It was supposed to be a showdown between Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson, the only two drivers able to win at tricky Martinsville (Va.) 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 a surprise. He passed Earnhardt with four laps remaining, and knew denying NASCAR’s most popular driver the win might not have been, well, popular.
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“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. But I’m not going to back down.”
Earnhardt, who settled for second, has not won since June 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. But he’s running much better this season, and the result pushed him to eighth in the Sprint Cup driver 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 final 20 laps.
Hamlin and Johnson, who had combined to win the previous nine races at Martinsville, ran most of the day as if one of them would win again. But both finished outside the top 10.
Pole-sitter Jamie McMurray finished eighth.
KAHNE IN CRASH
Enumclaw’s Kasey Kahne, who started third, tangled with Martin Truex Jr. midway through the race and veered into the wall with Truex. Neither driver was hurt.
“Thanks to NASCAR and all the guys who build the SAFER barriers and these race cars, they are unbelievable,” Truex said. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t be standing here.”
Energy-absorbing barriers were added to racetrack walls, head-and-neck restraints became mandatory and NASCAR made major changes to the body and cockpit of the cars to make them safer after the Daytona 500 accident in 2001 that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr.
HIGHT WINS IN VEGAS
Robert Hight roared to his second win of the season in his Funny Car at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, giving John Force Racing its fifth consecutive victory dating to last season.
Hight used a 4.149-second run at 307.79 mph to edge Johnny Gray at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
Antron Brown won the Top Fuel final, defeating Brandon Bernstein for his 26th career victory.
Mike Edwards beat first-time finalist Vincent Nobile in Pro Stock, running 6.695 seconds at 205.98 mph for his 29th career win.