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Dr. Diandra: The four closest Cup Series finishes at Martinsville

Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan discuss significant penalties, an owners meeting that didn't happen, and angry drivers in the garage, as Burton describes why NASCAR needs more clarity for its rules, penalties, and appeals.

Margins of victory at Martinsville’s 148 Cup Series races have been measured from miles down to milliseconds over 75 years of NASCAR competition. Martinsville isn’t just part of NASCAR; it’s integrated into NASCAR’s DNA. Martinsville was one of eight tracks in NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season. Red Byron won that first race — on dirt — by more than three laps on his way to becoming the first series champion.

The first recorded margins of victory measured in seconds at Martinsville are in 1987. Before that, the closest race recorded was in 1960, when Rex White beat Joe Weatherly by a car length. They were the only two cars (out of 31) to finish the race on the lead lap.

Martinsville may not leap to mind when you think about close finishes. Short tracks don’t have the millisecond margins of victory seen at superspeedways. That doesn’t mean their finishes are any less exciting.

Here are the four closest finishes at Martinsville.

2007 spring: Jimmie Johnson beats teammate Jeff Gordon

The .065-second margin of victory at the 2007 race is the smallest of any Martinsville contest. It’s also the 32nd-closest finish in NASCAR regular-season races. Eleven Talladega and eight Daytona races rank above it, which makes this race the 13th-closest non-superspeedway points-paying race.

Hendrick Motorsports has the most Martinsville wins of any owner with 27. The 2007 spring race found two HMS cars battling for the win in just the second race with the Gen-5 car (aka The Car of Tomorrow).

As the laps ticked down, Jeff Gordon drew close to Jimmie Johnson entering the turns, but Johnson consistently out-accelerated Gordon leaving the turns. It wasn’t until the final lap that Gordon reached Johnson’s bumper.

Contact made Johnson’s car wiggle, allowing Gordon to pull up almost even. The two cars banged side-by-side all the way to the checkered flag. Johnson prevailed for his third win in what would become a 10-win championship season.

Fall 2018: Joey Logano’s bump-and-run on Martin Truex Jr.

The second closest finish at Martinsville was a little more recent. In 2018, Martinsville was the first race of the three that would whittle eight championship contenders down to four. Joey Logano took the lead on lap 460 of 500. Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. battled Logano side-by-side for six laps before clearing him coming off Turn 2 on the next-to-last lap.

With the checkered flag in sight, Logano chased Truex all the way through the last lap, finally making contact through Turns 3 and 4. He hit Truex’s car hard enough to knock the steering wheel out of Truex’s hands. Both cars went sideways, but Logano’s less than Truex’s. Logano reached the start-finish line first.

Denny Hamlin, who had been running in third, went to the inside to avoid the Logano/Truex battle and took second place. Logano beat Hamlin by .107 of a second.

“He may have won the battle, but he ain’t winning the damn war,” Truex said, angry that he had raced Logano cleanly and the favor hadn’t been returned. Truex vowed that Logano wouldn’t win the championship that year.

Logano won the championship that year.

Fall 2001: Ricky Craven gets his first win

Kevin Harvick wasn’t even supposed to be in that fall’s Martinsville race. He was driving a Richard Childress Racing Cup Series car after Dale Earnhardt’s death earlier that year, but he was also contending for a championship in what was then the Busch Series. The Busch Series’ Saturday race in Memphis had been delayed to Sunday, the day of the Cup Series race.

When rain forced the Cup Series race to shift to Monday, Harvick was there. He started in back and raced to the front, where he battled with Bobby Hamilton.

Ricky Craven watched the tension between the two drivers escalate from just behind them. Hamilton bumped Harvick out of the way. On lap 473 of 500, Harvick returned the favor, knocking Hamilton hard enough to spin him. Harvick earned a one-lap penalty for rough driving.

Craven, who hadn’t won a Cup Series race at the time, took the lead.

But Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett wasn’t about to let Craven coast to victory.

With 10 laps to go, The Charlotte Observer’s David Poole reported that Jarrett was one second behind. But he had changed four tires on his last pit stop while Craven had changed only two. The tire differential helped Jarrett reach Craven with two laps to go. The cars bumped for the last two laps, with Craven finally pinching Jarrett against the wall on the last lap to earn his first Cup Series career race by .141 of a second.

Hamilton finished 13th and Harvick 22nd.

Fall 2017: Kyle Busch wins in overtime

Drivers still in contention for the season championship are willing to take even more risks in the fall than in the spring. Brad Keselowski — one of those drivers pursuing the 2017 championship — was leading when teammate Logano brought out a caution on lap 475.

Chase Elliott moved Keselowski out of the way on the restart. Then Hamlin spun Elliott with two laps remaining.

That left Hamlin, who has earned five of Joe Gibbs Racing’s 14 Martinsville wins, on the front row for an overtime restart. Busch restarted next to him, on the outside, with JGR-affiliate Furniture Row’s Truex behind Busch.

Hamlin led the first lap of the restart, but Busch caught and bumped Hamlin just as the white flag flew. Hamlin was forced high in Turn 1, allowing Busch and Truex to pass. Truex pursued Busch in a drag race to the finish line. Busch won by .141 of a second, making this the fourth-closest Martinsville finish.

Hamlin was caught up in a massive 15-car wreck and finished in seventh place.