Stewart holds off Gordon

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – Tony Stewart won a paint-trading duel with Jimmie Johnson and overcame Hendrick Motorsports’ long domination at Martinsville Speedway. Stewart and Johnson dueled nose-to-bumper and side-by-side for four laps Sunday, bringing the 65,000 fans to their feet. After being rebuffed three times, Stewart finally got around Johnson with 27 laps to go and held on to win the DirectTV 500

“I knew we were a little quicker than him. There was no way he was going to give it away, so we were going to have to take it away. We didn’t turn him around. We didn’t spin him out. We just got the position that we were after,” Stewart said. The victory was the 25th for the defending and two-time series champion, who celebrated in what is becoming his trademark, climbing the fence near the flag stand and enjoying the moment as his fans joined in from the other side. Stewart survived two single-file restarts with Martinsville master Jeff Gordon right behind him, but got a good jump the second time when Gordon’s Chevrolet wiggled coming out of Turn Two, and Stewart had clear sailing. He won by 1.083 seconds.

Gordon, who had won both races last season and four of the last six on NASCAR’s smallest, tightest and trickiest oval, finished second, followed by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.

The race looked all day like it would come down to a battle between Stewart and Johnson, who combined to lead 483 of the 500 laps. But when Stewart started making his move on Johnson, Johnson’s car was fading and he had no way to stave him off.

“I just kind of used up my stuff there at the end,” Johnson said.

The first late restart came with eight laps to go, but with Gordon right on Stewart’s tail heading through the first and second turns, Matt Kenseth’s car slammed into the wall behind them, bringing out the 16th caution and leading to a red flag.

After a delay of about 9 minutes, it restarted with three to go and the crowd rose expecting a classic finish to the bruising day of racing. It never developed.

“I thought we might have had something for him,” Gordon said of the first restart. “The car just stuck so good through (Turns) One and Two. I thought I was going to get a run on Tony down the back straightaway, but then the caution came out.”

But had already been plenty of drama on the 0.526-mile oval.

Stewart and Johnson, who had dueled all day, were running nose to bumper with Johnson ahead after a restart with 57 laps to go. After nearly 20 laps of that, Stewart made a move to Johnson’s inside heading into the first turn. Johnson held him off despite contact out of Turn Two, and the pair repeated it for four straight laps.

On the fourth, Stewart finally made the pass.

The race proved a triumph for Earnhardt, whose day began ominously when he got caught in a multicar crash on the second lap, sustaining front and rear damage. His crew tore crumpled sheet metal off the car without him losing a lap under caution.

And then he rallied, climbing to fourth before getting pinched low by Ryan Newman on the 316th laps, causing his car to spin. A pit stop dropped him to 18th.

Then he rallied again for the strong finish.

“That was a fun race,” he said. “We beat on it pretty hard but it kept coming back. I knew we were putting on a good show and we just wanted to keep racing real hard.”

The car’s handling didn’t suffer in spite of being battered, he said.

“I couldn’t hurt it. We bounced off a lot of things and it just continued to drive great. The wheels were still straight and still going in the right direction,” he said.

Johnson regained the points lead by 59 over Mark Martin, who finished 13th. Kenseth dropped to third after coming in 24th, followed by Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.

AP-ES-04-02-06 1854EDT

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