Once the prodigy brought into the Hendrick Motorsports fold by Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson gave his mentor no quarter with victory at stake.
Johnson withstood his teammate's 53-lap challenge that included plenty of banging Sunday and held him off by a bumper for his third NASCAR Nextel Cup win in six races.
"I'm speechless. I've looked up to him my whole career, before I even was back here racing. I've looked up to him and knew how good he was at Martinsville," Johnson said of Gordon, whose seven career wins at the track are the most among active racers.
"That was probably the hardest driving I've ever done."
The teammates provided a stirring duel at the end of the second Car of Tomorrow race, one that had been mostly devoid of the destructive physical driving that normally leaves several cars broken long before the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway.
But the show at the finish was all Johnson and Gordon, who tried everything he could short of wrecking his teammate and friend, but couldn't make the pass.
"The only way I could get by him was to wreck him, but he's my teammate and I tell you what, there's going to be some interesting racing going forward because he blocked me really bad," Gordon said. "I thought I had a chance at him a couple times, but he shut the door on me pretty good. ... He did exactly what he should have done."
Which doesn't mean the four-time series champion liked it at all.
"I'm happy for Jimmie, I am happy for Hendrick to win the race, but I am really disappointed that we didn't win because I thought we should have," Gordon said.
Johnson won for the 26th time in his career and extended Gordon's winless streak to 24, keeping him one victory short of tying the late Dale Earnhardt for sixth on NASCAR's career list with 76. It was Hendricks' seventh victory in the last nine races at 0.526-mile Martinsville, the smallest, oldest and trickiest track on the circuit.
J.J. burns rubber for his 26th career Cup victory. (Getty Images)
At the end, Johnson put on a classic display of defense to hold on.
"I gave him the inside lane a few times," Johnson said. "I didn't want to squeeze him and run him up on the curb, so I left him the inside lane, but coming down to the checkered flag, he gave me a shot in 3 and 4 and at that point, I just turned left and crowded him and tried beating him back to the start-finish line."
The margin of victory was 0.065 seconds.
The Car of Tomorrow appeared to have a lot to do with the finish. Designed with bumpers that don't allow the trailing car to lift and move the car in front as readily as the other race cars have, Gordon said he would have had to hit Johnson really hard -- and on the right spot on the track -- to get him to slide up the track enough to pass.
Johnson, though, didn't feel like Gordon had held back at all.
"I would have been wrecked with last year's car with hits that hard," he said, adding that he thought the last one would have made a car's airbag deploy.
But, he said, he doesn't expect any problems with Gordon because of the respect they have for each other and the relationship they have forged as teammates.
"It's certainly something that we'll work out," he said.
Denny Hamlin finished third, followed by Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart, giving Chevrolet the top seven spots. Scott Riggs was eighth in a Dodge, followed by the COT Fords of Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth.
Hamlin and Earnhardt, along with the Hendrick teammates, dominated the race. Hamlin started on the pole and led 125 laps, and Earnhardt led 137, the last with 123 to go.
"We're tired of running so good here and not winning," Earnhardt said.
Gordon led three times for 92 laps, but none of the last 113. The first 10 of those were led by teammate Kyle Busch, but Johnson passed him on Lap 388 and kept going, giving the Hendrick teams both Car of Tomorrow victories. Busch won last week.
"It's kind of one of those starts you dream about," owner Rick Hendrick said. His teams have now won four races in a row. In another, they finished second and third.
The race was slowed for 93 laps by 13 cautions, but most of those were one-car spins or accidents, not the kind of multicar accidents typical of Martinsville.
The race almost appeared ready to end before any of the late drama.
With Earnhardt leading, the race was red-flagged by rain with 357 laps to go. Black clouds surrounded the track, but the delay lasted less than 32 minutes.
When it resumed under a yellow flag, Johnson and Hamlin headed for pit road, a move that paid off when another caution sent the leaders to the pits with about 125 left.
Busch had the lead when it went back to green with 118 laps to go, and Johnson passed him five laps later. When Gordon passed Hamlin for second with 53 laps to go, it quickly became a two-car battle, and the pupil held off his one-time mentor.