50-year-old Mark Martin claimed his second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the season in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Martin took the lead of the race during the 15th of an event-record 17 cautions, when his crew chief Alan Gustafson chose to keep him on the track while the leaders pitted to get fueled to the end, which was 47 laps away.
The Hendrick driver had been in the pits during the previous caution more than 20 laps earlier but with so many incidents happening, as drivers kept painting the barriers black with tire marks, it looked more than likely that he would be able to stretch his fuel-mileage and finish the race without stopping again.
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson used the same strategy to move up to second place and he became Martin's main challenger for victory from then on. There were another two caution periods but the veteran was able to remain in control, making the most of running in clean air.
During the last 20 laps of green flag racing he steadily pulled away from Johnson on the way to his second win of the season, which was also his second at the track branded "too tough to tame." Martin's victory has allowed him to move up inside the top 12 in the points for the first time this year after a troubled start to his season.
"This is a big surprise," said Martin, who announced just a few days ago he would be running the whole season again next year. "We had a strong car but I never expected to win. Alan Gustafson is absolutely the best. I'm living a second childhood right now and he's my childhood hero.
"I thought Jimmie [Johnson] was trying to snooker me the in the end, trying to get me off-guard. I was trying to save gas but I couldn't let him get near me because I know how tough he is."
Johnson's second place felt like victory to the reigning champion after yet another troubled weekend. Things got off to a bad start in qualifying where he crashed his primary car, being forced to switch to his back up and dropping to the rear of the starting field.
Then in the race he was quickly able to move up to the lead by virtue of some wise strategy from his crew chief Chad Knaus, although he would drop down the order again almost as quickly. He hit trouble in the pits later after being turned sideways while trying to reach his box, but from then on he avoided trouble, got on the right strategy and eventually found himself in a position to contend for victory.
"What a challenging night," said Johnson. "Clean air was so, so important that it really boiled down to strategy at the end. I think there's probably 15 good cars, maybe 10 good cars at the end. However they came out from that final pit stop is how they were going to run.
"The track is just so narrow. With the new pavement, this car being bigger and boxier, there's less racing room, the speeds are higher, and there's no fall-off in the tire, it's all about track position. Fortunately we got it at the end."
Tony Stewart looked to be closing on his first victory of the season in the last part of the race after being the leading car among those who stopped for fuel and tires during the 15th caution of the day. He quickly moved from eighth on the following restart up to third place before the last caution of the day came out.
However that is as far as he would get, although it was still a great day for his team as Ryan Newman finished right behind him in the second Stewart-Haas Chevy.
"That's the best finish I've ever had at a Southern 500," said Stewart, who moved up to second place in the standings. "It's a tough race, one of the toughest physically we run all year, obviously with the heat the way it was today. Just proud of our guys.
"Happy for Jimmie and Mark. Mark is a great guy. You love to see somebody that works as hard as he does have success."
Jeff Gordon looked strong in the early going but he had to recover from an unscheduled green-flag pitstop on lap 98 while running third. He dropped a lap down to the leaders as he changed four tires due to a suspected puncture, but he charged back to finish fifth, holding on to the lead in the championship.
Martin Truex Jr. led 61 laps but was among those who pitted in that crucial 15th caution and would only be able to recover to sixth, finishing as the best non-Hendrick built car. Brad Keselowski had yet another day in which he proved his worth with a solid seventh.
Greg Biffle had probably the fastest car of the day and looked unstoppable at one point when he led by more than eight seconds. The Roush-Fenway driver was up front for 117 laps in total, more than any of his rivals, but his chances of victory went up in smoke when he spun at Turn 4 on lap 296 while trying to move back to the lead following a four-tire pit stop.
Rookie Joey Logano also led the race for 19 laps and got a solid top-ten in the end, followed by pole-sitter Matt Kenseth, who struggled with the balance of his car and failed to match his qualifying performance during the race.
Kasey Kahne led for 45 laps, but some bodywork damage ruined his chances of keeping up with the fight up front.
Clint Bowyer was the biggest loser of the day in terms of the standings, as he did not see the checkered flag, following an incident with AJ Allmendinger, which sent him hard against both the inside and outside SAFER barriers. He lost five places in the points, and dropped out of the top 12.
Scott Speed, who had failed to qualify for the race, drove Joe Nemechek's car after working out a deal with his team before the race. His day proved a learning experience though, as he crossed the finish line five laps down on the winner.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Mark Martin Chevrolet 367
2. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 367
3. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 367
4. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 367
5. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 367
6. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 367
7. Brad Keselowski Chevrolet 367
8. Greg Biffle Ford 367
9. Joey Logano Toyota 367
10. Matt Kenseth Ford 367
11. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 367
12. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 367
13. Denny Hamlin Toyota 367
14. Elliott Sadler Dodge 367
15. Paul Menard Ford 367
16. Kurt Busch Dodge 367
17. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 367
18. Bobby Labonte Ford 367
19. Reed Sorenson Dodge 367
20. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 367
21. Regan Smith Chevrolet 367
22. Jamie McMurray Ford 367
23. Kasey Kahne Dodge 366
24. David Stremme Dodge 366
25. Tony Raines Chevrolet 364
26. Scott Speed Toyota 362
27. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 360
28. Robby Gordon Toyota 353
29. David Reutimann Toyota 347
30. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 344
31. Brian Vickers Toyota 333
32. Carl Edwards Ford 314
33. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 312
34. Kyle Busch Toyota 303
35. Max Papis Toyota 302
36. Casey Mears Chevrolet 238
37. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 221
38. David Ragan Ford 199
39. Scott Riggs Toyota 101
40. Michael Waltrip Toyota 73
41. Dave Blaney Toyota 56
42. Sterling Marlin Dodge 38
43. David Gilliland Chevrolet 27