been since Texas this time last year.
“I am frustrated. I got close,” Earnhardt said. “I ain’t won in a long time. I was thinking at the end I was meant to win the damn race.”
Busch was third. And the favorites? Well, they were nowhere near the leaders during the action-packed final 20 laps.
Hamlin and Johnson had combined to win the last nine races at Martinsville, and ran most of the day as if one of them would again make the trip to Victory Lane.
Johnson was flagged for speeding on pit road late, finished 11th, and was irritated with NASCAR over what he thought was a bogus penalty. Hamlin was 12th.