MARTINSVILLE, Va. (WDBJ7) NASCAR's kings shared the Martinsville Speedway spotlight with college football royalty in the form of former Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, as well as the princess of the pool. UVA swimmer Leah Smith is used to going fast in the water and fresh off winning a gold and silver medal in Rio. Smith couldn't wait to take in her first motorsports experience.
"I've learned so much,” Smith said. “I don't know anything about this kind of thing but I'm just excited to be here. I met some of the drivers which was really cool. I met Jimmie Johnson and he does triathlons so he was telling me how he swims in Charlotte. I'm just really excited to be here.”
The Goody's Fast Relief 500 was relatively calm by Martinsville standards, with just five cautions over the first 360 laps. The Toyotas were dominant. Pole sitter, Martin Truex, Jr. was out front for 147 early circuits, while the Joe Gibbs cars of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch showed the way for long stretches.
But by lap 400, 8- time Martinsville winner, Jimmie Johnson was in the mix, as he usually is at the half mile. Johnson got past Hamlin for the lead with 90 to go and never looked back. He held off Brad Keselowski for the checkered flag. It's Johnson’s 79th career win as he punches his ticket to the season finale at Homestead in just a few weeks, where he'll try to nail down his 7th Cup Series title.
"It means so much to win here,” Johnson said. “This time of the year, to clinch a spot and then when I think about what's ahead of us and the hopes for seven, I’m just so excited. I can't believe the way the first half of the race went, and then the way it finished up with a dominant last run, I just couldn't be more thrilled and honestly more proud of our race team.”
"I think we are the best team in the garage,” Keselowski said. “And if we are not the best, then we are right there. We don't have a shot at winning the championship but I think today showed how strong we are and I'm really proud of that."
"It was a good day, a solid day but obviously not what we were looking for,” Hamlin said. “Just lost the handle there with about a hundred to go. I think my car just fired off slower and ran slower throughout the entire run that we had all day so just missed it there a little bit so that is what we had and about all we could muster there at the end was a third.”
Johnson is now the considered the prohibitive favorite to win that 7th Cup title. The series heads to Texas next week, a place where Johnson has had plenty of success, with five wins there.