Brad Morgan · Tuesday October 29, 2013
The Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 is a hilariously appropriate name for a race at Martinsville. Add the energy-sapping ability of the tightly packed paperclip circuit to the already high-pressure Chase culture and it is no wonder that Greg Biffle physically intruded in on Jimmie Johnson’s post-race interview.
Their altercation was a reminder that Martinsville is easily capable of living up to its billing as the seventh race of the Chase, an important obstacle for anyone hoping to be crowned a champion. Many of the title eligible drivers failed to live up to expectations in the Sprint Cup’s last short-track stop and now stand without a realistic chance of catching back up before season’s end.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not celebrates those who still have a shot at the championship and what they might expect when the series returns to the Lone Star State this Sunday.
Jeff Gordon picked the perfect time to collect his eighth career win at Martinsville, ascending back to the pinnacle of Hot or Not. The No. 24 Chevrolet was great during a 77-lap green flag stretch that ended with Gordon celebrating in Victory Lane.
After starting the Chase as an afterthought – merely a beneficiary of Michael Waltrip Racing’s new most embarrassing moment – Gordon is proving to be a legitimate threat. The win catapults him to third in the standings, only 27 points behind Kenseth and Johnson.
Speaking of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Gordon now moves into a tie with the No. 48 group with eight trips to Victory Lane at Martinsville, third-most on the all-time list. Only Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11) have more.
Another victory, this time in Fort Worth would give Gordon two there and shave a few more points off a manageable deficit. The only problem is that the former “Rainbow Warrior’s” chances at Texas Motor Speedway don’t seem nearly as good when compared to Martinsville – statistically his best track. That’s not to say that it’s impossible for a repeat of 2009’s lone win at TMS (he made it look easy during the second half of that event). But Gordon will likely need to fare drastically better than his 17th-place average finish to stay within range of the leaders.
As for the drivers he is hoping to catch, Johnson would appear to be a clear favorite, but Matt Kenseth shouldn’t be ignored, either. Kenseth took care of business as the runner-up to Gordon at Martinsville – good enough to secure a tie atop the standings – and will look to seize the points lead outright at one of his best venues. He has finished inside the top 10 in 15 of 22 starts at TMS, making Round 8 of the Chase seem like the perfect setting for a classic.
About that whole MWR cheating scandal thing. OK, well maybe not…
What’s done is done. NASCAR laid down the law and MWR is still dealing with the repercussions. But through it all, Clint Bowyer — the driver at the center of NASCAR’s investigation – has continued to climb into the No. 15 Toyota and compete as a 2013 Chaser. In an attempt to save some face, he really hasn’t been that bad.
By leading 60 laps and recording a third-place finish at Martinsville, the ’14 MWR returnee moved to sixth in the standings. That makes four top-10 results during this Chase – a playoff campaign that might not measure up to the one that Bowyer delivered last season, but still seems respectable when considering the most recent controversy.
While it’s probably a little too late to drive back into the championship picture, Bowyer still has a few more chances to break into the win column. That would make this 2013 postseason more successful than many expected.
Martin Truex, Jr., the driver who was removed from the Chase at the expense of Ryan Newman and Gordon, found out that he wouldn’t return to MWR after longtime sponsor NAPA cut ties with the organization. Since then, Truex Jr. has posted finishes of fourth at Talladega and 16th Sunday at Martinsville (not outstanding, but a definite improvement over a 40th there in April).
Those finishes have to be good news for Furniture Row Racing, who moved to sign Truex just days after it was announced that the driver was leaving MWR. The Colorado-based group is hoping, should details be worked out that they won’t miss a beat even after losing Kurt Busch to Stewart-Haas Racing.
The Busch brothers might have just eliminated themselves from a potential championship (and in Kurt’s case, a second) Sunday at Martinsville. In a normal circumstance, their 15th and 18th-place finishes, respectively wouldn’t be worthy of negative criticism… but this is the Chase. And until now, Kyle at least had an honest shot at the title. Now, he will have to hope for bad luck from the four drivers ahead of him, while continuously posting top 5s – not exactly a favorable scenario.
Kurt, on the other hand knew that he would have to go for the win to gain any leverage after finishes outside the top 10 at Charlotte and Talladega in back-to-back weeks. The loop data (which shows that the No. 78 was nothing more than average) and the midpack finish from this race, paired with his lackluster numbers from the Chase as a whole, suggest that Kurt and Furniture Row Racing weren’t prepared when the playoffs began.
Meanwhile, the second edition of the Kyle Larson Sprint Cup saga had a nearly identical ending to its debut. Unfortunately, yes, that’s another blown engine suffered while making another cameo driving for the No. 51 team.
This time, Larson’s afternoon was cut short before the halfway point of the race. Completing only 48 percent of the laps run in two starts isn’t a good sign, even if it’s for a team that he won’t be returning to next season.
Because of this particular Chevrolet’s not-so-reliable history, Larson isn’t being relegated farther down than he was listed last time. But, it’s still alarming to see a driver like the talented “young gun” suffer the same bad fate in consecutive starts.
Ryan Newman was already out of it, but that doesn’t mean that the Chase cannot get worse (see Kasey Kahne). For Newman, an already disappointing postseason sunk to a new low with a 38th-place finish.
The SHR driver was in position to potentially get a positive result at Martinsville, but those chances were dashed by Kevin Harvick. Newman had the No. 39 positioned inside the top 10 when contact from Harvick resulted in a spin and severe damage to the State Water Heaters Chevrolet. Newman was forced behind the wall for a long period before reemerging during the closing laps.
Can he recover? A second win would be a nice departure gift for owner Tony Stewart, but to do it at TMS would also mean Newman’s first there since his second year in Sprint Cup. It doesn’t look good.
Finally, David Ragan lands in the dog house the week after finishing seventh at Talladega because of an early blown engine and the last-place result that accompanied it. That’s the second lost engine for the No. 34 team this season, and the second that occurred after a Talladega race this year.
That alone makes this one almost too good to be true — in a sick kind of way. After celebrating his second career victory at the restrictor plate track in May, Ragan suffered an engine-related DNF at Darlington the following week.
Déjà Vu, anyone?
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