What a race Sunday! The Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway gave fans the tight racing action they have been yearning for since before the season began. The close racing amongst competitors individually made the race well worth watching, as did the fact that some unexpected drivers had good runs on the tricky half-mile track. While several surprise drivers slid into the top 15 or 20, other expected contenders found themselves in holes early in the event, with little or no chance of digging out. Here are the HOT, WARM and COLD drivers this week, before the Cup Series breaks its short-track excursion and travels to Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday.
HOT: Denny Hamlin – After having the second-best car last week and finishing there, the Chesterfield, Va. native appeared poised to finish first Sunday, as he had the field’s best car and proved so by leading the most laps (296). A few late-race cautions and a lost spot on pit road allowed Jimmie Johnson to get just close enough to him in just enough time to steal the victory. Hamlin’s performance at Martinsville improved the No. 11’s points standing three spots to fifth.
HOT: Johnson – Johnson led only 42 laps en route to the No. 48’s first victory of the season. The race was not all good for the three-time defending champion as the Lowe’s Chevy made extra pit stops early in the event to solve handling issues. This left Johnson with two-thirds of the race to claw his way back into contention – which he slowly did, climaxing with his late-race contact with Hamlin to take the win. Now with three straight top 10s and four in six races, Johnson gains five spots in the points to fourth – but is still 142 points behind points leader and teammate Jeff Gordon.
HOT: Tony Stewart – Driver No. 14 broke through with his first top five in his self-owned entry, and possibly would have gotten his first win had Johnson and Hamlin not gathered themselves up quickly after some door-rubbing racing for the lead with 15 laps to go. Stewart continues to show that he has the equipment to contend, as Sunday’s finish maintains the two-time champ’s seventh spot in the standings.
WARM: Mark Martin – As has become true Martin fashion, the veteran announced that he may want to run full-time, instead of part-time, in the No. 5 Chevy in 2010. Runs like Sunday’s will make Martin’s decision easier, as he placed the Kellogg’s car seventh in the final results. After a dreadful start to 2009, the No. 5 team has consecutive top 10s and sits 27th in points; this, after three straight finishes outside the top 30 left the team on the brink of falling outside the Top 35. Ironically enough, Martin’s two top 10s this year have come at Bristol and Martinsville, where he chose not to run during his limited schedule the past two seasons.
WARM: Ryan Newman – Almost identical to Martin, the former driver of the U.S. Army Chevy, Newman’s season started out horribly until back-to-back top 10s at Bristol and Martinsville lifted the No. 39 team from the bottom of the points standings to its current spot in 18th. Both bad luck and off race cars left Newman with mediocre finishes early on, but Newman’s runs the last two weeks and the fact that a track he has won at, Texas, comes next on the schedule leave him with plenty to be happy about as the season pushes on.
WARM: AJ Allmendinger – Remember when Allmendinger making a race was considered a victory? Remember how long it took for the open-wheel transplant to score his first career top 10? ‘Dinger is out proving his worth week in and week out in the No. 44 Richard Petty Motorsports Dodge with three consecutive top-20 finishes, including a ninth on Sunday. Allmendinger also finds himself 15th in points, one spot ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. The No. 44, which is still technically a part-time team, now has enough sponsorship to last through May and is Richard Petty Motorsports’s second-highest ranked team in the standings (15th) behind Kasey Kahne and the No. 9.
COLD: Matt Kenseth – The short tracks have not been kind to the No. 17 team this season. This Sunday in Martinsville, Kenseth ran into pit-road problems early in the event and floundered around 30th until fellow competitors began falling by the wayside, allowing the DeWalt Ford to float up to a 23rd-place finish. After winning the first two races of the year, Kenseth blew a motor and finished dead last in Las Vegas, was less-than-spectacular in Atlanta and finished 33rd at Bristol. Kenseth and the Roush Fenway team now sit only 12th in points.
COLD: Robby Gordon – I don’t know about you, but I lost count of how many times Gordon brought out the caution flag or blew a tire Sunday. The race got so bad for Robby, our own Bryan Davis Keith reported that crew chief Kirk Almquist began using only scuffed tires late in the event to save on the team’s tire bill. In the end, Gordon finished 40th with a blown engine after several on-track spinouts. The No. 7 team now sits only 31st in the owner standings, less than 100 points away from having to qualify on time for races. Gordon’s Toyota also had very few sponsor decals on Sunday, which is a shame considering how often it was on TV.
COLD: David Gilliland – Besides the 14th- and 24th-place runs in Las Vegas and Atlanta, the No. 71 team and driver Gilliland have finished outside the top 30 in every other race. After missing the Daytona 500, the team qualified for each race it had to on time and finished just well enough to secure a spot inside the Top 35. But Sunday’s 36th-place run, plagued with tire problems, leaves the TRG team now tied with Scott Speed and the No. 82 for 37th in points, just one behind Aric Almirola in the No. 8. Gilliland now needs to gain 28 points on Paul Menard this weekend if he wants to get back inside the Top 35.
Here are some other HOT and NOT items from the week in racing:
HOT: The Martinsville race – Not enough can be said about the racing action in Martinsville. Though whoever led the race was able to easily maintain that lead, the racing in the pack was close, competitive, and fun to watch. And, after seeing Hamlin lead most of the event, the race still came down to a late pass up front by Johnson. Everyone will be talking about Johnson’s late-race contact this week, but don’t forget Hamlin made a heck of a move under Johnson on the second to last restart to take the lead in the first place. Seeing real racing, especially up front, is encouraging and badly needed for fans who have been getting short-changed in that department this year.
NOT: Kyle Busch’s impatience with slow racecars – This goes for both others’ cars and his own. Busch drives in a less-than-stellar manner when he is mired in traffic and when his car is not handling. Sunday, Busch got into Speed, ruining the rookie’s chances at contending after he stayed out during a pit sequence to lead 12 laps. Busch also overdrives his own car in these situations and doesn’t handle adversity in stride very well. Remember the Chase last year? After encountering problems in the first two races, Busch failed to rally the No. 18 at all and the team ran at nowhere near the pace it ran in the season’s first 26 races. If Busch wants to win a championship, he needs to learn how to bounce back from problems. Here is a good sign for the 23-year-old, though: after falling to 34th with a blown tire yesterday, he rallied to finish 24th.
HOT: Brian Ickler’s big break – Busch gets a thumbs up (after getting dissed in the last paragraph) for tabbing up-and-comer Ickler as his replacement in the No. 51 Toyota in the Camping World Truck Series for the 10 events that he will not run this season. Ickler has turned heads in the last year. Running 10 Camping World East Series events last season, he won three and finished two others in the top 10. Ickler also led most of the Toyota All-Star Showdown as well before getting wrecked by Ron Hornaday and taken out of contention. Busch’s “protégé,” Ickler is actually only a few months younger than his 23-year-old employer, but certainly welcomes the opportunity to race in the top flight equipment of a winner.
NOT: Johnny Sauter holding up the leaders – During Monday’s truck race in Martinsville, Sauter’s No. 13 Chevy truck had some sort of oil line problem early on and lost 11 laps in the pits. Lined up inside leader Rick Crawford, Sauter failed to give way to the veteran and held him up more than once after restarts. He even repeatedly revved his truck past Crawford on caution laps, prompting even the gentleman Crawford to lose his cool. By the time the No. 14 got around the unlucky No. 13, Hornaday’s No. 33 had found a way around them both. Sauter had no chance to get back on the lead lap and should not have played a factor in the race at all. By choosing to hold up the leaders, this act is typical of the temper tantrum-throwing Sauter and likely plays a factor into why the 30-year-old has trouble staying in rides.
Texas Motor Speedway is the next place where the Cup Series does the Sunday shuffle. Carl Edwards swept both races at the track last season, and needs a good run after tire troubles ruined his day at Martinsville. Turn here to see if the teams at the top of the standings make their leads bigger in Texas, and if other teams find their chances at the Chase or even the Top 35 on death row.