What makes racing at the Martinsville Speedway special is how incompatible the 60+ year old facility is with the modern behemoth that 21st century NASCAR has become. The facility is old. It’s in the middle of nowhere, Virginia. Train tracks run through the RV lots outside the track. An official from the NASCAR Media Group once told me it was the most difficult site to set up the massive mobile TV complex.
I’ll never forget the first race I covered at Martinsville professionally, only hours removed from drenching rains that muddied the rolling hills which serve as the track’s parking lot. Everyone from reporters to PR reps arrived filthy, dirtying the media center even before we started work.
Between the uniquely tiny infield and the tight confines of the racing surface itself, 21st century NASCAR takes an absolute pounding. And there’s no better illustration of that then seeing 43 beautiful cars all but junk by race’s end. A weekend at Martinsville is old-school. It’s out of the way. And it’s absolutely magical.
Much ink will be spilled in the coming days leading up to Talladega about how Denny Hamlin’s latest victory on the Virginia bullring has officially made this “the closest Chase ever” after six races, waving a magic wand over a championship format made a dead fish by Jimmie Johnson in recent years. But the spell that Martinsville cast this time around had a far bigger impact than on a title race whose legitimacy will be questioned by a plethora of race fans, just as they have since Kurt Busch took the 2004 title courtesy of the Anti-Kenseth Act. This weekend, NASCAR once again took a beating.
Because Sunday’s 500 laps were governed by one rule and one rule alone…every man for himself.
To be fair, Martinsville has seen its share of such tussles play out over the years. No one will ever forget Ryan Newman punting teammate Rusty Wallace out of the way late in the running in 2005 for a spot in the top 5. There was also the ever-replayed battle between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson a few years back–the epitome of teammates seemingly at odds, if only for a little while.
On this Sunday, those type of incidents were epidemic.
Again, there were tensions between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, with Gordon at one point asking if his teammate in the No. 48 car actually had a spotter as the two made contact racing for position. Those tensions, however, were nothing compared to the feuding both on and off the track between Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. The two were battling for the lead for much of the first 250 laps, resulting in an inordinate amount of contact for a pair of drivers that have remained largely devoid of conflict since joining forces at RCR. Sunday, each driver snapped.
Both chastised each other over the radio for the way they were racing. Jeff Burton exclaimed, “I’m a good teammate, and I’m not going to stand for him [Harvick] hitting me.”
Kevin Harvick equally fired up, snidely dodged a post-race question about his teammate by smirking, “It’s just racing.” He also had no problem drawing attention to the apparent rift in the RCR camp between him and his previous pit crew, stating immediately following Sunday’s event that he was going to “kiss Clint Bowyer” because of how fast the former No. 33 pit crew performed on pit road. He made no reference to his teammate’s struggles or the sacrifice the No. 33 team had to make in yielding their crew. Harvick remained focused wholly on Harvick…Bowyer’s fortunes and Burton’s Chase chances be damned.
Speaking of Jeff Burton, Sunday’s performance was one of a raw aggression rarely seen out of a driver referred to as “the Mayor.” Burton led the most laps and appeared as the class of the field before fading to ninth late, but it was how he did it that was out of character. Burton, in fact, made contact with his teammate in the No. 29 on numerous occasions. “If he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can’t race,” he concluded in post-race remarks.
Burton also drew the ire of much of the field–including the officials in the tower–for reportedly brake-checking the field on a number of early race restarts. The Virginia-native spurned the information, when informed by his crew chief, stating, “I’ve seen people penalized here before, and it’s not going to be me.” Burton for Burton, no apologies and no quarter given.
Robby Gordon is fighting for both his career and the life of his Cup team, with a top 35 position and a locked-in spot in the field. With all this on the line Gordon, for the second week in a row, pulled Kevin Conway, the driver of choice for the sponsorship keeping his No. 7 car running, out in favor of himself. Gordon then pulled another rabbit out of his hat, recovering from a mid-race flat tire to finish 22nd, moving up to 34th in owner points and giving his team a 49 point cushion over 35th headed into Talladega. Gordon for Gordon, still fighting an impossible battle and making it to the next week.
Not to mention also that Gordon’s one-man, “I’m going to do it myself” tact topped the “three cars, one team” approach that had Front Row Motorsports convinced their No. 38 team was going to knock out the No. 7 car this weekend. Because despite all the efforts of the Front Row team, efforts that included parking Tony Raines’ No. 34 car nearly 60 laps early to give Travis Kvapil and the No. 38 team a chance to pass them, the No. 38 still lost ground. Kvapil broke a rear end with less than 20 to go and ended up finishing 35th.
The wily veteran Ken Schrader, while not the fastest guy on track anymore, at least knows full well how to stay out of trouble, threw caution to the wind on the lap 394 restart when he and the No. 26 team chose not to pit and took the green flag out front on older tires. Schrader dropped like a rock through the field, suffering a cut right rear tire and triggering a chaotic two laps that also cut a tire on Tony Raines’ No. 34 before the yellow flag waved again on lap 399. Still, Schrader’s run not only yielded the No. 26 team with some TV time, the first laps they’ve led on a short track this Cup season, and eventually the operation’s best finish ever on an oval at 18th. It was just in a far more brash and even reckless style than you’d expect from Ken Schrader. Schrader for Schrader, the leaders be damned.
Getting away from single car teams to another case of teammate turmoil, AJ Allmendinger’s frustrations from Charlotte last weekend were not alleviated, as his new teammate in the No. 9 seemed to rub him the wrong way. Late in the going, the Dinger had it with Aric Almirola for whatever reason, and blurted over the radio, “The No. 9 car is going to get dumped.” That the car he was racing with and threatening to wreck came out of the same cash-strapped shop his No. 43 team calls home never once entered his mind over the course of this tense radio communication.
While on the topic of the No. 9 team, perhaps the very best example of the rule of the day came when Aric Almirola saw a likely top-10 run disappear when he was forced to pit under green for a flat tire. As a result, the avid short-tracker was left with a disappointing 21st place result. Meanwhile, the departed Kasey Kahne beat his old team, finishing 14th on a short-track that is by far the favorite type of venue for Red Bull Racing’s No. 83 squad. Agree or disagree with the righteousness of Kahne’s actions at Charlotte last Saturday night, his was a self-serving move…and he came out on top this weekend. Kahne for Kahne…though that’s been clear since last Saturday.
And since no matter how much fans, writers, etc. bemoan the farce that is the Chase, the question must be asked as to what implications Sunday’s “every man for himself” theme has to say about the eventual Cup champion that will be crowned next month. Frankly, a lot.
Listening to Jimmie Johnson’s radio in the middle portions of the event, Johnson radioed into crew chief Chad Knaus that his car was in need of adjustments, proceeding to describe the direction he felt his car needed to go. Knaus’ response was not one fans were accustomed to hearing:
“We’re pretty much tapped out there man. You’re going to have to carry us. I’m sorry.”
The No. 48 team, whose partnership with the No. 24 team has resulted in four straight Cups and Hendrick Motorsports going from giant to juggernaut in Sprint Cup racing, told Jimmie Johnson he was on his own. On his own yielded a top 5 result that saw the No. 48 car dropping back at Martinsville when the grandfather clock was on the line and saw the four-time defending champion’s lead reduced to a mere six points. It wasn’t good enough to keep the No. 48 up front, or the No. 11 team at bay.
What’s more, even the yellow flag didn’t come running to the rescue this time. The race ended on a 98 lap green flag run, despite a final 15 laps of racing that had Travis Kvapil lose a rear-end and drop fluid all over the backstretch, both he and Ryan Newman slapped the wall in turn 2 and Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and others all cut tires that spewed debris on the racing surface that was visible even from the press box. For once, the debris caution didn’t fly. Denny Hamlin was free to ride into the sunset, while Jimmie Johnson was left to do nothing but continually radio to his crew that he saw debris, oil, and that there needed to be a caution that for once wouldn’t have been phantom.
That caution never came. Jimmie Johnson was on his own, and the stars aligned behind another driver at Chase time.
“Every man for himself” may have been the rule of the day at Martinsville. But under this reign, Jimmie Johnson fell short for once.
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