Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is off today. Vito Pugliese filled in… look for Matt’s thoughts on the race to pop up a little later this week!
The Key Moment: On a green-white-checkered restart in overtime (lap 507), the No. 11 car of Denny Hamlin on four fresh tires tagged the back of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet of Ryan Newman, then the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon – and then the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford of Matt Kenseth, clearing the way for him to take the lead and the victory. Teammate Joey Logano scooted by behind him, coming home in second for a 1-2 Joe Gibbs Racing finish.
Dramatic Moment: Which one? With four laps to go, Hamlin restarted ninth – five rows back. The next lap, he went three-wide for fourth place, where he would stay until Paul Menard got together with Kyle Busch. That brought out the final caution and green-white-checkered restart – while leader Gordon was within helmet-throwing distance of the white flag. Then, Gordon got bumped by Kenseth on that final restart, causing plenty of extracurricular activity between them that allowed Hamlin to pass for the win.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week
All we heard last week from just about every news source on television, print media and the internet was about the formation of a new independent group so steadfast in their beliefs and deeply held convictions, they would do whatever they could in their power to help bring about and effect change. No, not the Tea Party, the informal ABJ Group: Anybody But [Jimmie] Johnson. Well, following Hamlin’s second consecutive win at Martinsville, and third in 10 attempts, the potential stands that there might be an ABH Group forming shortly. It’s probably for the best they don’t, though; that acronym is already taken. (If you have ever watched Gangland on The History Channel, you’ll know what I’m talking about…).
Might Casey Mears get a shot at driving one of the best cars in Sprint Cup Racing next week at Phoenix? Very possible, with Monday’s rain-delayed race delaying Hamlin’s scheduled surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered in a basketball game early this year. But should Hamlin not be able to go, or need to be relieved, Mears would be climbing into a car that has been hard to handle at flat tracks. And Mears’s career at Phoenix hasn’t exactly been stellar, either. With an average finish of 27.2 at PIR, he has to be wishing that surgery could have come a week later at Texas (where he has four career top 10s and a pair of top fives). Then again, considering the sled he has been trying to get into races this year, he’d probably feel just as fortunate driving a FedEx truck.
If there is indeed any truth to the rumors Martinsville is in danger of losing a date to Kansas or Kentucky, please NASCAR, come to your senses. Use this race as witness to the glory of short-track racing, as it was easily the best we’ve had in quite sometime. Time and time again, the old tracks never disappoint, and today – on NASCAR’s sole original track remaining from 1949 – was no exception. If there is anything more beautiful than the sights and sounds of 43 unmuffled, 900-horsepower stock cars pulling off the second turn at Martinsville amid the greenery on a crisp, sunny, spring afternoon, these four eyes and two ears have yet to feast upon it. Then again, producing one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history at Rockingham in 2004 did nothing for The Rock to free its melon from the unrelenting guillotine of “progress…” so stay tuned. Attendance Sunday was listed at 58,000 (10,000 short of capacity), and Monday’s crowd was estimated at 40,000 – even though the stands looked less than half full. Those are the worst attendance numbers for the 2010 Sprint Cup season to date.
If it wasn’t enough that he didn’t win for the fourth time in six races, Johnson and Chad Knaus were heard to be – gasp! – disagreeing with each other on the radio early in the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500. Under caution, Johnson asked Knaus for some assistance getting into the pits, to help him avoid pushing the envelope too far and getting busted for speeding. Surprised, Knaus responded repeatedly and emphatically that Johnson was to absolutely not try and slow his entry down at all because: “it is impossible for you to get caught speeding in that section!” And to think some fans actually dare to raise the specter that it’s anything less than honorable the way Knaus and company have managed to win those 50 races and four championships. (Or is that 48 races? Knaus was suspended for two of them for cheating with an adjustable rear window during Daytona 500 qualifying in 2006. Whatever.)
It appeared there may be another entry into the Brad Keselowski saga after Keselowski’s No. 12 Dodge, sporting the new corporate logo of two diagonal slashes (apparently a long-horned sheep just didn’t resonate as Chrysler’s performance icon) bounced off the curbing in turn 4 and into Carl Edwards’s No. 99 Aflac Ford. But nobody was put on their lid this week, and when informed of Keselowski’s apology, Edwards responded, “That’s fine.” So all appears to be forgiven between these two… until you remember that driver of the No. 99’s still on probation. Remember, Edwards took responsibility for the Atlanta incident right before sending Keselowski skyward.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Lance McGrew were both pleased with the performance of the No. 88 AMP Sugar Free Chevrolet during practice this past weekend. But come race time, the car was again not quite right and just a tick off the pace in coming home 15th. A pit-road problem was once again the key to self-destruction, with a call by McGrew to pit closer to the box costing Earnhardt precious time on a caution flag stop; it dropped him well outside the top 10, and while stuck in traffic the duo was never able to work their way back up. That left them stuck with a mixed bag result in what’s typically been a mixed bag season to date. Earnhardt Jr. is still in the top 10 in points, 159 markers out of first. However, he is also less than 100 points out of 19th. Maybe McGrew should accuse him of something heinous again to help spark his tone up a little. You know, April 15th is fast approaching; he should probably mention something about him driving like he cheats on his taxes. Even though the whole world doesn’t need to be hearing that….
While Kenseth and AJ Allmendinger have both campaigned this season in cars dressed in the Valvoline paint scheme that was ran by Mark Martin from 1992-1995, it’s Martin who has seemingly regained his luck from that era. Three consecutive miserable weeks have stymied a strong start to his 2010 season that saw a pole win at Daytona, followed by back-to-back fourth-place finishes at California and Las Vegas wiped out by hitting a wall (literally) at the short-track swing of Bristol and Martinsville. But fans of the Little Guy need not worry – it was at this point last season he came to life with a dominant win at Phoenix, and that just so happens to be the next track on the schedule. Through the slump, the performance of the No. 5 team has not been in question… only the propensity for bad things to happen to them at the most inopportune time. But the mental toughness that Martin credited as being his greatest asset and contribution to his new team last year is being put to the test early on in 2010.
The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune
Gordon was within all of 100 feet of crossing the start/finish line as the white flag was displayed, only to have it be replaced with a yellow rag as he drove under the spotter’s stand on lap 499. At least the legion of No. 24 fans will have somebody else to kick around this week instead of Steve Letarte – who, by the way, called a fantastic race and had it all but won if not for the Busch/Menard incident behind them. By not pitting and staying out, he still stood the best chance they had at winning after leading 92 of 500 laps. And if third place finishes are disappointing… you have got to be doing something right.
Kevin Harvick need not fret over leading the Sprint Cup standings by one measly point, as did entering Martinsville. While running second on lap 106, the rear brakes disappeared on the Shell-Pennzoil Impala, sending him to the garage area for repairs. Harvick would return but 33 laps down, eventually falling 100 laps back by the end of the race in a finish that cost him the points lead. But he would not be the only contending RCR machine to suffer problems this day….
Martin once again had a car capable of a top-five finish for the third straight week – and capable of winning for the second week in a row – only to be felled by a blown right-front tire with 21 laps remaining. That, of course, happened after scrambling from 24th to sixth over a 100-lap period, following a pit-road penalty when the air hose was snagged on a bowed out lower quarterpanel extension. The extra four inches of sheet metal hanging down was the result of mandated body modifications to help maintain aerodynamic sideforce, a result of the addition of the new spoiler (which replaces the former wing’s side plates.)
Kyle Busch had tumbled back as far as 34th in the early going, but was in line for a top-10 finish late when Menard slid into him entering turn 3. Busch smacked the wall between turns three and four, ending what was a Herculean effort to rebound from what appeared to be a disaster in the making (and it was, joining Hamlin for a “scratch your head” pit stop call he could never recover from).
Juan Pablo Montoya should just give up and quit at this point. I don’t mean that sarcastically, or to cast aspirations on Montoya or his team. Sometimes, the world just really is out to crush and destroy you. His day at Martinsville was proof positive, as he blew a right front tire on lap 126, sending him headlong into the frontstretch wall. Upon completing repairs to the Target Chevrolet, he returned to the track, only to have the same thing happen – at the same place. So unless the ghost of Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock was concealed amongst the shrubbery in turns 1 and 2 and picking out his Goodyears, Montoya was the recipient of either some really bad luck, excessive front camber, brake heat, or something cutting into his tire for it to happen with the kind of regularity one would expect from a tablespoon of Metamucil.
Jeff Burton had perhaps the one car that was capable of keeping pace with Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota – and passing it. The RCR driver was poised to claim his first win of the season – and in a year and a half – until he, too, suffered right-front tire detonation on lap 491, causing the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet to plow into the turn 4 wall like an Israeli bulldozer through a terrorist compound on the Gaza Strip. (With that being said, I’d also like to wish our Jewish readers a Happy Passover today.)
Gordon may have had a sure win snatched from his grasp about two seconds before crossing the stripe on the white-flag lap that would have ended the race – but at least he didn’t blow a tire like Kenseth did coming to the white flag. He just helped cause it, after contact with Kenseth in turn 1 of that final restart kept both cars tangling with each other instead of victory lane.
The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune
Hamlin showed why it isn’t often you restart with four laps to go five rows deep and are suddenly in contention to win a race. (Unless you’re Harvick or Earnhardt Jr. at the Daytona 500.) I guess that’s the whole point of the green-white-checkered finish: expecting the unexpected, predictable uncertainty, and organized chaos.
Logano, in keeping with the Jewish holiday theme here, saw Hamlin as his Moses, parting the Red Sea for the orange Home Depot No. 20 to sneak through for a 1-2 JGR finish. It was his best ever run at Martinsville (and first top 10 in seven short-track starts) which is really not all that surprising; after all, the kid is all of 19 years old and has raced here on just two other occasions – his previous best being a 12th-place run last fall.
Ambrose succeeded in running into just about everything except the hot dog carts, bringing home what was left of the No. 47 Little Debbie Toyota in 11th place. With the alacrity of his spins, swipes, and spastic actions on the .526-mile paperclip today, the Tasmanian Devil lived up to his nickname Monday afternoon. However, at Phoenix or Richmond in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised to see his car being delivered to the garage on a flatbed early in the going, by way of retribution from at least five drivers who had reason to be angry at his tactics.
Menard continues to hang on to a top-12 points performance by way of a 14th-place finish, his sixth top 20 in as many races. But his steady-as-she-goes persona was shaken a little bit by a number of incidents that saw the nose of his No. 98 Menards Ford looking decidedly Martinsville-ized by days end.
Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Pat Tryson finally have a strong finish (fifth) to reflect the number of solid runs the No. 56 Michael Waltrip Racing team has assembled this year. Clearly, the results have not reflected the effort or the performance thus far in 2010. But rest assured, while Truex may be struggling for camera time on the track, the U.S. Navy can set their atomic clock with the consistency that his NAPA commercials air each and every commercial break. He may not know how to get to the moon, but when it comes to pressing Mute, I know just what to do.
- Hamlin’s win is his third at Martinsville, tying his career high for wins at a particular track (Pocono). In the last eight races at the paperclip, there have just been two winners: Hamlin and Johnson.
- Logano’s second-place finish was his best since winning New Hampshire last June.
- Newman (fourth) had his first top-five finish since Pocono last June – a span of 30 races.
- Brian Vickers (sixth) had his best ever finish at Martinsville and his best at a short track in 32 career starts at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond.
- Clint Bowyer was the only Richard Childress Racing entry to finish in the top 10 (seventh), despite teammates Harvick and Burton combining to lead nearly 200 laps.
- Johnson is indeed human after all. He came home with a rather pedestrian ninth-place finish, and failed to lead a lap for the third time this season. It’s also the first time he’s failed to lead at Martinsville since fall 2005… in those other eight starts in between, he led 1,380 laps, won five times and never finished lower than fourth.
- Biffle (10th) is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all six races this season.
- The top 10 Monday drove four Toyotas, four Chevys and two Fords. Beyond that, two of each car make managed to finish in the top 13. Short-track racing: The Ultimate Equalizer of Parity.
- David Gilliland (19th) posted the best finish for Front Row Motorsports this season after moving from the No. 38 to the No. 37 to keep that car (usually driven by rookie Kevin Conway) inside the Top 35 in owner points.
- Montoya (36th) has more finishes outside the Top 35 in six starts this season (three) than he had during a full, 36-race season in 2009 (two).
What’s The Points?
Harvick’s brake issues put the brakes on him leading the standings. Jumping up two spots, Johnson takes over the point with his top-10 finish Sunday. Biffle is second, 14 back, while Kenseth is two points behind him in third. Harvick (dropping three spots) and Burton round out the top five.
Kurt Busch jumped up a spot to sixth, while Gordon’s strong performance bumped him up four spots to seventh. Tony Stewart dropped three positions to eighth, while Bowyer moved up three to jump from 12th to ninth. Earnhardt Jr. dropped a pair of positions and currently rounds out the top 10.
Further back, Menard hangs on to a Chase bid in 11th while last year’s Cinderella story Vickers is 12th. Among those on the outside looking in this early in the season include Edwards (14th), Hamlin (15th), Kyle Busch (16th), Martin (17th), Kasey Kahne (20th), Newman (22nd) and Montoya (25th).
Overall Rating (on a scale of one to six beer cans): In honor of Wrestlemania XXVI being held this past Sunday, and my two buddies Justin and Jason in attendance (both clad in Rowdy Roddy Piper “Hot Rod” t-shirts), I am going to give this one six beers, with two of those six consumed while simultaneously crushed together (a la Stone Cold Steve Austin.) Can I get a “Hell Yeah!!!” ??!!
Next Up: Nothing this weekend – it’s Easter! Phoenix is on the docket for Saturday, April 10th, with the Subway 600 being raced at night in the desert. An extra 100 kilometers have been added, which I guess is important – if you are into the metric system and other communist propaganda.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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