_There was plenty of chatter in the week leading up to Martinsville that even though the No. 11 and the No. 29 teams were mathematically close to the No. 48 in points, the season was already careening inevitably to a fifth straight Jimmie Johnson title triumph. Even with five races left, the thought was J.J. would do what he’s done so often at the paperclip oval Sunday: dominate and pick up another maximum points day._
_Instead, Sunday afternoon on NASCAR’s smallest track restored matters some, Denny Hamlin closing ground while Johnson himself rightly pointed out on pit road during post-race interviews: “There’s a lot of racing left. And Talladega.” He’s absolutely right. The three primary protagonists are now separated by a scant 62 points, with the 36-degree banks of the Alabama lottery madness looming large next Sunday afternoon, part of a Russian Roulette game that makes the 2010 Sprint Cup championship still oh so very definitely up for grabs. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… and that’s where we’ll start this week’s Five Points To Ponder:_
*ONE: “We’re back, baby!”*
Hamlin’s first win in the 2010 Chase was also his third straight at his home state track and a career high seventh overall victory on the season. For a team that aspires to win a championship, it was also just the sort of day the doctor ordered. After picking up the pole, his second of the year and his ninth career P-1 start, the No. 11 car dropped like a stone in the early going. For much of the rest of the day, Mike Ford and the crew worked and worked on the FedEx Camry just to keep it in top-5 contention. Aided by some flawless pit stops, Hamlin picked up several positions under yellow more than once, putting the No. 11 just where he needed to be during the long, 98-lap run to the checkered flag where his car simply took off. In Victory Lane, Hamlin commented that he had never closed a race so well before, a key moment in a title Chase with Johnson where momentum seems to have shifted towards his side. With the No. 48 finishing fifth, the point lead now stands at six while Hamlin has wins at upcoming tracks Texas and Homestead within the last year. Now armed with five top-10 finishes in the first six races of the postseason, four more results just like that will earn him a first ever Sprint Cup title. As he said crossing the finish line, the emotion clear in his voice, “We’re back, baby.” And back he is – not, to be fair, that he ever really went away.
*TWO: Junior Nation Gets a Reason to Cheer*
It’s hard, sometimes, to know what to say about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who has struggled and muddled through a year of true mediocrity. However, at Martinsville he showed he still has what it takes once the No. 88 gets out front. He paced the field for some 90 circuits on Sunday afternoon – the most for him in one race since he led for the exact same number of laps at Richmond all the way back in September 2008. It’s now been 88 races since the No. 88 last won, but the change in momentum couldn’t come at a better time; next comes Talladega, a track where he has five career victories. Earnhardt always excels at the restrictor plate circuits despite what happens elsewhere, meaning Sunday could be the perfect place for him to break the endless, winless streak that’s defined his often difficult tenure at Hendrick Motorsports.
*THREE: Mark Martin’s Improbable Best Finish of the Season*
It’s phenomenal to see Mark Martin giddy with excitement, even after all these years and all those races. Battling an early brake issue, the veteran looked as if he was going to have a Sunday to forget, and contact with A.J. Allmendinger simply added insult to injury. But some fairly significant crash damage bizarrely seemed to help his car and by the end of the long green flag run to the finish, Martin was outpacing the field at Martinsville – even leader Denny Hamlin. With another 20 laps or so, it could have been very interesting, the 51-year-old closing fast in cutting six seconds off his deficit in the final 50 circuits of the race. Like Junior, Martin has had a trying season (zero victories) especially when viewed through the prism of the success he enjoyed in 2009. In fact, Sunday’s second-place effort was his best run of the year and just his third top-10 finish in the last twelve races, a slump that bottomed out with the team badly missing this year’s 12-man postseason cut.
Can he turn it around in time for one last run at winning it all? When I first started working on NASCAR in 2005, the first thing I had to do was finish up a “Mark Martin tribute retirement ad,” so I’m reluctant to say for sure that 2011 is the final hurrah for the self-styled “crazy old man.” But here’s solidly hoping Mark can return to 2009 form next year, making one last epic stab at a championship that has eluded him for 790 races and 28 years.
“Hey, I gave ’em something to think about,” said Martin post-race. “I’m old, but I’m not that old. Man, that was fun. This is what I live for.”
At 51, there’s not a lot of guys that can “live for” this type of top-level competition like Martin.
*FOUR: Harvick and Burton Go At It*
Remember a few weeks back at Dover when Hamlin and Kevin Harvick got into it, during practice, following Denny’s comments on the Clint Bowyer situation? Well, guess who’s back at it again? Yep, the irascible Mr. Harvick. This time, it was a row with his own teammate Jeff Burton, a verbal barrage that could come back to bite him as the title chase heads towards its final chapters. Sure, some of the radio chatter was priceless, but you can understand where Burton is coming from amongst the laughs. Harvick does tend to make a habit of being the center of controversy – becoming a lightning rod, if you will, through everything from a forced pit crew swap over the past week with Clint Bowyer’s team to taking potshots at NASCAR’s officiating during the Nationwide race last Friday night. Heck, the guy even made Joey Logano madder at Pocono than the kid has probably been his entire life.
But despite making so many so mad around him, there’s a silver lining evident in all this mess. Overall, the third-place finish was Harvick’s best ever result in 19 tries at Martinsville and finishing above Johnson (albeit by a handful of spots) helped, too. Some 62 points back, Harvick will be looking at Talladega as a huge opportunity to claw back more of the deficit, a race he won in the spring with a textbook perfect last corner pass on Jamie McMurray. Can he pull off the season sweep? Either way, there’s just one thing I’m looking for that needs to change; Harvick needs to spend more time concentrating on himself and less on worrying about everything and everyone else. Focus is what’s needed to win a championship and, with four races to go, Harvick is absolutely right there with a chance to win a maiden title _if_ he keeps his head in the game.
*FIVE: The Importance of Martinsville*
And finally, I want to take a moment to talk a little about Martinsville. Pit reporter Dave Burns talked eloquently in the laps just before the drop of the green about how important time is at the lil ol’ paperclip. Prime amongst his points was the track’s unbroken place on the schedule since the inaugural season of 1949. Just for the record, since the site’s Managing Editor always tells me I don’t include enough stats, that race was the sixth of eight run and was won by the inimitable Red Byron, NASCAR’s first ever champion. Some 61 years and 124 races later, Martinsville still keeps bringing the drama — we saw that once again on Sunday afternoon. Long may we race there twice a year, I humbly say, this track hosting one of the best races we’ve seen in 2010.
*One Last Thing*
I can’t finish without mentioning the sterling performances of the ageless Kenny Schrader and the amiable Hermie Sadler, running superior races in underfunded equipment that’s struggled to even finish all year. Schrader, running his first Cup race since November 2008 at Phoenix and his 733rd overall, finished 18th while Sadler was 26th – a tremendous effort given he hadn’t run a Cup race since August 2006. Good work, gentlemen.
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