Grading the performances from Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway:
Tony Stewart: Three wins in the 2011 season. Three wins in the Chase for the Championship. The two-time Sprint Cup champion who once begrudged his own entry into the Sprint Cup playoffs jumped two positions to second in the standings and pulled within eight of points leader Carl Edwards on Sunday by holding off five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson to win at Martinsville. Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet was hardly the class of the field, leading just 14 laps, but he and crew chief Darian Grubb were able to improve the car enough, strategize enough and avoid the menagerie of spinning race cars enough to put Stewart in position for another title with just three races remaining in the season.
"[Stewart's comments at Michigan regarding his Chase prospects] just put a little bit more fire in everybody, I guess," Grubb said. "We've been working hard all year. We've had good cars ever since the Daytona 500. We just never got the finishes we needed to get every weekend ... When those comments were made in Michigan, we all fought just a little bit harder to make sure we got 110 percent out of every person there, to make sure we're all doing the right things and moving forward. We've been trying not to look back ever since."
Jimmie Johnson: Very much in need of a victory to rekindle the mathematical possibility he could repeat as champion, Johnson deferred to his more chivalrous sensibilities on Sunday, opting not to nuzzle Stewart off the lead to reclaim the front in the final three laps. Johnson, citing his respect for Stewart, especially considering Stewart's points standing, surrendered the lead on a final restart with three laps left and finished second, improving his lot to sixth in points, now 43 behind Edwards. The win would have paid four more points, but perhaps he put his karmic debit in the bank for a later date.
Jeff Gordon: He recovered from involvement in a Lap 7 crash to lead 113 of 500 laps, and at one point he put Edwards a lap down. A third-place finish was heartening, but did little for his faint title aspirations.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick circumnavigated the .526-mile short track and the mayhem within to finish fourth and jump to third in points, 21 behind Edwards. A late two-tire pit stop call was key.
Denny Hamlin: A winner of the truck race at Martinsville, the native Virginian finished fifth, helping to push him into the offseason with a burst of momentum. After a disappointing Chase, that should be at least some consolation.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR's most popular driver seemed invigorated by the mayhem around him on Sunday, quipping over team radio that "if we raced short tracks more, I might be considered a dirty driver." That would be quite a feat considering the level of shenanigans and retaliatory shenanigans on Sunday. Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh.
Carl Edwards: Disgruntled and disgusted was the points leader despite rallying to finish ninth. He didn't like the feel of the No. 99 Ford, pondering if the problem was a setup or his driving. "I should not be the points leader right now," he said. But he is. And teammate Matt Kenseth suggested Edwards might stay there because "Carl is so incredibly lucky, it's going to be hard to beat him."
Matt Kenseth: The 2003 series champion was nicely ensconced in the top 10 for much of the race and in the top five in the late stretches when incidents with the runaway chariot that was Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch sent him to the garage and to a 31st-place finish, worst among Chase-eligibles. Kenseth, who, surprisingly, slammed both Vickers and Busch, slumped to fifth place (from second), 36 points off the lead (from 14) and likely into title-hope oblivion.
Ryan Newman: He entered the race far out of the title picture and in need of a solid finish after struggling mightily the past few weeks. Newman got what he needed, a 10th-place finish.
Kyle Busch: Another unsatisfying Chase shambles toward its conclusion for Busch, who, like his brother, was involved in multiple incidents, most damagingly a bump from Matt Kenseth that sent the No. 18 Toyota, which led four times for a race-high 126 laps, into the wall. On the subsequent pit stop, Busch had a tire roll away because the lug nuts were not affixed properly. The wheels have come off again. He finished 27th.
Kurt Busch: So much spinning. So much symbolism. Kurt Busch's slow downward spiral continued on Sunday as he was involved in multiple incidents -- one just seven laps into the race -- and finished 14th.
Brad Keselowski: Any hope for a top-10 finish and a first championship went spinning out the window with his No. 2 Dodge on the final restart with three laps left. And it wasn't his fault. Keselowski was caught in the way of an incident between Hamlin and Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski, whose rush from wild card to title contender has been one of the more interesting aspects of the Chase, is now in fourth place, 27 daunting points behind Edwards.