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.”
From the Spotter's Stand
Kevin Harvick rained on Junior Nation's parade at Martinsville in April, when he slid by Dale Earnhardt Jr. wqith four laps remaining to earn his first Martinsville Grandfather clock.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 151 laps before Earnhardt brought back images of his legendary father, executing a textbook “bump 'n' run” to get by his arch-rival. However, 17 laps later Harvick made the race-winning pass — his first of two over Earnhardt this year for the win with less than five to go.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 14 of the last 17 races at the shortest track on the Cup circuit — with only Kevin Harvick (2011), Tony Stewart (April 2006) and Rusty Wallace (April 2004) breaking the trio’s impressive streak.
Last year, Hamlin was the Mayor of Martinsville, leading 172 laps in March, but needing a late charge on a green-white-checkered restart to beat runner-up Joey Logano and seven-time winner Gordon (92 laps led).
Hamlin won his third straight and fourth in six runs at Martinsville during the return trip in October, edging out runner-up and two-time winner Mark Martin and taking the first of his two checkers in the Chase.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Brakes, brakes, brakes. Being able to get good forward bite off the corner allows for passing and plenty of speed in the straightaways, then braking hard twice a lap at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3 takes its toll. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Prior to a 12th in April, Denny Hamlin had averaged a 2.4-place finish in his last nine Martinsville starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the other two you have to keep an eye on. Good Sleeper Pick: This is one of Junior’s favorites, made evident by his 12 top 10s in 23 starts. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Quite a few, led by Greg Biffle and David Reutimann. Insider Tip: It’s best to stay with the Big Three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon.
Classic Moments at Martinsville Speedway
The media in attendance for the 1960 Virginia 500 are treated to a luxury unheard of in the formative years of stock car racing: An air-conditioned press box — a NASCAR first.
It’s another NASCAR first as well, as Richard Petty wins his first of a series-best 15 races at Martinsville Speedway.
Petty leads laps 316 through 333, but relinquishes the lead to Bobby Johns, who takes over for the next 48 laps until he suffers a rear-end failure.
Jimmy Massey assumes the lead but is overtaken by Petty one lap later. The King leads the final 116 circuits to capture his second career Grand National win. Petty wins three races in the 1960 campaign and finishes second in the standings. It is another four years until he breaks through for his first title.