MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) Trouble finally found Jeff Burton at Martinsville Speedway. Jimmie Johnson and a handful of other championship chasers found themselves back in title contention.
NASCAR's Chase for the championship broke wide open Sunday, setting up what is likely to be a wild 4 race finish.
Johnson took the lead from Bobby Labonte with 55 laps to go and held it through several restarts to win the crash filled Subway 500, while 2003 champion Matt Kenseth replaced Burton atop the standings.
Johnson moved from 7th to 3rd in the standings with 4 races left, and appears to be the driver with the most momentum heading into the final month.
``I'm just happy to finish where we should have,'' said Johnson, who was denied at least a 2nd place finish at Talladega when he was spun out on the last lap two weeks ago, then finished 2nd 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.''
Kenseth assumed the points lead when Burton pulled his car into the garage after just 217 laps because of engine trouble, and most everyone took advantage.
Next week in Atlanta, 7 drivers will start within 99 points of Kenseth, who finished 11th on Sunday and seemed more concerned about his performance than excited.
``It's great to be the leader, but we've got to start running good,'' Kenseth said. ``It's still pretty wide open. It's going to be pretty exciting, I think, coming down to the last race. I'm glad we are in the lead and if we can get going back on these last four tracks like we were earlier in the year, I think we've got a shot at it.''
Kevin Harvick is now 2nd, 36 points back, and Johnson is 41 points behind. Denny Hamlin moved into 4th, 47 back. Burton dropped to 48 points off the pace, marking the first time the points leader has changed in the 2nd half of the playoffs.
``By no means do I think we are out of this thing,'' Burton said. ``We won't lay down. We'll go to Atlanta feeling like we have as good a shot as anybody.''
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 2nd 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 on every restart except the last one, when Hamlin, a rookie, nudged him and pulled 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.
``He played with that line, but didn't cross it and I respect him for it.''
Hamlin said it may have been best that he never did get around Johnson.
``I knew if I cleared him, he'd do the same thing to me going into the next corner and odds are I would not have been able to save it like he did,'' he said.
Labonte finished 3rd, followed by Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who cut 75 points off his deficit but is still 141 back. Kyle Busch is 10th, 171 points behind.
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 6th, bumped in Turn 3, sending Earnhardt spinning.
Kahne raced on and finished 7th; Earnhardt, who wound up 22nd, said he was to blame after driving too hard into the turn.
``I guess I need to get somebody on (the radio) to preach to me to have more patience because I definitely can't take control of myself,'' he said.
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 2nd place.
Earlier, it looked like it might be the day when Gordon tied Dale Earnhardt for 6th 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 3rd when another caution flew with 100 to go.
But the 4 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.
Labonte used the same strategy to get to the front, and it worked.
``I feel like I stole something,'' he said.