After the tragic events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 2011 IndyCar Season Finale last weekend, it was great just to see both races at Talladega proceed without a hitch. All the drivers made it home under their own steam (read: expensive private jets) and now head to Martinsville Speedway for some good old fashioned short track racing.
Here, just for good measure, are some of the names that have won since the inaugural season for our sport at the paper clip shaped track nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains: Red Byron, Curtis Turner, Herb Thomas, Lee Petty, Tim Flock, Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
That, dear readers, is an existing and future Hall of Fame caliber list of names, no question, but it’s the last gentlemen with whom we’ll begin this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.
ONE: Five-time Stalled at Five
I still can’t quite believe Jimmie Johnson is in the hole he’s in—some 52 points off the pace with just four races still to run. I’m half expecting him to hit the track on Friday for practice with a Superman paint scheme, win the next four races and sweep to a narrow but thrilling sixth championship. But realistically, I know that’s not going to happen and after a historic, meteoric run this past half-decade, Johnson’s stretch of championships will likely stall at five straight. Some might point to the curse of the Sports Illustrated cover; others will argue he finally ran out of luck. However you slice it, Johnson’s reign as champion has been a stunning testament to his excellence as a wheelman. Yes Knaus is an evil genius, but Johnson still drives the car (drives being a pretty critical word in that sentence). If he is finally deposed as king of the hill, as does seem likely, the next guy has mighty big shoes to fill.
TWO: Four to Go in 2011
And then there were four: Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Miami to be exact. Just a quarter of more races remain to conclude the Sprint Cup season and then it’s the short — but seemingly long – NASCAR off-season. Trouble is with racing you get so used to the routine of regular weekend racing. Even more so if you know you have to turn in a cogent column each Monday evening for this very fine site. So now, with the radio silence of the cold winter months and nothing but replays and recap shows on Speed Channel fast approaching, each race is just that little bit more of an event: for me, at least. All in, it’s four good tracks to decide who will be the Sprint Cup champion in 2011. Historic Martinsville speaks for itself (and more below), while Texas has always proved to be a racy “cookie cutter” circuit. Phoenix’s reconfigured layout is a complete unknown (but chances are will be good) and Miami’s where we finish, for better or worse.
THREE: All the Threes: A great day for Bowyer
For the second straight year, Clint Bowyer won the fall Talladega race – his fifth personal victory. The win was both a landmark win and a quasi-farewell present to team owner Richard Childress. Bowyer’s win was the 100th victory for Richard Childress Racing—an organization the principal founded some four decades ago on the back of driving in the first ever Cup race at Talladega. A few weeks back I wrote about Bowyer’s impending move to Michael Waltrip Racing being something of a step down; so this win is very a timely fillip for the amiable and popular Kansas native. His new team owner knows a thing or two about restrictor plate victories, so they’ve got that in common. But it’s how Bowyer performs everywhere else next season that will mostly define the next steps for his top echelon stock car career.
FOUR: Is the No. 2 Car for Real?
With 12 races gone in 2011, Brad Keselowski had just one top 5 (third place at Darlington) and a next best finish of 13th. The following weekend at Kansas Speedway a fuel mileage gamble gave the driver of the Blue Deuce a second Sprint Cup victory – his first for Penske Racing: his Dega victory coming in a James Finch car. A barnstorming run of form later and Keselowski is just eighteen points / places on the track out of first place. Martinsville will be critical, however, if the sometimes brash, sometimes brilliant Keselowski wants to be in with a shot for the title come the final race. So far in the Chase he has finishes of second (Loudon) third (Kansas), fourth (Talladega) and fifth (Chicagoland). His worst place run was a 20th place effort at Dover – in other words he used his “mulligan”. Another top-5 finish would do very nicely this weekend; anything less might not be enough.
FIVE: One Critical Race
I’ve long believed there are few ailments in our great sport of NASCAR that can’t be soothed by a trip to the iconic and venerable Martinsville Speedway. One of NASCAR’s jewels, the 0.526-mile long paperclip shaped flat track is one of the true tests of not just driving skill but character as well. Martinsville is a track where the brake pedal is as important as the gas pedal – maybe even more so. Where tempers flare and cars collide lap in and lap out: “rubbin’s racin” at its finest. For the top 5 drivers in the standings this race, more than last week at Talladega, might just point us to who will be holding aloft the wavy silver trophy in Florida in a few weeks time. Can’t wait to watch.
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