Martinsville Update: Jimmie Johnson strong again at ‘paperclip’

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Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson is once again pacing the field after taking the lead just before halfway at the STP 500.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the opening lap, but the first caution of the day began just one lap later when Parker Kligerman crashed in an accordion-effect incident that left several drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne with damage on their own cars.

The green returned at Lap 11, but six laps later on Lap 17, Kyle Busch was forced to give up the point to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who quickly came up from sixth at the green flag. However, his time up front would not last as Johnson passed him for P1 on Lap 20.

Kenseth fell back multiple spots on the outside groove, while Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (another eight-time winner at Martinsville) settled in the top two spots. Joey Logano would take second from Gordon, however, just before the competition caution at Lap 40.

Johnson would maintain the lead coming out of the pits, while Kahne, already in the back of the field, made slight contact with Brad Keselowski as he was coming into his box. Kurt Busch then clipped Keselowski’s car, leaving it with considerable front-end damage.

Eventually, it was decided that Keselowski needed to go to the garage and upon his return to action at Lap 77, he and Busch hounded each other repeatedly on the track.

While the former Cup champions tried to settle their dispute, Johnson maintained his grip on the race until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel-hopped in Turn 1 and bounced off the wall, bringing out the caution at Lap 103.

Kenseth won the race off pit road and took the restart ahead of the field at Lap 109, but Logano took the lead from him shortly before the yellow emerged again on Lap 114. Travis Kvapil spun Michael Annett, who in turn got in the back of David Gilliland and turned him around. However, all three managed to avoid the wall.

Logano drove away on the restart at Lap 120, but was quickly reeled in by Johnson and on Lap 133, he passed Logano low to retake control of the race.

While holding the point, though, Greg Biffle began to make his presence felt and moved past Logano for second at Lap 151. Then on Lap 156, Biffle put the bumper to Johnson and pushed him out of the way in Turn 1 to take the lead.

Also impressing at this point were Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, who had moved into the Top 5. Ambrose (along with Aric Almirola) is looking to win for Richard Petty Motorsports, who are racing with heavy hearts after the passing of Lynda Petty earlier this week.

At Lap 170, Gilliland spun Casey Mears in Turn 1 to bring out another yellow, and in the ensuing pit stops, Ambrose was able to leapfrog Biffle for the lead. But Kenseth and Johnson once again showed their strength on the long run and on Lap 195, both of them were able to dust Ambrose for first and second respectively.

Five laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the left rear of Jamie McMurray that caused him to lose his tire and spin hard into the Turn 2 wall to trigger the caution.

Kenseth kept the lead through pit stops, but Johnson promptly took it from him at Lap 213. On Lap 219, caution No. 7 ensued when rookie Alex Bowman spun and hit the wall in Turn 4.

Even with the short green run, the leaders returned to the pits for fresh tires while others such as Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch opted to stay out. Earnhardt wound up inheriting the lead, while Logano lined up fourth after winning the race out of the pits.

After going green again at Lap 226, debris slowed the field again at Lap 231 with Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch ahead of Johnson. But Johnson was quickly able to dispatch the trio to reclaim P1 at Lap 245.

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.