Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Martinsville Speedway
Jeff Gordon (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
1. Back to the scene of the (original) crime
With the he-said, he-said war of words and fenders that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have participated in during the last three weeks, it's been easy to forget that the final laps of Martinsville's spring race one year ago was the ultimate catalyst for last season's most-talked about rivalry.
After Jeff Gordon (329 laps) and Jimmie Johnson (111) combined to lead well over four-fifths of last year's event, the inevitable happened when a caution flag waved with just two laps remaining. The race now headed for a green-white-checkered overtime finish, Johnson and Gordon both hoped to scoot away on the restart and battle for the win amongst themselves.
They didn't even make it through Turn 1.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman charged low on the restart with Bowyer trying to block Newman. The move shot Bowyer over the Turn 1 curbing and directly in the side of Gordon. The contact forced Gordon into Johnson, sending both spinning into a mess of wrecked race cars piling in from behind.
Newman eventually found his way to improbable victory while Gordon, especially, steamed at Bowyer's late race antics. Those emotions, of course, boiled over in Phoenix many months later when Gordon took exception to another round of contact from Bowyer and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 to instigate a garage-area fracas. Logano was also collected.
Martinsville could serve as the next best place for Bowyer to return Gordon's favor — if he's still thinking retribution — or a great place for Logano to ruffle even more feathers with a payback to the No. 24. Whatever happens, perennial Martinsville favorite Johnson is concerned that the rough 'em up style Martinsville is known for could cause more problems than normal.
"With the new race cars, I think contact is going to be a question mark for me," Johnson says. "We have fiberglass panels and stuff, now, where it used to all be steel. I’ve seen some crash damage after just a small impact where they had to cut the nose completely off the car. So that could be the issue come race time there. Some minor contact could cause major cosmetic damage."
We'll have to wait to see if his concerns ring true.
Defending race winner Ryan Newman. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
2. Short tracks? Sounds good for Ryan Newman
Would you believe that last year's surprise win for Newman at Martinsville was just his third in the Sprint Cup Series since he won the 2008 Daytona 500? Or, if you include Daytona, just Newman's fourth win since the fall of 2005?
Admittedly, those numbers are a bit shocking when considering that Newman scored 11 wins during his first three seasons in the sport. The decrease in total winning has also produced another interesting nugget on where Newman has found his best results: short tracks.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has 11 career wins on tracks 1-2 miles in length, but since 2008 he's scored top-10s on short tracks at a 58 percent clip. On all other tracks? Newman's top-10 finish rate is just 34 percent.
"I like the short tracks. I like having the character added to the program of modulating the brake," Newman says. "In my opinion, the driver has a little more of an impact on the end result at short tracks than some of the bigger racetracks, and I like that.
The more the drivers are involved, the more I think you get to race and, from that standpoint, I think it’s more fun.”
Fun or not, also note that his two wins since the Daytona 500 triumph outside of last year's Martinsville win came at Phoenix International Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway — both tracks requiring braking and finesse instead of raw speed and aerodynamic handling.
3. Rick Hendrick could become winningest Martinsville owner
With Johnson and Gordon spinning out of the lead on that late restart a year ago, Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick also watched his organization lose out on tying Petty Enterprises as the winningest Sprint Cup Series organization ever at the small Virginia track.
Of course, Johnson took care of that in the fall with his win that tied the organizations at 19 each. HMS will offer more shots at breaking the long-standing record Sunday.
Petty Enterprises, which folded into Richard Petty Motorsprots in 2009, actually scored its 19 wins at Martinsville in fewer starts (158) than Hendrick (182) but took considerably longer. Lee Petty first won at Martinsville in 1954 and John Andretti scored No. 19 for Petty in the spring of 1999 — a span of 45 years.
Hendrick's Martinsville dominance has been much faster after Geoff Bodine scored the organization's first ever win there in 1984. Johnson or Jeff Gordon have won 11 of the last 20 races at Martinsville alone.
Few would bet against Johnson again Sunday. A big reason is that Johnson just seems to have a knack for NASCAR's oldest venue.
“Martinsville is just a quirky track. Once I figured out how to drive it – and, frankly, once Tony Stewart lapped me there in my sophomore year – it just made sense how to drive the track and I’ve had it ever since," Johnson says.
4. Please welcome back the long last NASCAR Truck Series
Remember way back when, at Daytona, before Jimmie Johnson sprayed champagne and before Kyle Larson's wicked crash left us gasping? Do you remember there was a race just before that, a Friday night affair? Do names like Paludo, Sauter or Hornaday ring a bell?
If any of that brings back memories, what you remember is the last time the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series was on track. Yes, as a matter of fact, NASCAR's third-tier national series has started its 2013 campaign. I certainly can't blame you if you forgot, though.
When the CWTS takes the green Saturday as the lone support race for Sunday's Sprint Cup festivities, it will have been 43 days since the last time those drivers and that series competed in anger. For perspective, back at Daytona North Korea wasn't blatantly threatening us, baseball's spring training was just days old and Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were on slightly more amicable terms.
Johnny Sauter won February's CWTS race and will likely face the stiffest test to continue his winning ways from Kevin Harvick. One of three three-time winners at Martinsville in CWTS, Harvick could be trouble if he finds the lead. In his three wins (2009, 2010 and 2012) there have been a total of 11 lead changes.
5. Kurt Busch aims to match quirky stat from 2005
Speaking of threes, Kurt Busch and his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team will look to do something the 2004 Sprint Cup champion hasn't done since 2005.
Busch, now with his third team since departing Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, hasn't pulled together three consecutive top-5 finishes since the second-place, third-place and third-place finishes he reeled off to begin the 2005 season. Of course, Busch hasn't been bad since then — he's scored 54 more top 5s since that streak along with 13 victories — but that he has a chance to match that streak in his first full season at FRR is a testament to the stable success he's seems to locating at the Colorado-based team.
Busch picked up a fourth-place finish at Bristol two races ago and a fifth-place run in the most recent outing at Auto Club Speedway.
“We’re not concerned about statistics,” says Busch. “We just want to continue our momentum and keep plugging forward.
Busch, who has led just one lap this season, won at Martinsville in 2002 after leading 111 of 500 laps. With FRR to close out 2012, Busch scored a 15th-place finish at the short track.
Dustin Long predicts the best fantasy drivers in Martinsville so you don't have to.
Jimmie Johnson (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit treks back east to quaint little Martinsville for the STP Gas Booster 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Martinsville ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
A-List 1. Jimmie Johnson
Won at Martinsville last fall from the pole and has seven career victories there. Scored 12 top-5 finishes in his last 15 starts there. Johnson has led 430 laps in his last four Martinsville starts. He has the best average running position (7.2) in the first five races of the season. He also has the best driver rating (110.2) at this point in the season.
2. Jeff Gordon
Has seven career wins at Martinsville. Appeared headed for No. 8 last spring when wrecked after contact by Clint Bowyer on a late restart and finished 14th. Gordon has 15 top-5 finishes in his last 20 Martinsville starts. Has led 534 laps in the last three races there. Has led an average of 113.4 laps in his last 13 starts at that track.
3. Brad Keselowski
Has scored seven consecutive finishes of sixth or better at ovals 1.1 miles or less, dating back to last season (that includes a sixth at Martinsville last fall, a career-best finish at the track). His 23rd-place finish at Auto Club Speedway ended his streak of four consecutive top-5s to open the season. That also was the first race this year he had not led. Dating back to last year’s Chase, he’s led laps in 11 of the last 15 races. Has an average finish of 12.1 in six starts at Martinsville.
4. Clint Bowyer
Finished fifth last fall at Martinsville and 10th in the spring. He led 154 laps last fall and had an average running position of 3.6 in that race, second only to race winner Jimmie Johnson’s average running position (3.2). Bowyer has four top 10s in his last six Martinsville starts.
5. Kasey Kahne
Placed third at Martinsville last fall. That ended an 11-race streak of finishing outside the top 10 there. Has recorded the fastest lap (149) more times than any other driver in the first five races of the season. He’s tied with Matt Kenseth with most laps led this year at 223 but has led only 31 laps in 18 career starts at Martinsville.
6. Matt Kenseth
Has placed in the top 10 in the past two spring races at Martinsville with a fourth last year and a sixth in April 2011. Those are his only two top-10 finishes in his last eight overall starts at the track. Tied with Kasey Kahne for most laps led this season at 223, which is 15 percent of all laps run.
7. Kevin Harvick
Won at Martinsville in April 2011 but since has finished fourth, 19th and 32nd there. Since being in a crash and finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500, Harvick has placed between ninth and 14th in each Cup race this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has placed outside the top 20 in four of his last six Martinsville starts. In the other two races there, he won and finished seventh. Stewart has led only 15 laps in his last 11 starts at that track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
B-List 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts at Martinsville. Has led 110 laps during that stretch. Is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in each of the first five races of this season. He’s made more green-flag passes for position (588) and more quality passes (passing a car running in the top 15 under a green flag) with 354 than any other driver this season.
2. Brian Vickers
Making his second Cup start of the season in the No. 55 car. Started fourth and finished eighth at Bristol last month. Started second and placed eighth at Martinsville last fall. Tied winner Jimmie Johnson in that race for most laps run in the top 15 (495 of 500 laps).
3. Kyle Busch
Finished second at Martinsville last fall, part of his feast-or-famine routine at the track. In his last 12 starts there, he has six top-5 finishes. In the other six races, he’s finished outside the top 20. Has finished fourth (Las Vegas), second (Bristol) and first (Auto Club Speedway) in his last three starts this season. Has led 208 laps in those three races.
4. Ryan Newman
Hot and cold. Has three top-10 finishes this season. Other two races he failed to finish (accident at Phoenix and engine at Las Vegas). Won last spring’s race at Martinsville after leaders were taken out in a late restart. Has an average finish of 11.1 in last eight Martinsville starts.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
Has two top-10 finishes in last three Martinsville starts. Has led one lap at that track in 14 races.
6. Greg Biffle
Has placed in the top 15 in each of his last three visits to Martinsville, a track he’s acknowledged is far from his best track. Last time he led there was in Oct. 2009 when he paced the field for six laps.
7. Carl Edwards
Has finished outside the top 10 in three of his last four Martinsville starts. Has led 31 laps in 17 career starts at that track. Coming off a fourth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. That’s his third top-5 finish this season.
8. Mark Martin
Driving in place of the injured Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Martin did not race at Martinsville last year. In 2011, he finished 10th in the spring race there and 28th in the fall race.
9. Aric Almirola
Finished in the top 10 in both Martinsville races last year, placing fourth in the fall and eighth in the spring. Those are his only top-10 finishes in eight starts there.
10. Paul Menard
Enters this weekend with three consecutive top-10 finishes after placing eighth at Auto Club Speedway. Martinsville has not been kind to him. Finished 12th there last fall, his best finish at the track. Has finished outside the top 20 in seven of his 11 career Cup starts at Martinsville.
11. Joey Logano
Coming off his third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway — his first top-10 finish in his last 10 races, dating back to last season. Has run 68.5 percent of his laps in the top 15 this season, a higher percentage than for Kyle Busch (67.2 percent), Mark Martin (66.1) and Jeff Gordon (61.1). Has finished between 13th and 23rd in his last four Martinsville starts.
12. Kurt Busch
Heads to Martinsville after back-to-back top-5 finishes. Martinsville, though, has not been kind to him in recent years. His last top-10 finish there came in Oct. 2005. He has placed in the top 20 in four of the last five races there.
13. Jeff Burton
Has an average finish of 23.0 this season with one top-10 finish (10th at Phoenix). Has two top-10 results in his last nine Martinsville starts.
14. Juan Pablo Montoya
Has finished between 19th and 22nd in four of his last five Martinsville starts with the exception a fourth-place result in April 2011 race. His best finish this season is a 12th at Phoenix. He’s placed 30th or worse in three of the other four races this year.
15. Jamie McMurray
Has one top-10 finish in his last six Martinsville starts. Finished 10th at Bristol for only top-10 finish of this season. Has placed inside the top 20 in each of the last three Cup races.
16. Bobby Labonte
Since placing 15th in the Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 24th this season. Took ninth at Martinsville last fall, breaking an 11-race stretch there without a top-10 finish.
17. Marcos Ambrose
Has never had a top-10 finish in eight Martinsville starts (best finish is 11th in March 2010). Has not had a top-10 finish in his last 17 Cup races, dating back to last season. Average finish this season is 22.6.
1. Regan Smith
Career-best Martinsville finish is 13th in eight starts there.
2. Casey Mears
Best finish is 12th in last seven Martinsville starts. Has three top-15 finishes this season. He had only one top-15 finish all of last season.
3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Will be making his first start at Martinsville among any of NASCAR’s top three national series.
4. Dave Blaney
Has three top-25 finishes this season. He had seven such finishes last season.
5. Landon Cassill
Finished 19th at Martinsville last fall, his best result in five starts there.
6. David Ragan
Has four top-15 finishes in 13 Martinsville starts but has an average finish of 27.7 in last three races at that track.
7. Ken Schrader
Placed 34th at Phoenix and 37th at Las Vegas in his only starts this season. Finished 29th in last fall’s Martinsville race and was 32nd in the spring event there.
8. Danica Patrick
Making her Martinsville debut. Since placing eighth in Daytona 500, she has not finished better than 26th this season.
9. JJ Yeley
After 10th-place finish in Daytona 500, he has not finished better than 27th this season.
10. David Reutimann
Has an average finish of 29.4 this season.
11. Travis Kvapil
Has an average finish of 33.0 this season.
12. David Stremme
Has not finished better than 30th in his last five Martinsville starts.
13. David Gilliland
Has an average finish of 31.2 this season. Has an average finish of 32.4 in his last five Martinsville starts.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never had a top-25 finish at Martinsville in seven starts.
15. Josh Wise
Has an average finish of 35.2 this season.
16. Scott Speed
Was not entered for Auto Club Speedway. After finishing 23rd in Daytona 500, he has not placed better than 40th.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish the last nine Martinsville races (best finish 38th).
18. Scott Riggs
Best finish this season is a 41st at Auto Club Speedway.
19. Mike Bliss
Has failed to qualify for two races this year and finished no better than 42nd in any of the three races he’s made.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads NASCAR point standings, enjoying momentum
Photo by ASP, Inc.
It’s said that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start of his 14-year NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
The 38-year-old has recorded top-10 finishes in each of the first five events, averaging a 4.4-place finish, and leads the point standings heading to the circuit’s sixth stop, in Martinsville, Va., on Sunday.
“When I hear people talking about the fast start, I feel like you’ve got to take a lot of different factors into the equation,” Earnhardt says. “We’ve had good fortune. (Certain) scenarios have been working in our favor ... and they don’t always work in your favor. You’re not always gonna come out on the better end of those deals, but we have.”
It’s not like this is unexplored territory for the 10-time most popular driver. Last season’s full slate of top 15s through the first five races found him third in the standings. And in 2004 with Dale Earnhardt, Inc., he enjoyed his finest season to date, when he notched two wins in the first five events, though a 35th-place run in Las Vegas dropped the average finishing position to 10.4.
Earnhardt also scored the sole Daytona 500 victory of his career that season, and runs of fifth, first and 10th surrounded the Vegas dud. So technically, the start of that six-win season was his finest to date.
But you’ll excuse his legion of fans if they choose to ride the momentum 2013 has brought. And the fact that Earnhardt is the only driver in the series that has yet to see 11th-place (or worse) at the end of a long Sunday afternoon finds his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team feeling upbeat as the circuit embarks on a trek of 15 straight race weekends through mid-July.
“We’re feeling confident — the mood’s good,” Earnhardt says of his team. “We see where we need to improve. We feel like we’ve got pretty decent speed in the car in race trim.”
For a driver and team that once struggled to make the car better over the course of a race, the in-race improvement has been striking. In fact, that 4.4-place average finish is a full 15 positions better than where they’ve managed to qualify on average — a testament to the communication between driver and crew chief Steve Letarte.
“We’ve gotten pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we’re doing it as good as anybody,” Earnhardt says. “(We’re) just riding the wave — just real happy with how things are going for our team.”
Still, qualifying further up the pylon may change those second- to seventh-place finishes into wins.
“We’d love to qualify better, to feel more dependable when we put the car in qualifying trim,” says Earnhardt.
It’s a sentiment Letarte echos, though he realizes that the team has put itself in position to win numerous times. And if they do it often enough, those wins will come.
“You can’t win from 15th; you can’t win from 10th, the sport’s too difficult,” Letarte says. “You have to run in the top 5 or top 7 to win races — and we’ve done that all season. And we think that’s the formula for success that will get us to Victory Lane throughout the year.”
That brings Earnhardt and crew to Martinsville, a quaint .526-mile, paperclip-shaped oval that’s as much of a throwback venue as one will find on a schedule saturated with 1.5-mile intermediate clones. It’s a racetrack that has treated Earnhardt well in the past — he has showings of seventh or better in four of his last five starts — though he has yet to earn the coveted Grandfather Clock trophy awarded to the winner.
At this rate, though, Earnhardt is happy to have gotten out of the gates quickly, knowing the points earned early are insurance for the potholes that speckle an arduous season, wrought with trial.
“It’s a long year,” he says. “You’re going to have some bad luck — nobody runs the whole season perfectly — but we’re just trying to get as many points as early as we can so when that bad luck comes it doesn’t hit us as hard.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has assumed the top spot in the NASCAR Sprint Cup point standings, but it's defending champion Brad Keselowski who finds himself atop the Athlon Sports Horsepower Rankings.
1. Brad Keselowski
If not for an overheating issue late in Fontana (while running fifth), Keselowski would most likely be five-for-five in the top-5 finishes category. The defending champ has come out swinging.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Junior has a quintet of top-10 runs thus far in 2013. He will not ascend to the top of this list until the No. 88 team proves it can win on a consistent basis.
3. Jimmie Johnson
You just know ace crew chief Chad Knaus has used the off-weekend to widen the chasm between teams that have and have not figured out the nuances of the Gen-6 car.
4. Matt Kenseth
Not surprisingly, the veteran Kenseth has comfortably made the transition to Joe Gibbs Racing in a seemless manner. In fact, he may be ranked a bit low on this list.
5. Kyle Busch
Busch is riding a three-race streak that has witnessed finishes of fourth or better, punctuated by a dramatic win at Auto Club Speedway. This bunch is going to be hard to handle this season.
6. Kasey Kahne
Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis have a full season under their belts at Hendrick Motorsports. The duo has led the No. 5 team to consecutive showings of second, first and ninth.
7. Carl Edwards
Somewhat of a feast or famine team, the No. 99 bunch has a win (Phoenix) and two additional top-5 runs in 2013. Those showings are offset by 18th- and 33rd-place stinkers.
8. Greg Biffle
Going about things the way only Biffle can. Through five races, he has zero top 5s and two top 10s, yet finds himself fourth in the point standings. He’s nothing if not consistent.
9. Paul Menard
Menard’s No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team are off to their annual semi-hot start, with three top 10s and an average run of 13.6. The question this year, as it is every year, is can they sustain it?
10. Ryan Newman
Yes, he’s an uninspiring 20th in the point standings, but Newman is actually carrying the Stewart-Haas Racing banner with three top 10s. Like Edwards, this is a feast or famine group, albeit without a “W.”
11. Clint Bowyer
Can this team avoid the dreaded championship runner-up hangover? The thinking here is they can.
Riding dirty? Not in the classical sense, anyway. (ASP, Inc.)
12. Joey Logano
How about a nickname change, from “Sliced Bread” to “The Tempest.”
13. Tony Stewart
It’s been a tough go thus far for Stewart, but he’s too good to stay down long.
14. Kurt Busch
With two straight top 5s, Busch is delivering results to Furniture Row Racing’s potential.
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
The rookie has completed every lap thus far this season and is 12th in points. Nice start, kid.
Just off the lead pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Mark Martin, Jamie McMurray
NASCAR's new start times, title favorites and grading Martinsville
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Times are a-changin’ in NASCAR but will fans see a change in who has been the champion most often in recent years? With starting times for the remaining races pushed back, members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council were asked if they liked the move, along with who now is their pick to win the title with three races left and what they thought of the Martinsville race. Here’s what they had to say about those issues and more:
Later start times for the final three races: Good or bad? Starting with Sunday’s race at Texas, the final three Cup races will begin at 3 p.m. EST, an hour later than the other day races in the Chase. Fan Council members were asked what they thought about the later starting times:
45.7 percent said they were “neutral” 31.7 percent said they hate it 11.9 percent said they love it 10.7 percent said they like it
What Fan Council members said:
• Morning, noon, or night I will watch my NASCAR races.
• I wish NASCAR would stop changing the start times!!!! Real NASCAR fans will watch regardless of the start time, but quit trying to change the start times to fit the network!!!
• Most NFL games will be in the third or fourth quarter, then you have the rest of the 4:00 games. This is bad for NASCAR, especially considering the lack of passing we saw at Texas in the spring. Most people may be tuned out before the green flag ever waves. As a person on the East Coast, I hate the long wait.
• I will record the race and watch it when time permits. The 3 p.m. start time will cause me to turn on a football game and why stop watching something to start watching something else?
• What happened to the standard start times??!! NASCAR has to stop worrying about what other sports are doing and what times they are on. Do your own thing. If you want to compete with the big boy sports then start at 1 p.m. and go up against them!! I feel the fans prefer the 1 p.m. start time. NASCAR, if you believe in your fans start the races at 1 p.m. those that want to watch it will.
• By starting the race at 3 p.m. I am home from church and can see the green flag and also hear some of the pre-race show and comments.
• I'll miss the ending of most of them due to work. The 2 p.m. EST start time worked perfect for me. Oh well. Leave it to NASCAR to make random changes at random portions of the season.
• I love NASCAR and I'll be watching whatever the time. American football season doesn't start until the week after Homestead for me. UEFA football is on early. The NHL is on strike. There's nothing better or more important on television than the final Cup races in my household.
• Perfect time to start the race. Lets our West Coast viewers tune in at a decent hour. Love races that start in the day and end at night.
• Don't care, as I DVR all races. I then watch a condensed version skipping the commercials, and the spread out green flag parading. Usually I can watch the whole race in less than an hour.
(Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Who will win the championship?
53.4 percent said Jimmie Johnson
39.1 percent said Brad Keselowski
7.6 percent said Clint Bowyer
What Fan Council members said:
• Sorry Brad and Clint, I'd rather have either of you win it … but Jimmie's got you on experience, skill and the not-so-secret-sauce of Chad Knaus.
• Same as I've thought all year: Jimmie Johnson. The fact that people pick other drivers (Carl Edwards for instance) before the season starts or based on how someone is running mid-season (Dale Jr.) is laughable. The Chase is a beast unto itself, and until someone shows that they can handle the pressure and maintain poise and performance during the Chase, the 48 should be the pick to win EVERY year.
• I think the Brad-Paul combo will outsmart the Jimmie-Chad combo these last three races. A little part of me hopes that Clint can somehow rally and win it, though. Absolutely love underdogs. Cheering for anyone but Jimmie now that Denny is out.
• I said Brad K. when the Chase started & I'm staying with the pick.
• My head says Jimmie Johnson but my heart says ANYBODY but the 48. Just like Jimmie rallied in Kansas & made a statement, I believe the No. 2 team made one in Martinsville by starting in the back and moving up throughout the race and finishing sixth.
• I’m a firm believer that you have to lose one to learn how to win one. Too much pressure. Also think Hendrick has more resources available to JJ than Bad Brad has available to him.
• Clint is my favorite full-time driver, but as much as I'd like to see him win the title, I think he's one year away. I just wish the national NASCAR media would quit drinking the Kool-Aid and proclaiming that the 48 has already got the thing won.
• As far as I'm concerned, it is always Mr. Five-Time’s championship to lose.
What race are you looking forward of the three remaining?
43.2 percent said Homestead
34.3 percent said Phoenix
22.5 percent said Texas
What Fan Council members said:
• As sad as I will be to have this season end, I am looking forward to Homestead to see who the 2012 champion will be. I still believe we will not know who the winner will be until the last lap at Homestead. Jimmie, you better win another race in case it comes down to a tie.
• Homestead, because it’s the last race! I think it's time for this mediocre season to come to an end!
• Looking forward to Phoenix because it is not a 1.5-mile track. Phoenix could be a decisive track for the Chase.
• None of them really because of the poor TV coverage. Phoenix might be somewhat interesting but Texas & Homestead will be snoozers because of the cookie cutter design.
• Could think of five other tracks I would rather see in the last three.
• I say Texas because it’s the next one and ANYTHING could happen.
• Homestead now provides some of the best racing on the circuit, I only hope the points battle is as close as it was last year.
Grade Sunday’s race at Martinsville
62.7 percent said Good
20.7 percent said Great
14.9 percent said Fair
1.7 percent said Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• Passing for the lead, passing in the back, rubbin’, door slammin’, what else do you want?
• This is racing, no pushing tandem cars and no one is waiting for the “Big One.” It is just good racing all around the track. Lots of excitement. I love short tracks.
• Brad races through from the 32nd spot, Denny comes from the rear twice after penalties, Kyle Busch spins and comes back to finish second and the list goes on as to why this was a great race.
• I really thought there would be more beating and banging. Watching Denny and Brad move through the field was exciting, but other than those two, not much drama.
• I was there. It wasn’t the best or the worst Martinsville race. And with the same drivers winning all the time there’s no wonder the track was only half full.
• Outside of Johnson winning (which is poor), the race provided good action like Martinsville usually does. Strategy, passing, good side-by-side racing ... what the sport was built on. Hope to see more of that in the final three races.
• That was one race I enjoyed flag-to-flag. Good short track racing with beating and banging throughout with just the right amount of cautions.
• It was just OK. For a small track, I expected a lot more bumping and banging. The only standouts were the misfortunes of Hamlin and Harvick. Compared (perhaps unfairly) to the all the action involving a variety of drivers last week at Kansas, the on-track action at Martinsville seemed surprisingly lackluster.
The Backseat Drivers Fan Council was founded and is administered by Dustin Long. Fans can join by sending Dustin an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Earnhardt to make NASCAR Sprint Cup return in Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to race this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.
Earnhardt missed the past two races after suffering a concussion Oct. 7 in a last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway. It was his second concussion within six weeks. He suffered a concussion in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway.
Earnhardt’s rehabilitation program was directed by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who also consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement issued by Hendrick Motorsports. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”
Earnhardt sought Dr. Petty because of lingering headaches after the Talladega race.
“The one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed,” Petty said Oct. 11 during a press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway announcing that Earnhardt would miss the next two races because of a concussion.
“We want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test like to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache, and then if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race.”
Earnhardt drove 123 laps in a Sprint Cup car Monday at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., without any issues.
Crew chief Steve Letarte wrote on Twitter after the test that Earnhardt “looked great and ran some awesome laps.”
Petty monitored the test. He cleared Earnhardt Tuesday morning after a final neuropsychological evaluation in Charlotte.
On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, car owner Rick Hendrick said that it was never a consideration to hold Earnhardt the rest of the season.
“He’s burning up to get in the car,” Hendrick said. “He wanted to run this weekend. He’s very anxious. He wants to get back. No way you’re going to hold him out unless the doctor wouldn’t clear him, but he’s good to go.”
While Earnhardt was out, Regan Smith drove his car. An engine failure left Smith with a 38th-place finish at Charlotte, but he placed seventh at Kansas last weekend.
Earnhardt is the second driver in NASCAR’s national series to suffer a concussion and miss races this season. Eric McClure suffered a concussion, along with other injuries, in a crash during the May 5 Nationwide Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. McClure, who suffered his third concussion in less than two years in that incident, sat out five races before returning.
Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement did not include a statement from Earnhardt. He’s scheduled to talk to the media Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway before practice.
Matt Kenseth (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
LAME DUCK? Sure, Matt Kenseth is leaving Roush Fenway Racing after this season to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, but he’s won two of the last three Cup- races. Had it not been for some mechanical issues earlier in the Chase, Kenseth, who won at Talladega two weeks ago, might have a chance to contend for the title.
“We've had two great races where they couldn't be better, and we had four that probably couldn't be a lot worse, other than Loudon,” Kenseth said after his 24th career Cup victory. “It's been up and down. I thought last year we were really strong. I thought in the Chase last year we had a shot to win the championship as far as performance. I feel like I let my guys down and didn't do a good enough job making decisions on the track or even off the track. I felt like I cost us, but our cars were fast enough to win.
“This season we started off real fast and could run in the top five every week it felt like. We went through a couple months where we didn't perform as well. Unfortunately, one of those months ran into the Chase. I just felt like we were a little off as a group, plus we made a few mistakes that we typically never make, have had some other problems that cost us some finishes. It feels good to get here, have a fast car, have everything happen right, be able to get the win.”
Another driver on the move after this season is Joey Logano, who will leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Penske Racing’s No. 22 ride. Although he finished 19th at Kansas on Sunday, he’s placed in the top 10 in four of his last six races.
PIT STOPS AJ Allmendinger is back in the car for Phoenix Racing this weekend at Martinsville. Allmendinger finished a career-best second there in the spring for Penske Racing. ... Points leader Brad Keselowski has an average finish of 13.4 in five previous starts there. ... Jimmie Johnson, second in the points, has six wins at Martinsville and has finished outside the top 10 there only twice since 2002 (20 races). ... Denny Hamlin, third in the points, has four Martinsville victories and only two finishes outside the top 20 there since 2005 (14 races).
Weighing in on Reutimann, Martinsville vs. Bristol and the Truck Series
David Reutimann, pre-stall. (ASP, Inc.)
by Dustin Long
Members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council had much to talk about in regards to Martinsville. From their thoughts on David Reutimann trying to make it to the end but causing a late-race caution to the racing in both the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck Series races, Fan Council members didn’t hold back in what they had to say.
DO YOU SIDE WITH WHAT DAVID REUTIMANN DID?
One driver said there was “no logical reason” for David Reutimann to end up stopped on the track at the end. Reutimann apologized afterward and said, “I was just trying to stay in the top 35 (in car owner points — he fell out of the top 35), which is why we were trying to limp around out there.” Who do you side with? Reutimann for trying to stay out or those who were critical of him? Here’s how Fan Council members voted:
53.3 percent sided with drivers upset with Reutimann, saying he should have exited the track sooner. 46.7 percent sided with Reutimann and staying out to do all he could to remain in the top 35 in car owner points.
What Fan Council members said:
• If a car/driver has mechanical problems, I think they are obligated to get the car off the track for their safety, as well as of the others. In this case, his decision changed the outcome of the race!!!!!!
• David did what anyone else would have done and if they say they wouldn’t they’d be bald face lying!
• Absolute bonehead move on his part. He affected the outcome of the race.
• Reutimann is in a position no other team has ever been in — trying to stay in the top 35 to satisfy a commitment made to another team. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Also, while the caution definitely changed the race why is Clint Bowyer not the one people should be focused on? Or Ryan Newman? Them driving 3-wide into turn 1 at Martinsville had much more of an impact than David Reutimann did.
• I’m not a big Reuitimann fan, however I can’t fault the guy for trying to do what was best for his car. Yeah, its unfortunate he stopped where and when he did —and changed the outcome of the race. But, you know, every race’s outcome is changed by all kinds of things — some notable and some not.
• While I empathize with Reutimann, he should NOT have stayed on the track. I feel particularly bad for him because he has always been a good guy who never deliberately caused any problems for anyone & you could tell by his post-race interview he felt genuinely awful. However, IMO there is never a good reason to screw up a race, especially with so few laps left, when you KNOW your car is not going to survive.
• I 100% side with Reutimann on this. NASCAR has created this mess with the top 35 (rule) and the driver and crew were doing everything possible to stay in the top 35. Only solution is do away with the damn top 35. It is the worst thing that has happened to our sport in the history of NASCAR.
• I see both sides and, unfortunately, there was no good outcome on either side of the argument.
• I understand the desire to stay in the top 35, but there comes a time you need to Get. The. Damn. Car. OFF. The. Track!
Staying in the top 35 is crucial for Tommy Baldwin Racing. Reutimann’s choice did not force Bowyer to dive-bomb Gordon, nor did it force Newman to tap Bowyer. The real problem was with the lack of common sense and lack of respect displayed by Bowyer and Newman. They chose to make moves (to win at all costs) which cost the strongest cars in the field. Reutimann, well aware of his weak position, was doing the best he could with what he had. The same could NOT be said for Bowyer and Newman.
• I get what people are saying, but it is tough for the “non super teams” to compete in Cup. They have to scratch and claw there way around week after week, so being in the Top 35 is very important. Plus, there is the obvious added pressure for Reuti because it is Danica's car and they NEED it in the Top 35 for her Darlington start. I was more annoyed with Bowyer, to be quite honest.
• He was black flagged. Get off track when black flagged.
Martinsville Speedway. (ASP, Inc.)
GRADING SUNDAY’S CUP RACE AT MARTINSVILLE
52.0 percent called it Good 37.9 percent called it Great 8.5 percent called it Fair 1.6 percent called it Poor
What Fan Council members said:
• The end was wild. Start & middle the same old boring racing!!
• Best race this year so far. Lots of good side-by-side racing and a great and exciting finish. Plus, no rain!!!!!!
• Maybe my expectations for Martinsville are too high. I have been going twice a year for the past 7 years and this is the first time I ever left disappointed. A wild finish does not make a good race. It was just overall boring.
• All the action that’s been missing from Bristol for the past 4-5 years. Not as good as last year’s spring Martinsville race, but it was still a great one to watch nonetheless. With the way most of the media have talked about the fans wanting the “old” Bristol back, they make it out as though we aren't real fans of racing because that's what we want. But just look at how absolutely entertaining the race was Sunday from green to checker and I ask was that not some real racing we saw? There was everything you could want: Side-by-side racing, long green flag runs, retaliatory bumps (not intentional wrecking), entertaining pit strategies, and multi-car wrecks, not intentional but caused by the circumstances. It was great but yet they want me to feel bad because I'd like to see it at Bristol as well as Martinsville? Sorry but I want it at every track.
• The first 490 laps reminded me of Bristol two weeks ago. It was business as usual with no noticeable incidents. There was more bumping and banging but it was tame. The few laps before the Reutimann caution were exciting watching the 24/48 battle it out again at Martinsville. The last two restarts obviously spiced up this otherwise semi-boring race.
• Best race of the season, so far. Now if Bristol can get its act together.
• That was the first Martinsville race I have seen that was a little boring...
• I was at race and action around track all day. Great race. Ending was exciting too!
• I love racing at Martinsville. Can we race here 4 times a year? Definitely the next track on my bucket list!
• That’s short track racing at its best. Even the long green flag runs had good side-by-side racing. Why NASCAR doesn't run more races at these type of track I will never understand.
WHICH CUP RACE WAS BETTER? BRISTOL OR MARTINSVILLE?
84.7 percent said Martinsville 15.3 percent said Bristol
What Fan Council members said:
• I enjoyed both races, but found Martinsville bit more exciting. I felt passing was easier and the best cars were able to get to the front.
• Beatin’ and Bangin’! Rubbin’ is racing on short tracks and Bristol doesn’t have that anymore. Road courses have more collisions than Bristol does now. Just hope Bruton doesn't screw it up more.
• Martinsville was by far the more entertaining race from a TV viewing perspective.
• I picked Bristol because I liked the side-by-side racing, which Bruton is now going to try to do away with.
• I choose Martinsville only because of the ending. The first 490 laps were like a normal race at Michigan or California (or Bristol). Lots of racing, but lacking excitement. If Reutimann had not stopped on track, the 24/48 battle would have provided some excitement to the checkered flag. But nothing beats a restart in overtime.
• I love both tracks. Every time I watch the race it makes me even more unenthused to watch the 1.5 (milers).
• It seemed that at Bristol no one could pass and at Martinsville there was passing going on all over the place. Jimmie was able to come up thru the field twice.
• I’m choosing Bristol because I like the side-by-side racing. But to compare the two, that’s not fair to either race track. I got to see the exact race I expected out of both tracks. I know there’s a call to change Bristol back to the old Bristol, but I’m not sold on it. I also think that fans that voiced their opinion better be careful what they asked for.
• The expectations for Bristol are SO high that anything less than all out beatin’ and bangin’ will be a disappointment.
DID YOU WATCH THE TRUCK RACE SATURDAY?
Last Saturday marked the Truck Series’ second of the season (its first race was more than a month ago at Daytona). Fan Council members were asked if they watched the race and why or why not.
61.3 percent said they watched the race 38.7 percent said they did not watch the race
What Fan Council members said:
• Always watch the truck races! Looking forward to seeing them revive racing @ Rockingham!
• Best racing in NASCAR hands down. I wish the trucks got more notoriety.
• Some of it, but got tired of seeing Harvick dominate, so I left. Think they have too long a break in between the 1st and 2nd race.
• Love the truck series, too bad we had to wait a month for the second race. If NASCAR is serious about the Truck series, I feel they need to be more consistent in the scheduling of races. How could they expect the casual fan to keep interest in the series?
• What? There was a truck race?? (Insert cricket chirps here.)
• Couldn't watch it. Was on the road from Virginia Beach to Lynchburg then on to Martinsville… Listened intently on Sirius MRN feed!!!!!!!!!
• Yes I love watching every NASCAR event I can and the past year or two I’ve really gotten into the Truck and Nationwide series. NASCAR did a brilliant thing when they did the choose-one-championship rule because now these two series really are developing their own identity separate from the Cup series even though the last Nationwide and Truck races were won by Cup regulars.
• Sorry, truck races just lack excitement for me. They look like little low power die-cast hot wheels that don’t really belong on a race track. I do understand they fulfill a needed training level to help introduce and provide a training platform (for) the next generation of Nationwide and Sprint Cup drivers.
• Too long of a break and honestly just forgot about them...
• Wasn’t at home — had no control of the set at the home where I am staying as a guest. They were nice enough to let me watch the Cup race.
• Was on the campus of Michigan State University seeing a production of “Memphis.” Culture on Saturday, racing on Sunday!
I was at Legoland with my family. We were celebrating my son's 10th birthday. So, family won out over a race. Otherwise, I would have watched the truck race.
Fans can join the Backseat Drivers Fan Council by sending Dustin an email at email@example.com.
Please include the following information:
Name, city, state, Twitter name, e-mail address and favorite driver.
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race at Martinsville
by Jay Pennell
Few sports crisscross the United States quite like NASCAR, and with that, the Sprint Cup Series returns to the East Coast this weekend for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Rain got the best of the series last weekend in Fontana, Calif., with defending champion Tony Stewart scoring his second win of the season in an event shortened by weather. Just five races into the year, Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew have hit their stride early as others are simply struggling to get their season started.
With momentum and confidence on his side, Stewart returns to the site of one of his most dramatic runs of the 2011 Chase.
After struggling for the majority of the event last fall, Stewart was able to fight to hold on to a lead lap position and eventually worked his way through the field and to the front of the pack. Besting Jimmie Johnson on the final restart of the day, Stewart went to Victory Lane and kept his title hopes alive. That race would have as much to do with his eventual championship as the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On a roll already this season and coming off one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, Stewart is among this week’s stronger plays, but is not the overall favorite.
That honor belongs to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
While Stewart was methodically working his way to victory at Martinsville last October, Earnhardt Jr. was beating and banging his way to a seventh-place finish. His aggressive style was an enjoyable sight to the fans, but also evidence of his ability to score a solid finish on the paper-clip short track.
Last spring, Earnhardt nearly broke a winless streak that dates back to 2008. However, Kevin Harvick was able to capitalize on a late-race charge to make the pass for the lead with four laps to go and score the win, relegating Junior to a second-place finish.
Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is enjoying a strong start to the season with two top 5s, three top 10s, and sitting third in the championship standings. Winless in his last 134 starts, Earnhardt is on the verge of snapping that streak and giving team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
That opportunity could not come at a better facility. The Hendrick cars have been among the strongest at Martinsville since they began showing up. Geoffrey Bodine scored the team’s first victory here in 1984, while Hendrick cars have a total of 18 wins — second only to Petty Enterprises — as drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson lead the active duty drivers in wins at Martinsville with seven and six, respectively.
Yet this weekend, it won't be “Five-Time”' or “Four-Time” that will be earning another Grandfather clock trophy. With the numbers adding up, momentum on his side and a string of strong performances at Martinsville backing him up, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is this week’s fantasy favorite.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart
While Gordon has been one of the most successful drivers at Martinsville over the years — he leads all active drivers in wins (seven), top 5s (25), top 10s (31), laps led (3,094) and lead-lap finishes (30) there — his 2012 season has gotten off to a rocky start.
Despite high hopes and great expectations leading into his 20th season in the Cup Series, the four-time champion is 25th in points and has only one top-10 finish on the year (eighth, Phoenix).
An ill-timed miscue on pit road last weekend in Fontana cost the No. 24 team a strong finish and the ability to move up the standings and back into contention. So has the season has gone for Gordon, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the entire No. 24 team.
Yet through it all, Gordon is encouraged by the fast racecars he has each week and knows all the team needs to get back on track is one “complete” race. And what better place for that to happen than at Martinsville?
Gordon is the type of driver that can hit a streak of solid runs and race for wins. After a slow start to the season, this is the weekend it turns it around for the No. 24 team.
Five Undervalued Picks: Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle
Martinsville is a track in which veterans such as Gordon are supposed to excel, not the young guys. But this week’s underdog pick goes to 21-year-old Joey Logano.
In six starts at Martinsville, Logano has completed all but five laps, has one top 5, two top 10s, zero DNFs and an average finish of 13.8 in six starts. While he has yet to set the world on fire or take home the trophy at Martinsville, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver did finish second to the ever-present favorite at Martinsville, teammate Denny Hamlin, in 2010.
Already in 2012, Logano has shown he has Chase potential. Through the first five races of the season, Logano has two top 10s and his worst finish was 24th last weekend in Fontana.
If he can keep the fenders on the car and avoid trouble throughout the day, Logano should score solid fantasy points for your team. He might not be the one celebrating the win, but he could give you those extra points needed.
Three Underdog Picks: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, AJ Allmendinger
Best Average Finish at Martinsville (Wins):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 5.4 (6)
2. Denny Hamlin — 6.5 (4)
3. Jeff Gordon — 6.9 (7)
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — 13.0 (0)
5. Tony Stewart — 13.4 (3)
6. Joey Logano — 13.8 (0)
7. Ryan Newman — 14.4 (0)
8. Brad Keselowski — 14.5 (0)
9. Jeff Burton — 14.6 (1)
10. Juan Pablo Montoya — 14.7 (0)
No article that mentions Martinsville is complete without this bad boy. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards
Talladega and Martinsville were the wild card tracks, and the two Edwards and crew were most apprehensive about. They went into ’Dega with a five-point lead and left Martinsville up eight.
2. Tony Stewart
There is something to be said for a driver winning the championship by going out and actually winning races. That’s what Stewart is doing, with three victories in seven Chase events.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick gained five points on Edwards in the standings at Martinsville, but he’ll need to do better than that over the final three races to catch the 99, much less pass it.
4. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth was the points leader with 40 laps to go in Martinsville. Then it all went south, as a spin bashed his Ford to the point where he’s now 36 back and basically out of title contention.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Credit Johnson for a fine run at Martinsville — only Brian Vickers’ aggression kept him out of Victory Lane — but even sweeping the last three races may not be enough at this point.
6. Brad Keselowski
Like Kenseth, BK’s late spin was costly. The Deuce may have lost up to 12 points in the standings after a solid top 10 went up in tire smoke. The difference between -15 an -27 is massive.
7. Denny Hamlin
Comparable to Edwards’ late-season performance improvement in 2010, Hamlin and the boys have strung together consecutive runs of ninth, eighth and fifth. Another win may be around the corner.
Ed Hardy comes to NASCAR. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
8. Jeff Gordon
It’s been a disappointing Chase for Gordon and the gang thus far. In fact, his third-place run at Martinsville was the best showing he’s had since a fourth in Loudon, five weeks ago.
9. Clint Bowyer
Will Bowyer’s hiring at Michael Waltrip Racing come at the expense of David Reutimann’s full-season effort? It just might ...
10. Kyle Busch
Has been wholly unspectacular throughout the Chase, which begs the question, “Why is he rated so high on this list?” Answer: Because he still has the ability to win on any given weekend.
11. Kasey Kahne
A strong six-race run comes to an end in Martinsville, which has never been a great “Kasey track.”
12. Kurt Busch
Sliding the wrong way since the win at Dover five weeks ago.
13. Jeff Burton
Follows runner-up showing at Talladega with a sixth at Martinsville.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In lieu of a top-5 finish, it was at least good to hear Junior having fun in Martinsville.
15. Greg Biffle
Averaging a rather pedestrian 13th-place run over the last month.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.
Prior to NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, Tony Stewart stated that his inclusion in the playoffs may simply be wasting a spot in lieu of another, more worthy contender. Three victories later, the two-time Cup champion finds himself in the thick of the title hunt after a win in the Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
“I felt like there were some things that were missing,” Stewart said of his No. 14 team’s regular season performance. “I think our Chase run here — obviously Dover (25th) was not what we were looking for — but every race since then, we have been a contender. The result hasn’t always shown at some of these races. But we’ve been pretty solid in this Chase.
“I don’t know what changed. The guy beside me (crew chief Darian Grubb) is the guy to ask that. He’s the guy that’s orchestrating it, organizing the people to do the job. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s changed — the good thing is that it has and it changed at the right time when we need it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Stewart, winless in the 26-race regular season, snuck into the Chase seeded ninth, but swept the first two races at Chicagoland and Dover. His victory in Martinsville was the 42nd of his Cup career, placing him 16th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list, two ahead of Mark Martin and two shy of Bill Elliott in 15th.
Stewart had to beat Jimmie Johnson to get to Victory Lane — an uneasy task considering Johnson is a six-time Martinsville race-winner who had led the previous 60 laps.
Stewart lined up to Johnson’s outside on the front row on a restart with three laps remaining and was able to make the line work, nosing ahead of Johnson coming off Turn 2 and clearing him in Turns 3 and 4.
“When I was inside of Tony, I went down in the corner (Turn 1) and thought that eight tires would be a lot better than four,”?Johnson said of the final restart. “I changed my mind. With where he is in the points, what’s going on, the fact we raced throughout the day today (and) he never touched me, I had a hard time doing that (getting physical).”
Johnson finished one car length back in second. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.
The most notable finish of the afternoon — aside from Stewart’s win — was points leader Carl Edwards’ ninth-place showing.
On two occasions Edwards fell off the lead lap, the victim of an ill-handling car. However, he was able to make up both laps thanks to well-timed cautions that allowed him to get back on the lead lap over the event’s final 100 circuits. The result was Edwards maintaining the Chase lead by eight over Stewart.
Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who entered the event 14 and 18 points behind Edwards, had late-race spins while running in the top 10 that damaged their playoff hopes. Keselowski now sits 27 points back in fourth, while Kenseth’s title bid took a damaging hit, as he is now 36 markers off Edwards’ pace.
Harvick’s fourth-place run allowed him to gain five points on Edwards, vaulting him from fifth to third in the standings.
But Stewart, who started the afternoon 19 points shy of Edwards’ points lead, was the undisputed benefactor of what was a chaotic race. He dodged and weaved his way through 18 caution periods, and applied verbal pressure — as well as the physical heat the point standings now profess — to the ultra-consistent Edwards:
“Carl Edwards better be real worried,” Stewart said with a sly grin in Victory Lane. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”