Melee at Martinsville

Ryan Newman (top) stays ahead of late race melee that involved Clint Bowyer (15), Jeff Gordon (24), Brad Keselowski (2) and Dale Earnhardt Jr.Newman's win broke a 23 race winless streak (photo courtesy: Jeff Zelevansky, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

Ryan Newman needed help and was running out of time. Clint Bowyer provided some assistance with two laps to go at Martinsville Speedway. Bowyer's aggressive move took out race leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson entering the first turn, allowing Newman to slide into the lead, and he held off A.J. Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on another restart for his first win in 23 races after winning Race 6 of 36 en route to NASCAR’s series-crowning Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 16-18. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

"We were not a dominant race car," Newman said. "Clint kind of cleared out Turn One for us and we were fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time."

The reverse was true for Gordon, who led 328 laps, and Johnson, who led 112. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates seemed poised to battle it out to see which one would give owner Rick Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup victory, and neither had a chance in the end.

"Jeff and I had been the class of the field so I really thought it was going to be a race between the two of us, and it certainly didn't turn out that way," Johnson said.

Johnson wound up 12th, and Gordon was 14th.

Of the restart, Johnson said: "That inside lane is awfully inviting at times to dive-bomb on people. The No. 15 (Bowyer) threw a dive-bomb in there. I'm sure once he got in there; he realized it wasn't the best idea. It turned me around. It turned the No. 24 around."

Gordon angrily sought out Bowyer after the race, and heard the whole story.

"He said he got hit from behind by the 39 (Newman)," Gordon said. "I had nowhere to go. Jimmie had nowhere to go. It was pretty unfortunate. ... I didn't want to see that last caution. We had such a great battle with (Johnson). ... It was going to be an interesting race.
"That's just the way our year's been going. It can't go on like this forever."

Gordon improved three spots in the points standings, but is still just 22nd. Newman's performance drew praise from car owner and defending Ford 400 winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway Tony Stewart.

"I'm ecstatic for Ryan," Stewart said. "I got to see it on the replay during the caution after all the havoc broke loose. Ryan made an awesome move to the bottom. He was heads up to get in the gas and through that hole before it closed up."

The talk about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak will certainly continue during the Sprint Cup Series' first off-weekend of the season, but after the first six races of 2012, it's become increasingly obvious that the streak's existence is getting more and more tenuous. The Top 12 drivers in points after Race 26 qualify to contend for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship, to be crowned in Miami on Nov. 18. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

“Yeah, I'm real happy with our finish,” Earnhardt said. “We worked really hard all day, all weekend really we worked hard to obviously get the best finish we could.”

After finishing third at Martinsville, Junior's now second in the points standings, four points behind leader Greg Biffle, while getting ever closer to victory lane. The streak, which sits at 135 races, didn’t end on Sunday. While Junior led three laps, his Hendrick teammates Gordon and Johnson led 440. But it was yet another sign that the No. 88 team is much faster than they were in 2011.

Case in point: Through six races last year, Earnhardt Jr. qualified outside the top 20 at every race except Daytona. This year, Junior's qualified outside the top 20 just once, when he started 29th. Through these first six races, Junior has three top fives and four top 10s. Last year, Junior only had four top five finishes during the entire season.

Next up for the Sprint Cup Series drivers is Texas on Saturday, April 14 (7:30 p.m. ET, Fox TV)—Race 7 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 16-18). Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 16-18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—go on sale May 1. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.
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