Key Moment – Pick most any restart in the second half of the race and you’ll find Jimmie Johnson on the outside. As a result, the No. 48 car was unable to move forward after having led 123 laps early in the race. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, tried to pit off sequence to give him an advantage on the restarts, but in the end, it was fruitless and he had to settle for a fifth-place finish.
Johnson’s omission from the front opened it up for a host of other contenders to take control. In the end, Jeff Gordon came through to reappear on the championship radar screen, however faintly with three races left.
In a Nutshell – Matt Kenseth has discovered new life at Martinsville since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, but it still hasn’t led him to Victory Lane at the shortest track on the schedule. After Kenseth led the most laps during the race, Gordon passed him with 20 laps to go and went on to win his eighth career race at the track, tying him with Jimmie Johnson for the most among active drivers at Martinsville. When the dust had settled, Johnson and Kenseth are now tied in points with three races left to go in the 2013 Cup season; Kenseth posted his best career finish at the track.
Dramatic Moment – Jeff Gordon babied his tires to the end and, with 20 circuits left, he moved under Kenseth in Turn 1 to assume the lead. Surprisingly, a race that was slowed by 17 caution flags went green for the final 77 laps, a setup that put Gordon on cruise control to the checkered flag.
What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler
While we’ve been maintaining for two weeks that this championship is a two-horse race, it is now a two-horse dead heat with three races to go. Kenseth and Johnson are tied in points, so the person who can score the most out of these two drivers over the next three races will be the champ. Jeff Gordon, thanks to his win on Sunday, is 27 points behind Kenseth and Johnson. That puts him just barely on the fringes of contention. But unless the two point leaders are involved in a cataclysmic crash, heading into Turn 1 at Texas they aren’t going to both lose 27 points to Gordon.
Greg Biffle and Johnson had a moment in the middle of the race Sunday where Johnson got into the left rear corner of Biffle’s car, knocking the bumper cover loose. Biffle returned the favor to Johnson but did not dislodge the cover on the No. 48. During post-race interviews, as Steve Post began to talk to Johnson about the race, Biffle grabbed Johnson by the back of the neck and spun him around, unleashing an expletive-laced tirade over Johnson’s driving while warning the title contender that he better watch out. Johnson handled the confrontation with his typical unemotional aplomb and eventually received a Twitter apology from Biffle. There are quite a few in the garage who would not have been nearly as understanding of that scruff of the neck grab, probably turning the incident into a scrap on national television.
Some folks are calling Jeff Gordon’s run to his current top three position in points a validation for NASCAR adding him to the Chase this season, following fan uproar over events at Richmond a couple of months ago. Sure, Gordon and the No. 24 team have had a good run, but changing the rules on the fly because of Twitter complaints is a bad precedent to be establishing in a sport that itself admits has an integrity issue. If, by some miracle, Four-Time becomes the second Five-Time this year, there will be even more claims of right triumphing over wrong. The bottom line is, most years there is a team that closes with a good run from 11th or 13th in points, depending on which version of the Chase was employed that given season. That doesn’t mean that team should have had a shot at the title in a ten-race playoff. The same holds true for Gordon. They didn’t run well enough to earn a spot in the Chase during the regular season so this run, while impressive, should be for 13th, not 1st.
Darrell Wallace Jr. scored his first win in the Camping World Truck Series on Saturday. Many people, especially the folks at NASCAR, quickly jumped on the drum beating about Wallace being African-American and a graduate of their Drive for Diversity program, calling the win historic. Wallace is not the first African-American nor the first D4D graduate to win a national touring series race, so calling it historic is a bit of a stretch. It is certainly significant – the first African-American since Wendell Scott in 1963 to win in NASCAR’s top three series – but it doesn’t seem historic. As a note, I consider Bubba Wallace a personal friend and I could not be happier for him. When he won on Saturday, I didn’t even consider the fact he was African-American. I just considered he’s a good driver and he just took another step towards the ultimate goal of being a Cup Series competitor. Shouldn’t that be what the ultimate goal of the D4D is? Acceptance, looking at people for accomplishments and the people they are… not the color of their skin? I hope that someday, we will get to that point and I pray that people will remember the steps Wallace took to help make that happen.
Kevin Harvick and Ty Dillon overshadowed Darrell Wallace, Jr.‘s first Truck win on Saturday. Harvick was making a one-off Truck start for his former/future team. He was spun out by Dillon, with an assist to Matt Crafton, and then body-slammed Dillon’s truck with his own as the two of them headed back around the track to get into the garage. Harvick ended up stopping in Dillon’s pit and then made some disparaging remarks about the brothers, their driving style and why he was leaving RCR on FOX Sports 1. Harvick made some sort of apology on Sunday, although if you read the words closely it was not directed toward Childress or his grandsons. Harvick is on his way out the door at RCR, so the situation was already strained, but it is now going to be on the verge of breaking.
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
Kyle Larson continues to have some terrible luck as he attempts to garner some Cup Series experience before he goes full-time next year. For the second time in as many tries, an engine turned sour, preventing him from making the most of his opportunity with the No. 51 Chevy prepped by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and run by Harry Scott, Jr. While the powerplants were likely experimental, high-risk for the rookie the ledger still reads two starts, two DNFs for one of the most highly-touted talents of his generation.
Every race at Martinsville, there’s one or two drivers who seem to bring out the caution flag more than most. This year’s culprit? The Whopper. BK Racing had not one but both its drivers responsible for four cautions on the day. Travis Kvapil spun twice, winding up a crumpled soda can in his Burger King / Dr. Pepper Toyota en route to 24th. And David Reutimann? He spun twice to bring out the caution, only to have mechanical problems for the sixth time this year. He eventually pulled his car into the garage area, where it caught on fire due to a faulty rear gear. Not exactly the “flame-broiled” finish the team was expecting… he wound up 37th.
Jimmie Johnson, while fifth had to be feeling down. The No. 48 car was on the outside too many times, for too many restarts and lost too much track position midrace. Chad Knaus, sensing handling problems on short runs took the team off sequence, bringing them in for new tires but essentially writing off a shot at the win in the process. A top-5 finish, in hindsight was somewhat miraculous coming through traffic but when your championship rival outpoints you at a track where you’re supposed to put them away, well…
Mark Martin has been less than stellar in his substitute role for Tony Stewart but Sunday, it was definitely not his fault. Kurt Busch tried to avoid contact with another car off of Turn 4, a move which resulted in turning straight into Martin. That wreck led to extensive time behind the wall, a 36th-place result and seventh outside the top 10 in eight starts for the 54-year-old in the No. 14 Chevy. From the sounds of things, 2013 is going to be Martin’s last year in Cup competition, although he would still like one more shot at the Daytona 500. We’ll see if SHR throws him a bone for keeping Tony Stewart’s seat warm the last few weeks.
The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune
After the events on Saturday and his claims for roughly two-thirds of the race that his car was blowing up, Kevin Harvick soldiered home to a sixth-place finish at Martinsville. In all honesty, Harvick came closer to not having a seat in a car on Sunday than most people realize. Fortunately for him and his title hopes, cooler heads prevailed, a sort of apology was issued, and the No. 29 team had a decent day. Let’s see how they come out of the box at Texas before we start assuming everything is peaches and cream at RCR.
Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya both received Lucky Dogs during Sunday’s race and both finished on the lead lap in 12th and 13th, respectively. While Montoya is usually known for his “take no prisoners” style of driving on short tracks, it was actually Edwards who appeared to be on a mission to hit everything but the pace car early in the race. He seemed to calm down over the second half and brought home a respectable finish, recovering from early incidents with Jeff Burton and Kvapil.
Brad Keselowski spent the first half of the Martinsville race looking like a 15th-place car. But the chemistry with crew chief Paul Wolfe, after the duo returned to Victory Lane at Charlotte seems to be back on track. A series of midrace adjustments, combined with strong strategy put the No. 2 car up front; Keselowski stayed there down the stretch and ran fourth, a career best for him on this short track.
Speaking of career bests, Matt Kenseth has to be jumping for joy this Monday morning after outpointing Jimmie Johnson at his best track. Kenseth was 14th in the Spring and had led 169 career laps at Martinsville entering Sunday. This race? He led 202, overcame a poor-handling car on long runs and had the perfect setup for the final green-flag stint to stay up front. The second-place result could well be the key to the championship should the No. 20 Toyota team pull away from their rivals by Homestead.
Sheet metal fabricators are going to be doing a booming business this coming week. There was not a single car on the track, when the checkered flag flew, that did not have some sort of wrinkled metal. The car owners in the Cup Series will be writing some big checks for more body panels this week.
- Jeff Gordon’s win is his 88th of his career, which puts him 17 away from tying the Silver Fox (David Pearson) for second on the all-time wins list. It has taken Gordon nearly eight years to amass the last 17 wins in his impressive total, so the odds are rather small he’ll even get to 100. Still, he remains one of the five best drivers in the history of the sport.
- This win is Gordon’s first of 2013. He is the 16th different winner this season in 33 races, eclipsing the 15 unique winners that scored victories in 2012.
- Gordon’s win ties him with Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville for the most among active drivers with eight. Richard Petty has the most all-time, with 15 while Darrell Waltrip is second with 11.
- Matt Kenseth’s second-place showing at Martinsville was his second career top-2 finish at the historic track. Kenseth has never taken home a grandfather clock in his career.
- While Kenseth leads the series with seven wins this year, Sunday was his first runner-up finish of the season. Kasey Kahne, by comparison has finished second five times in 2013.
- Clint Bowyer’s podium finish at Martinsville (third) was his second career top 3 at the half-mile track. Interestingly, it was his second consecutive top 3 after a runner-up effort this Spring. Bowyer has 16 starts at Martinsville and has three consecutive top-5 runs.
- Contrary to popular belief, the Rookie of the Race award does not automatically go to Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. every week. Danica Patrick had one of the cleanest-looking cars when the checkered flag flew on Sunday and brought home a 17th-place finish to claim the honor. She was the first car one lap down at the end of the race.
- A four-foot long orange, plastic-coated sledgehammer weighs 20 pounds. We’ll see if that’s enough to draw a penalty after it was thrown at Harvick’s head.
- Martinsville hot dogs are the stuff of legend. They are still $2 and they are from the Jesse Jones Sausage Company, which is now a subsidiary of ConAgra foods. They used to be made at a plant on Jones Sausage Road outside of Raleigh, NC until the plant closed in 2010.
What’s the Points?
Technically, Matt Kenseth leads Jimmie Johnson by zero. That’s what the official press release says that NASCAR handed out after the race. Why a seemingly contradictory statement? Although both drivers are tied for the championship, with 2,294 points, Kenseth holds the tiebreaker with two more wins during this season. It could be ironic if the title comes down to that tiebreaker and Johnson wins one more race while Kenseth doesn’t. Remember, Kenseth won the first race at Kansas with an engine that was found to be illegal — yet he was allowed to keep the win. Keep that in the back of your mind over the next three weeks.
Thanks to his win at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon jumps up to third in the points, 27 behind the leading duo. Sure, it is a nice story but he’s a longshot at best to win this deal. Kevin Harvick managed to keep his “lame duck” job for another week and finished in the top 10 to hold onto fourth in the title hunt. He’s one point behind Gordon and has the same chance to overtake the three drivers ahead of him as Gordon does leapfrogging the two leaders. Rounding out the top 5 is Kyle Busch. “Shrub” gave them a run for most of the day at Martinsville but faded late to a disappointing 15th-place finish. That puts him 36 points from the top spot. He is the last driver within one race worth of points from the lead but we all know he’s not going to make that up.
Heading up the second 10 is Clint Bowyer. He is 55 points out and is just focusing on trying to get into the top 5 by the end of the race at Homestead. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came home eighth on Sunday and lost a place in the standings to Bowyer. At this point, he’s still going to get to go to Vegas, which isn’t bad considering how his Chase started. Greg Biffle is eighth in points and might be getting a call from NASCAR suggesting an anger management counselor. He’s not going to fall out of the top 10 in points but he’s also not going to get higher than sixth in the next three weeks. Next comes Kurt Busch, who had a long day before ending the race in 18th. Fortunately for him Carl Edwards, who is right behind him, didn’t fare a whole lot better so they both held their position in ninth and tenth in points, respectively. The differential between the two is just a single point.
The remaining three had a swap for the 11th position thanks to Ryan Newman being punted into the outside fence in Turn 1 and mangling the back of his car. He dropped to 12th in the standings while Joey Logano ran strong for the first half of the day before coming home in 14th. That was still good enough to put him 85 behind the leader and 21 ahead of Newman in the 11th spot. Then comes Kasey Kahne, who had another disappointing race in the 2013 Chase. At one point, Kahne wound up hung on the curb, in Turns 1 and 2 for multiple caution laps before his car could be yanked off by a tow truck. Kahne is now 124 points from the lead and could be mathematically eliminated from the title at Texas.
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) – What can you say? 17 cautions, a pass for the lead with 20 to go, the Championship battle is tied, a driver nearly assaulted another driver during post-race interviews and nobody threw a hammer at anybody. Short of a side-by-side race to the checkered flag, this one had it covered. Giving it five frosty Budweisers and counting down the days until we get to Martinsville again.
Next Up — The circuit heads to Texas for another pivotal race in the Chase for the Cup. Johnson and Kenseth waged an epic battle for the win there a couple of years ago. We’ll see what happens this time around on Sunday, 3:00 PM Eastern on ESPN. If you want to hear the race, tune into PRN at the same time.
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