This article is part of our Race Summary series.
A grandfather clock from Martinsville Speedway was high on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wish list, and he held off Jeff Gordon to take one home Sunday. The No. 88 turned in a rare performance to win at Martinsville after starting outside of the top 20. It was just the second win at the track in the last nine that a driver won from starting outside of the top 10. That feat doesn't seem all improbable after considering how well Earnhardt has raced this season, and it is a shame he is no longer in contention for the championship after missing out last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sunday's Martinsville race featured the typical short-track tempers, and two red-flag periods kept tensions high as the field raced to the checkered flag. Gordon led the most laps at 130, but wasn't the dominant force fans are sometimes used to seeing at the Virginia track. A number of drivers spent a significant amount of time out front, but it was Earnhardt who put everything together at the right time to claim the win.
In the championship, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski suffered dismal starts to their Eliminator round efforts while consistency continued to propel others forward. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano advanced their causes with top-5 efforts that put them in a good position with two races remaining to qualify for a final-four spot in the Miami championship decider. Two races remain before Miami's fireworks, and if the last elimination rounds have taught us anything it would be that anything can and will happen.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - Earnhardt turned a poor qualifying effort into a top effort in Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway. The No. 88 raced his way into the lead with less than 10 laps remaining when an ill-timed red flag brought about a restart that the team did not want. Still, his call on the final pit stop to take four tires paid off as Clint Bowyer was balked in traffic and Earnhardt waltzed ahead to hold off teammate Jeff Gordon for another win in a fantastic season. Earnhardt has one Texas win along with 13 top-10 finishes from 24 career starts at the track, but continues to show that he could be a championship contender if the team is able to overcome their inconsistencies in 2015.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon started Sunday's Goody's 500 strongly, but was put behind after getting caught speeding while entering pit road. The veteran championship contender rebounded, though, and found himself back in front after the halfway point. The strength of his chassis wasn't enough to overcome teammate Earnhardt in the closing laps, though. Still, Gordon picked up as many points as possible on Sunday afternoon, which will go a long way in the Chase considering one of the eight remaining drivers did not win. He will have another opportunity to secure an automatic pass into the finale at Homestead next week in Texas, though. He has one win and 12 top-10 finishes at that track, and may be in line for one more championship in his glittering career.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer continued his run of good form in both the current season and his Martinsville efforts on Sunday. The Michael Waltrip racing driver had a strong outing at Talladega two weeks ago, and used that momentum to propel himself to a fifth consecutive top-10 finish at Martinsville on Sunday. The team is coming on strongly as the current season draws to a close; picking up three top-10 finishes in the last five races. Bowyer could very well carry that streak forward this week too. His 17 Texas starts have afforded him 11 top-10 finishes, pushing him to an average result of 12.4. Bowyer narrowly missed out on the Chase this season, but will be licking his chops for 2015.
Tony Stewart - Each week since his return to racing has been a different adventure for Stewart. Fantasy owners are right to be wary of selecting the owner/driver due to his inconsistent performances. Some weeks he has appeared strong in practice and qualifying only to falter in the race. At Martinsville, however, Stewart turned a solid qualifying effort into a top finish. His fourth-place start and finish is his first top-5 result since finishing fifth in California about seven months ago. Sunday's effort was also Stewart's first top-10 run since July's New Hampshire race. Stewart is inching back into the good graces of fantasy owners, and for that reason folks should take notice when he appears strong in practice in the coming weeks.
Brad Keselowski - The No. 2 was in the thick of the hunt with less than 100 laps remaining in Sunday's race when something in his drive train gave way on a late restart. Keselowski suddenly slowed and was plowed into the rear by Kasey Kahne, setting off a large crash. Keselowski had to make repairs due to the incident, and dropped like a rock in the running order when all was said and done. He finished in 31st position, dimming his championship hopes. In 12 Texas starts he has just one top-5 and three top-10 finishes, and will likely need to win in another clutch performance to keep his championship hopes alive until the final race. He did it in Talladega, but can he do it twice?
Kevin Harvick - The weekend at Martinsville started terribly for Harvick. He brushed the wall multiple times in qualifying, and started outside of the top 30 as a result, which is practically a death sentence at the track. As circumstances played out Harvick was caught in a tangle with Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart, sending Harvick into the wall and behind the competition. His car immediately went into the garage for extensive repairs, and he was far behind the rest of the field when he returned to action. The championship contender has never won at Texas, and will need to right his current trajectory next week in order to turn his last-place spot in the Chase to a championship chance in Miami.
Brian Vickers - Vickers found himself embroiled in a dispute with Kasey Kahne for much of Sunday's 500 laps at Martinsville. The pair was involved in more than a handful of battles where they took turns dumping one another into spins. Both cars suffered significant damage, but neither would give way when they encountered one another on track. When the dust settled Vickers found himself in 27th position, and missed an opportunity to improve his average finish at Martinsville. To make matters even worse for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, Vickers has never won at Texas and only has two top-10 finishes from 16 career efforts at the track. The team looked promising entering 2014, but has misfired when the results have mattered most.
Kasey Kahne - Kahne found himself involved in the first case of payback dished out at Martinsville on Sunday. Kahne came into contact with Brian Vickers early in Sunday's race, turning Vickers into the wall and causing a number of lingering problems for that team. Once Vickers returned to the track he took the first opportunity he had to dump Kahne out of position and into the wall. The damage to Kahne was significant, and effectively ended his afternoon. However, a final crash when Keselowski lost drive was what finally put Kahne's miserable afternoon to bed with a DNF. Despite owning a past winner's trophy from Texas Kahne has only managed to pick up six top-10 finishes from 20 career tries at the 1.5-mile oval.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson finds himself in the worse half of this column for the second week in a row. Early in Sunday's race at Martinsville he rear-ended the car of Casey Mears causing significant front-end damage to his No 48 machine. Shortly after that incident Johnson's car started leaking oil, and that forced him to the garage for repairs. The best the Martinsville favorite could do after those problems was to gather a 32nd-place finish, which is Johnson's fourth consecutive result outside of the top 15 runners. A three-time winner at Texas, Johnson still has every opportunity to end his season on a high note with a win despite no longer remaining in the championship hunt, but weeks like the last one need to cease.
A.J. Allmendinger - At times the short tracks of NASCAR Sprint Cup can favor the drivers with a road racing background. Allmendinger took advantage of that in Martinsville, racing home to a ninth-place finish after starting 15th. In his 12 prior starts at the track Allmendinger had only recorded an average finish of 20.6 with two top-10 finishes. He increased that tally on Sunday with a confident run for the small JTG Daugherty Racing team that defied the odds to make the Chase earlier this season. Sunday's finish was Allmendinger's first top-10 result since winning the race that secured his spot in the Chase at Watkins Glen International, but consistent top-15 runs are making this team appear as a viable contender looking to 2015.