Editor’s Note: Tom Bowles is off this week. Look for him to return with his regular Bowles-Eye View on things next Monday… this time around, Bryan Davis Keith fills in.
Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville. Nothing’s changed, right? Wrong.
The last two races on the Sprint Cup circuit prior to Sunday had showcased drastic changes to the sport, and none of them have been completely well-received. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s new racecar proved to be a continuing nightmare for tire development, as the majority of drivers in the field spent the day struggling to find grip on a track notorious for being one of the friendliest in terms of offering multiple grooves for drivers to make a fast lap. Said Jeff Gordon of the new car/tire package, “I will challenge any tire manufacturer out there to build a tire for this car at this racetrack. It’s impossible.”
Following Atlanta was one of the season’s most anticipated events, 500 laps around the bullring of Bristol. However, as fellow Frontstretch writer Mike Neff noted, “this isn’t your daddy’s Bristol.” The resurfaced Bristol Motor Speedway, while offering the incredible spectacle of three-wide racing on a half-mile oval, did not serve up dozens of cautions and wrecks as it used to, a change that had many race fans and writers crying foul that Bristol had become “Brisdull.”
Thankfully, the Series’ next stop just happened to be Martinsville, a track where very little has changed since 1949. Even today, with tons of technology, sponsorship, and media coverage, Sunday’s race was a beat and bang slugfest in the Middle of Nowhere, Virginia. And the return to the Cup Series’ oldest venue, a track that has always been a mainstay on the schedule, proved to be just what the doctor ordered.
After seeing Friday and Saturday marred by dreary weather, Sunday was a day perfect for racing. With temperatures pushing 70 degrees despite a steady breeze, it was a beautiful, sunshiny day that definitely rubbed off on the crowd. Though attendance at the paperclip facility was still far from a sellout, the fans in the stands were in fantastic spirits and clearly just happy to be there. Loud, excited, and above all rowdy, it was a blast to be around the track and in the grandstands.
And why shouldn’t they have been loud, excited, and rowdy? Martinsville has always delivered old-school, close-quarters racing, just like this latest edition of the Goody’s 500. There was beating, there was banging, and there were furious battles. There wasn’t a fan sitting down when Gordon and Denny Hamlin traded shoves with each other battling for the lead – or when Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent the final quarter of the race doing everything they could besides wrecking as they fought for position.
To punctuate what truly was a return to stock car racing’s roots, fans even got to see a bump and run for the win. After having fallen victim to some JGR scheming between Hamlin and Kyle Busch – causing one of the best passes on a restart seen at any level of NASCAR in recent memory – Johnson repaid the favor to Hamlin with 16 laps to go, knocking Hamlin out of the way entering turn 3 before driving away from the pack and to his fifth Martinsville triumph in the last six races at the speedway.
Though Johnson would steadfastly refuse to call his move a bump and run in the post-race press conferences, one look at the tapes says otherwise. Johnson clearly stuck a wheel into the rear quarter of Hamlin’s Toyota, forcing Hamlin into the marbles and opening the lower groove of the track. If that’s not a bump and run, I don’t know what is. And if that’s not short-track racing… I don’t know what is.
However, the post-race following another exciting chapter of Martinsville lore wasn’t the epilogue most fans might expect. Usually, these types of races end with a script that leads to emotions taking center stage. But to everyone’s surprise, no one saw a driver basking in the triumph of having wanted a win and taking it, nor a runner-up who felt angered, hungry, hell, even remotely excited in any form.
Instead, fans were treated to a sulking Hamlin and a Johnson, who, true to form, refused to even consider that the move he pulled on the track was a little brash – maybe even a little dirty.
Let’s start with Hamlin. The JGR veteran’s reaction to having victory literally beaten out of him in his home state on, as Darrell Waltrip coined it, the Virginia short tracks that were “his personal playground” in the old days was almost depressing to listen to.
“You know, it’s tough to say that you’ve gotten used to losing, but I’ve gotten used to the disappointment at the end. It’s not like a new thing,” said Hamlin. In the same interview, Hamlin went further to stress that “Jimmie [had] always been fair to him” and making the token observation “[he] would have done the same thing” to Johnson had the shoe been on the other foot, all while not fuming or lamenting – just merely pouting.
Keep in mind that all of this moping was coming from the same driver who aggressively stole the Budweiser Shootout as a rookie, stood toe-to-toe with then-teammate and senior driver Tony Stewart after a wreck at Daytona, and who just last year took an intentional swipe at Brad Keselowski for hounding him during a Nationwide race at Charlotte. Considering that recent history, you’d at least think Hamlin would be just a little fired up after having a surefire win taken away by someone’s rear bumper.
No, I’m not saying that Hamlin should have rallied his pit crew, armed himself with a wedge wrench, and charged after the No. 48 team’s pit box. But sitting in the media center listening to him go through the motions like a child talking about his disappointment after having one of Virginia’s crown racing jewels taken from him had me just wishing he’d shut up and go hide somewhere. Maybe I’m out of tune with most race fans, but I don’t like watching pouters – be they in a line at the grocery store or racecar drivers.
And if that wasn’t enough to dampen the excitement that was Sunday’s finish, Johnson’s post-race comments took yet another step towards cementing his stature as perhaps NASCAR’s most dominant unpopular driver.
Now, Johnson’s victory did coincide with the 25th anniversary of Rick Hendrick’s first Cup victory as a car owner, so predictably (and rightfully so) Johnson was all praises for his accomplished owner and race team. It was cool to see Johnson express pride in his home at Hendrick Motorsports and to embrace Geoffrey Bodine, the driver who gave Rick Hendrick his first win, in victory lane.
This one was a little different, though… and not just because of the beard. Johnson earned this win, sure, but he took it too… at the expense of Hamlin’s bumper.
Here’s the funny thing about all that, though; listening to Johnson speak, you’d have never known that even happened.
His account of the pass for the win? “I just took my time.”
“I felt like I was a little bit better than the No. 11 on the long haul and I was able to stay with him and get closer and closer,” he explained. “I went into turn 3 and got inside of him and just started racing. I think he was trying not to leave me a lot of room, which is what you do. Before I knew it, I was up on the curb and we made contact and [started] sliding sideways. It certainly wasn’t something intentional. I was just trying to get in there and get the win.”
“I was patient and set him up, set him up, got inside of him. The only reason we touched… was the fact that he chopped.”
Patient? Huh? There were 16 laps to go when Johnson knocked Hamlin out of the way. And as for the accusation Hamlin chopped… what race was Johnson watching? It was more than evident, both on TV and in person, that Johnson drove his No. 48 into a hole it wasn’t going to fit into, and contact resulted. It was a bump-and-run, good ol’-fashioned short tracking.
But for some odd reason, Johnson just wouldn’t own up to any responsibility for a collision that was his making. When asked about his bump ‘n’ run, Johnson replied “From my standpoint, we all watched the bump and run from [Dale] Earnhardt, which probably was a bump and crash, but Gordon did a good job moving Rusty out of the way [at Bristol].”
OK. Now, take away the celebrations of Hendrick Motorsports commemorating their first victory in dramatic fashion. Take away the spectacle that is a Sprint Cup race, all the media, everything. In its purest form, Sunday saw Johnson do what thousands of drivers before him have done… he moved a competitor aside to win a short-track race. But he won’t take credit for it.
On a smaller scale, this is just another example of why Johnson, a racer and a champion at that, is never going to win over many race fans. But on a larger scale, what Johnson and Hamlin both demonstrated on Sunday was what has truly changed in NASCAR. Writers like myself can talk till we’re blue in the face about the new racecars, the longer intermediate racetracks, the rules, as being what has truly altered the sport from its beginnings to the imperfect wonder that it is today.
None of that was supposed to apply Sunday. Martinsville was a gathering in rural Virginia, a true historical relic come alive and a fist-pumping, electric short-track spectacle that usually pumps energy back into the sport. But in the end, it wasn’t the track that changed, or the cars, or the racing.
It was the drivers themselves.