Here is a spotlight on the winners and losers from Sunday's NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway:
After qualifying 32nd on Friday, it was easy to think Brad Keselowski's title hopes were doomed. After all, the No. 2 car had little speed in practice and would take the green flag Sunday already a half-lap behind the leaders.
But as they've continually done whenever they've been counted out, Keselowski and his Penske Racing team persevered and left Martinsville with a sixth-place result, which, considering the circumstances, had to feel like a win. Now, with two of the final three races on mile-and-a-half tracks – Keselowski's strength – car owner Roger Penske has what appears to be his best shot to finally get his long-sought inaugural Sprint Cup championship.
Despite starting on the pole, there were times Sunday when it was clear Jimmie Johnson did not have the best car. This was especially true in the middle portions of the race when the No. 48 car was too tight for Johnson's liking and he started backsliding toward the latter half of the top 10. But eventually, Chad Knaus dialed the car back in and, thanks to some incredibly quick pit stops, Johnson back in front when it mattered most. He drove away with his seventh Martinsville grandfather clock and, more important, back into the points lead.
At this point in his career, Bobby Labonte finishing in the top 10 on a non-restrictor-plate track is a rare occurrence – he has only four such finishes in the last four years. However, the 2000 Sprint Cup champion did just that on Sunday, as he crossed the line in the Tums Fast Relief 500 in the ninth position. Not a bad for single-car team with limited resources.
Martinsville was supposed to represent Denny Hamlin's last stand: The track where he would surely leave with a high finish and perhaps a victory, which would allow him to claw back into the title picture. And although he incurred two pit road speeding penalties, it didn't matter, as Hamlin was still able to drive his way back toward the front. All these hurdles seemed to do was make the end result all the sweeter.
Then, almost cruelly, an electrical issue caused Hamlin to slow and eventually forced him behind the wall. And just like that, Martinsville turned into Hamlin's own personal Waterloo and become the place where his 2012 title hopes came to die.
Clint Bowyer led 154 laps and finished a very strong fifth. So why is he deemed a loser for the week? Because while a fifth-place finish is good, picking up just a single point on Brad Keselowski and losing eight to Jimmie Johnson isn't going to cut it. Now, with three races left in the year, Bowyer sits 26 points back and is going to need a lot of help if he wants to pass both Johnson and Keselowski.
Last year in this race, Tony Stewart came back from being a lap down, found a way to win and then threw the gauntlet at Carl Edwards, proclaiming he wasn't going to let Edwards sleep for the next three weeks.
One year later, Stewart again found himself a lap down. But unlike 12 months ago, there would be no miraculous recovery this time around. Instead, the defending Cup champion ended the day in 27th and dropped three spots in the standings to 10th.