MARTINSVILLE, Va. – While Ryan Newman did stick his nose into it Sunday, the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway still provided further evidence that the 2007 Nextel Cup season is all about Jimmie Johnson vs. Jeff Gordon.
Johnson won this round, picking up a third-straight Martinsville victory by passing Gordon and leading the final 50 laps through a passel of subsequent restarts.
But Gordon, who wound up third Sunday, still has the upper hand in a bigger picture that’s now more than ever focused on the teammates who top the Chase for the Nextel Cup standings.
Johnson, who won for the seventh time this year and the 30th time in his career, trimmed 15 points off Gordon’s lead to move to within 53 points. But with Clint Bowyer finishing ninth to fall 115 points behind, and with Tony Stewart’s 13th-place finish leaving him a likely insurmountable 249 back, this year’s title is all but assuredly now a Hendrick Motorsports intramural squabble.
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Gordon had won the two previous races, passing Johnson with a last-lap move at Talladega and then winning at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which had been Johnson’s domain in recent years.
“I hate that Jeff won,” Johnson admitted, “but that’s only because I want to beat him. I think it’s healthy for us to have that without hating each other. Our relationship on the track is as intense as anything there is out there – without the hatred.”
What brief flare-up of hatred there was Sunday was between Gordon and Newman, whose battle for second supplanted an anticipated reprise of the Johnson-Gordon bump-off that distinguished the season’s first race here.
Gordon had failed to take the lead back from Johnson on one of five restarts that followed Johnson’s pass for the lead. But with 10 laps to go, Gordon was instead trying to keep Newman from taking second.
That didn’t work out, either.
“He was faster than me and he basically told me that with his front bumper,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t afford to let him hit me any harder or he might have wrecked me. ... I gave him a lot of room ... and all of a sudden I felt him slam into me. I was pretty upset about that and I showed him under the caution.”
Newman said he was only trying to do what he hasn’t been able to do since September 2005, and that’s win a race.
“I have to prove my worthiness, just like they do,” he said. “ ... In my opinion, I am a championship driver, and just because I had some bad luck this year doesn’t mean I should change the way I race guys that are going for the Cup.”
Clear of Gordon, Newman got one last chance to break what’s now a 77-race winless streak when the 20th caution – one that broke a record for a Martinsville race – set up a green-white-checkered finish.
Johnson didn’t get away on the restart and Newman was right there as they ran down the backstretch.
“I went into Turn 3 and got in there too deep,” Johnson said. “I left the door open.”
Newman pushed the nose of his car up to Johnson’s bumper off Turn 4. But David Ragan had spun behind the leaders, and his Ford sat across the track in Turn 1. NASCAR waited to throw the 21st yellow, hoping Ragan could pull off in time to permit what might have been a heck of finish.
No such luck.
Johnson rolled home safely, as NASCAR’s rules allow only one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish.
As Johnson did his celebratory burnout, Gordon and Newman conducted a brief face-to-face review of their perspectives and seemed to part on decent terms.
Gordon then went over to the post-race celebration to congratulate Johnson.
“He’s Mr. Martinsville, if you ask me,” Gordon said. “There were very few times today when I felt we were better than him.”
Johnson deflected the new sobriquet. “How many races did Richard Petty win here, 15?” he asked. “He’s Mr. Martinsville.”
Johnson also said he was impressed that Gordon came to congratulate him after the victory.
“The past two races when he beat me, my lip was dragging the ground so badly I couldn’t even make it over to victory lane to congratulate him,” Johnson said.
Things might be civil between the teammates and friends, but Johnson warned against thinking their competition in the final four races of this year’s Chase won’t be spirited.
“There’s no one we want to beat more than the 24,” he said of Gordon’s team. “They make us step up every week, and I feel we do the same for them. ... I have respect for what everybody out there does, and when it comes ... to Jeff, I have even more.”
“But being a competitor, I don’t want to lose a race. And I don’t want to lose the championship.”