Denny Hamlin claimed his seventh win of the season with victory at Martinsville, moving within striking distance of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
Despite getting off to a slow start from pole position, the Joe Gibbs racer was able to charge back and save his best for last to take his third consecutive win at NASCAR's shortest and slowest venue where he has taken four victories out of the last six races at the half-mile track.
Hamlin dropped back after losing the lead on lap 11 to front-row starter Marcos Ambrose, struggling with wear issues on the left-rear tire of his No. 11 Toyota.
After that he started recovering, getting quickly back inside the top 10, although not looking as strong as the Richard Childress Racing duo of Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, who led nearly half the race between them.
After getting on a different pit sequence halfway through the race, Hamlin dropped back in the order again along with the leaders and after moving back up he made the most of a long green flag run to the checkered flag, where he was able to remain more consistent than the RCR pair. With 30 laps remaining Hamlin was able to pass Kevin Harvick for the lead, pulling away to win by more than two seconds over a charging Mark Martin.
Eight months after having surgery on his left knee for a torn ligament, the 29-year-old is only six points away from Johnson's championship lead – the closest margin ever between the top two contenders with four races remaining in the Chase.
"I couldn't lose points to [Johnson], not at this racetrack," said Hamlin. "We ran too good here over the last few years to lose points to him at this racetrack. Literally I just kept him and [Harvick] in my sight all day long...we were racing around each other all day long. Most of the time I was the third wheel in that chain.
"I just made sure I kept those guys close until 100 [laps] to go, when we were gonna have to be aggressive."
Martin recovered from an incident halfway through the race after contact with Richard Petty's AJ Allmendinger. Despite suffering heavy damage to the rear of his car, his crew managed to repair the bodywork well enough for the veteran to remain competitive throughout, setting the pace on the final stint of the race in which he charged from 18th all the way up to second.
Harvick finished third behind the Hendrick driver, enjoying one of his best runs ever at Martinsville. Despite things heating up between him and teammate Burton, the two making contact while battling up front at one point, both were able to finish inside the top 10, with Harvick achieving his goal of closing on Johnson in the points ahead of Talladega, where he won earlier this year.
After struggling for the past few races with slow pit stops, Harvick enjoyed a better day in the pits following a crew swap with Clint Bowyer's team from this weekend.
"We kept the No. 48 [Johnson] behind us and the No. 11 [Hamlin] in sight and what everybody said was a two-horse race and we were right there in the middle of it," said Harvick. "So, it's a lot of fun. Right now we've got four more weeks. I'm looking forward to Talladega and just racing hard."
Hamlin's teammate Kyle Busch did his part by taking points away from Johnson, beating him to fourth place. The reigning champion went on to finish the race without leading a lap at what is arguably his best track, marking the first year he has not been up front at Martinsville for the past five years.
"We were much stronger on the short run than we were on the long run and the way this thing unfolded in the end there was a lot of long runs," said Johnson. "We kind of lost a few spots.
"For a while there, I thought the No. 29 [Harvick] and the No. 11 [Hamlin] and us were all going to ride together all day long and then [Hamlin] there at the end got going and took off and won the thing. It was a solid performance; something we can't be disappointed in. I wish we were a little better but there is a lot of racing left."
It was a solid day for Hendrick Motorsports in terms of performance, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. able to lead the race and finish seventh, although his teammate Jeff Gordon, who also led and looked a contender for victory, suffered a blow to his championship hopes after tangling with Kurt Busch (ABOVE). The Penske racer turned him around exiting Turn 4, sending Gordon into the inside wall along the frontstretch in retaliation for contact on lap 386.
"Kurt Busch doesn't have a very long fuse, so either it was payback or he just got angry really quick and decided to wreck us," said Gordon. "We just did what we could do to come home with the best finish we could... Our championship hopes have taken a big hit the last couple of weeks."
Gordon is already 200 points behind Johnson in the standings.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 500
2. Mark Martin Chevrolet 500
3. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 500
4. Kyle Busch Toyota 500
5. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 500
6. Joey Logano Toyota 500
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 500
8. Carl Edwards Ford 500
9. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 500
10. Brad Keselowski Dodge 500
11. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 500
12. A.J. Allmendinger Ford 500
13. Paul Menard Ford 500
14. Kasey Kahne Toyota 500
15. Matt Kenseth Ford 500
16. Kurt Busch Dodge 499
17. David Ragan Ford 499
18. Ken Schrader Ford 499
19. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 499
20. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 498
21. Aric Almirola Ford 498
22. Robby Gordon Toyota 498
23. Scott Speed Toyota 498
24. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 498
25. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 496
26. Hermie Sadler Chevrolet 496
27. David Reutimann Toyota 494
28. Elliott Sadler Ford 474
29. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 473
30. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 455
31. Regan Smith Chevrolet 442
32. Tony Raines Ford 437
33. Greg Biffle Ford 432
34. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 428
35. Travis Kvapil Ford 423
36. Dave Blaney Chevrolet 418
37. David Gilliland Ford 382
38. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 359
39. J.J. Yeley Dodge 282
40. Casey Mears Toyota 271
41. Joe Nemechek Toyota 264
42. Landon Cassill Toyota 200
43. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 197