MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) – There’s a new leader in NASCAR’s Chase for the championship, and a whole bunch of drivers who are very much back in contention.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Bobby Labonte with 55 laps to go Sunday and held it through several restarts to win the crash-filled Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, while 2003 champion Matt Kenseth jumped ahead in a tightened points race.

Kenseth assumed the points lead when Jeff Burton called it a day after just 217 laps because of engine trouble, and most everyone took advantage.

“I’m just happy to finish where we should have,” said Johnson, who was denied at least a second-place finish at Talladega two weeks ago when he was spun out on the last lap, then finished second last week at Charlotte. “We’ve been running up front the last three of four races and haven’t been able to close the deal. Today we did.”

Johnson moved from seventh to third in the standings with four races left.

Next week in Atlanta, seven drivers will start within 99 points of Kenseth, who finished 11th on Sunday and seemed more concerned about his performance than excited.

“We’ve still got to go four more weeks and we’ve got to run good,” Kenseth said. “We haven’t ran good in this Chase. … It’s great to be the leader, but we’ve got to start running good.”

Kevin Harvick is now second, 36 points back, and Johnson is 41 points behind. Denny Hamlin moved into fourth, 47 back. Burton dropped to 48 points off the pace.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (94), Mark Martin (96) and Kasey Kahne (99) also are within striking distance of Kenseth.

But Johnson, a two-time runner-up in the championship, made the biggest move in the standings after starting the race 146 points back. He quickly worked his way forward after being 10th on a restart with 94 laps to go, passed Gordon for second with about 70 laps to go and put Labonte in his rearview mirror on the 446th of 500 laps.

From there, he made it look easy, pulling away with relative ease on every restart except the last one, when Hamlin, a rookie, nudged him and pulled up alongside. Johnson rebuffed the challenge, got back in front and won by 0.545 seconds.

“Once I got pushed to the outside, I really felt like I was in trouble,” Johnson said of the duel, “but I was able to rally back on the outside and get going, and once I got back going, I knew I had a better car and could get away from him.”

Labonte finished third, followed by Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who cut 75 points off his points deficit but is still 141 back. Kyle Busch is 10th, 171 points back.

The race featured 18 cautions for 107 laps, and the 17th one was, remarkably, the only one that really impacted Chase contenders. It happened on lap 477 when Earnhardt and Kahne, battling for sixth, bumped in Turn 3, sending Earnhardt spinning.

Kahne raced on and finished seventh; Earnhardt wound up 22nd.

On the last restart, Hamlin stayed on Johnson’s bumper heading into the first turn and bumped him coming out of the second turn, then pulled inside down the backstretch. Johnson stayed side-by-side with him for an entire lap, then beat him coming off the fourth turn to get in front and Hamlin seemed content to protect second place.

Earlier, it looked like it might be the day when Gordon tied Dale Earnhardt for sixth with 76 career victories, but Gordon’s car wasn’t good enough to pull it off.

After pitting for four tires and fuel under a caution on lap 367 while most other teams stayed out, Gordon moved into third when another caution flew with 100 to go.

But the four-time champion’s car wasn’t strong enough to pass either leader Bobby Labonte or Casey Mears, and when Johnson appeared on Gordon’s back bumper with about 70 laps to go, it was only a matter of time before he also zoomed past his teammate.

AP-ES-10-22-06 1753EDT


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