Thomas Bowles · Monday October 28, 2013
For all the dull races NASCAR’s suffered through this season, its first running the new Gen-6 chassis Martinsville proved the perfect remedy. At the sport’s smallest, oldest speedway, one of the staples of the Cup circuit’s original schedule there is no such thing as falling flat. Perhaps that’s the best trait connected to the .533-mile oval, a track known for fraying tempers is that everyone involved with the sport leaves there feeling something.
If you’re a fan of Jeff Gordon, it’s pure sentimentality. Once the King of Martinsville, with seven victories Gordon had seen his throne stolen by a familiar foe: Jimmie Johnson. The four-time champ who helped hire a five-time championship protégé lost his mojo here, along with the spotlight J.J. has stolen so often through his rise to success. Six years ago, the No. 48 blew by the No. 24 here, the first of four straight wins that turned a record-setting season by Gordon into second-best in the Chase. Luck, not on the veteran’s side in recent years has also bit him more here than anywhere else. There was the piece of torn-up racetrack, a rarity that tore through his front end, the ill-timed tap by Clint Bowyer last Spring… we can go on and on.
Except Sunday, all the bad breaks that have defined Gordon in recent years broke towards him instead. Only twice, during crunch time did he have to restart on the outside line, the kiss of death during a day of Martinsville mayhem where that meant a guaranteed loss of track position. As the laps wound down, a race filled with 17 cautions stayed green, the long run that played right into the hands of a man who’s turned from “Wonder Boy” into the gray-haired, patient veteran filled with short track experience. The impact of an 88th career victory, his first of the season was not lost on a man who, at age 42 and with Chase Elliott perhaps two seasons from being Cup ready knows that time is no longer on his side.
“Sometimes guys make it look easy, and it’s not,” he said afterwards. “I can promise you that. I think what’s even tougher is when you’re not getting the wins and just over time, it just starts to accumulate, and it’s hard to keep the confidence in what you’re doing. That’s what I think I’m most proud of, is that we’ve been able to stick together [at the No. 24 team] and maintain a great working relationship. Just keep on our path… and it’ll come.”
There was a calmness surrounding Gordon, a stark contrast compared to those down in Daytona Beach. Once their marketing centerpiece, the veteran now has the anvil of an asterisk, a 13th Chase participant invited only because other people broke the rules. For most of this postseason, under the specter of rising ratings and a mano-e-mano battle between Johnson and Kenseth executives could work on sweeping the whole “Spingate” mess away. Clint Bowyer has stayed under the radar; Ryan Newman, the other “late add” to this postseason playoff will be lucky to end the season higher than 10th. Even Chase exiled Martin Truex, Jr. has appeared to land somewhere for 2014, a happy ending to a NAPA Auto Parts bailout that threatened to send NASCAR into sponsor crisis mode.
But Gordon’s renaissance, wonderful to see also carries with it that specter of “oh, no.” Now third in the standings, 27 behind the top two a championship remains within the realm of possibility. What if Johnson and Kenseth, racing for the lead at Texas ala Johnson-Keselowski last season lose control and crash? Or what if Gordon catches fire, winning two of the last three races to make a charge? He did win last year’s season finale, at Homestead, led 15 laps at Texas in April before breaking a suspension and has won Phoenix as recently as Spring, 2011. There’s a reason this man shares the modern-era record of 13 victories in a season; he’s the rare talent that can rip off these top-level performances under pressure.
At least for now, the top two show no signs of cracking, Matt Kenseth in particular showing an emotion we wouldn’t expect from him at Martinsville: pure joy. The No. 20 team, seemingly on the outs after three weeks of ill-handling race cars seemed poised to spiral downwards at their driver’s worst track. 14th in the Spring, Kenseth feels like he’s 40th best of the 43 cars on the grid every time out here; in 13 years, he’d led a total of 169 laps.
Sunday, he paced the field for 202. It was a must-have masterpiece, just one week after rival Johnson took the point lead and was ready for a knockout punch at his favorite track. In the end, Kenseth was forced to settle for second but simply outrunning his rival, pulling the championship back into a tie has to be considered the race of this Chase. The Vegas odds of that happening, without a mechanical failure or wreck for the No. 48 had to be about 1000/1 out in Vegas.
“For how Martinsville has been for me, how could you not be pleased,” Kenseth said upon exiting his car. “We led the most laps and finished second. The only guy happier is Jeff.”
As for Jimmie, his race was best represented by the emotions he pulled out of everyone else. Greg Biffle, angry over contact between the two came up after a television interview and cussed “Five-Time” out. Bowyer, who ran third made it clear the No. 48 used up a few mulligans once the intensity – and the reality Kenseth would not wind up behind him – picked up later in the race.
“The 48 was very, very aggressive for the point leader to be dive bombing to the inside,” he said. “I was all over the brakes to keep from running him over a couple times.”
That’s how it went, Johnson’s normally dominant position here replaced by a level of frustration where he needed to play blocker just to maintain track position. Starting on the outside, during most restarts the driver’s most glaring weakness was tested, again and again. Only the worry over wrecking a clear-cut title contender kept Johnson from getting turned by not just Bowyer but Kyle Busch, Biffle, and several others. Chad Knaus, who made a top-5 saving call to put Johnson back in traffic, with fresh tires and a major adjustment midway through the race will need some magic to simply maintain momentum prior to race No. 8 in Texas.
For others, the final three races won’t be enough to let out 500 laps of frustration. Jeff Burton is now angry at Carl Edwards. Travis Kvapil is, too, after the driver of the No. 99 caused the first two cautions of the day. Kasey Kahne’s team wasn’t happy with Landon Cassill. Kyle Busch was mad at, well, the world. Such is the nature of the beast here, where the yellow flag flies at random and bumping can happen without ruining your chance at a good finish.
So many storylines for fans to talk about. Plenty of rivalries for drivers to think about, well into 2014. That’s the mark of a good race.
That’s what has always made Martinsville a “must see.”
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