The last time we raced at Martinsville, it was the sixth race of a then nascent 2009 season. Hope still sprung eternal back then: Four-time champion Jeff Gordon led the points by some 89 markers; Stewart-Haas Racing was still a fledgling operation of which not much was expected, and Mark Martin had just recorded back-to-back top 10s after two 40th-place runs and another 31st-place effort in the first five races, whereas Kevin Harvick – who has suffered through the sort of year not even his worst enemy would wish on him – was in 10th place in the standings.
But fast forward some seven months to last Sunday’s return to the track in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there’s really three words that sum up where we are right now: Jimmie flipping Johnson. As of today, Jimmie has a 118-point lead over evergreen HMS teammate Martin, and he’s well on his way to an unprecedented fourth straight crown. At least, though, he didn’t make it four for six this past weekend, and that’s where I’ll start today:
HAMLIN SHOWS WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
A hometown win restored some luster to Denny Hamlin’s season, but after a pair of horrendous finishes at Auto Club Speedway (driver error) and Charlotte (engine expiration), taking the checkers at the famed old paperclip was just the tonic a struggling No. 11 team needed. Of course, it’s a case of far too little, far too late as the team of the senior Joe Gibbs racer sits a huge 350 some points out of first place, and the only way Hamlin can make that up is if he kidnaps Chad Knaus for the next month. So with another chance at the title slipping by the wayside, the only thing left to do for the driver of the FedEx Camry is to go out and challenge for wins – and that’s exactly what he did at Martinsville, a track he knows oh so very well from his late-model days. Hamlin was the in-race reporter for the afternoon, and he made a telling comment earlier in the broadcast about how once a driver figures out a feel for a track and turns some fast laps, that “feel” (or technically setup, if you prefer) is much easier to find next time. Clearly, Hamlin found that feel Sunday, leading the last 138 laps on his way to a Virginia double (he also won the Richmond race back in September.)
STEWART’S TITLE DREAMS ARE JUST THAT: DREAMS
After an unexpected and brilliant regular season, the Chase has not been particularly kind to Tony Stewart (his win at Kansas notwithstanding.) It’s not that Stewart has raced poorly, especially when you consider he has an average finish of 8.5 and a worst run of 14th in the six Chase races to date, but he still sits some 192 points of the champion-elect Johnson and barring a calamity for the No. 48 (which, let’s not forget, could still happen this weekend on the high banks at ‘Dega) the sport’s newest owner/driver looks like he’ll have to settle with a top-five overall finish. Now, I’d imagine if you went back and asked Tony if that would be a successful season before the green flag at the Daytona 500, he’d have taken it in a nanosecond. But given how well and how consistently he ran over the first 26 races (and the fact that he still retains an 85-point lead in the “traditional” standings) you can’t help but wonder if at some point this winter, Smoke might just sit down and wonder what could have been in 2009. That being said, it’s onward and upward for the fledgling Stewart-Haas team as we look toward 2010.
CURSE LIFTING AT TALLADEGA
This past week, a local Alabama medicine man by the name of Robert Thrower conducted an ancient ceremony, using a bowl filled with tobacco, red cedar, everlasting (rabbit tobacco) and wild sage at the 2.66-mile circuit, the intention of which was to restore balance to the land surrounding the famed superspeedway, which, as you probably know, has a well-earned reputation for being cursed. Given the litany of disasters and freak occurrences that have surrounded the track, and those who race on the unforgiving hard banks, it is to be hoped that the ceremony does indeed restore some much needed equilibrium as this Sunday’s race, more than perhaps any other race in the brief history of the Chase, could be a game changer for both the champion elect and its presumptive challengers. Curse or not, Talladega should be compelling viewing, and that’s fantastic given the paucity of quality in so many races this year.
DOES IT MATTER THAT CASEY MEARS HAD A FEW “RELATIVELY” GOOD WEEKS?
After a seventh-place finish at Charlotte, the announcers made the point during Sunday’s race broadcast that there was much excitement swirling around the No. 07 team. Well, color me confused, but I don’t really get it. Just look in the dictionary for a definition of NASCAR mediocrity, and you’ll see a picture of Casey Mears. In 248 races he’s won once (and that was a fuel-mileage gamble,) had 11 further top fives and another 45 top-10 runs. And he’s led just 389 of the 68,927 laps he’s run at Sprint Cup level. For those of you of a mathematical persuasion, that’s 0.006% (and I’m rounding up). It’s not like he hasn’t had the equipment, either (just look how well Martin has run in the No. 5 car). Yes, it’s fair to say the whole RCR team has pushed water up a hill all season long, and Mears is already on his third new crew chief of the season, but the truth is he has never consistently proved he can be anything but an also-ran at the Sprint Cup level. His erstwhile sponsor Jack Daniel’s, who will exit the sport at the end of the season, seems to agree. I’m not saying that is all Mears’s fault… but at some point, his talent has gotta be a factor. One final point: If Casey didn’t have such a famous last name, would he be even remotely near top-level Cup equipment? I think not.
THE MAN MOST LIKELY TO KILL NASCAR
I always feel a twinge of guilt when I lay into the No. 48, but I’ve read too many articles recently from Johnson apologists telling me I should be enjoying and lauding the efforts of the back-to-back-to-back champ and how his dominance is not boring. Well, I’m sorry… but it is. I’m generally very optimistic toward our beloved sport, but the soul-crushing dominance of double J is not, repeat not, going to attract new fans. In fact, it’s going to do the opposite. In a sport where winning is a rare commodity, Johnson has made it look scary easy, and that just isn’t good. I don’t doubt his brilliance or the evil genius of Knaus, it just makes me want to turn off the television every time Johnson takes the lead – and I can bet you that’s what thousands did on Sunday before Hamlin wrested the lead away and drove off for his second victory at Martinsville. Given the parlous state of NASCAR this year, the last thing we need is Johnson snoozing his way to the title. If he wins, well, he does deserve it. But the sad thing is outside of the family, friends, and fans of the No. 48 no one else is going to be watching, and it’s only going to hurt the long-term prognosis for a sport that is already lurching from one crisis to the next.