There were a number of indelible images from this past weekend at Martinsville, as there often are following a race within the close confines of everyone’s favorite paperclip. Over the course of 62 years of history at the hot-dog haven next to the railroad tracks, there have been a number of memorable incidents that wind up getting talked about for years after the checkered flag falls on every 500-lapper. This latest battle was no exception, as for me there were a trio of moments that stood out over a race that served as one of the best in NASCAR’s season to date.
Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch would become part of short-track lore once more this past Sunday. From the outset, it seemed pretty clear what happened on lap 386. Gordon attempted to pull alongside Busch at the end of the backstretch but never really had position entering turn 3. Busch held his line, arcing into the corner and received contact from Gordon, sending the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge sliding up the track.
It seemed innocuous enough as Gordon motored by. Kurt, however, did not see things that way. He got back to Gordon’s bumper exiting turn 4, then proceeded to hook and turn him – not unlike what Carl Edwards did to Brad Keselowski at Gateway this summer.
In Busch’s post-race comments, the statement was made that confirmed his intent, regardless of how he tried to sidestep the issue. Having been wrecked by Gordon before when he drove the No. 97 car, as well as numerous other run-ins Gordon had with Rusty Wallace through the years – the former pilot of the No. 2 Penske machine – was enough to push this man over the edge. I guess Kurt must have tuned in to NASCAR Classics earlier in the week on SPEED, whereupon he was indeed dumped by Gordon in the 2005 race during the closing laps of the event. At Infineon Raceway this year, Gordon ran into Busch (well, everybody really) during the race’s final restart, pushing him off track and into the dirt with a move that’s likely lingered in the ’04 champ’s mind ever since.
Contact that day resulted in a flat right-rear tire for Busch, turning a top-five run into a 32nd-place effort. A year earlier at Infineon, Busch was spun by Gordon’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, before it happened a second time one month later in Chicago. While the road-course incidents were likely the catalyst for Busch’s “Hendrick Drivers Are Pretty Boys” blast from a few months ago, being booted from third into the wall at Martinsville in ’05 likely conjured up some negative feelings as well.
When questioned about the accident Gordon sounded trite, if not apologetic, for triggering the contact that would find the No. 24 crumpled up against the inside retaining wall. He chuckled and remarked, “Why am I not surprised he said that…” when Busch’s comments regarding past wrecks with Gordon, himself and Rusty Wallace were offered as evidence for his retribution.
Coincidentally, I guess that now makes three people who never forget: Jimmy Spencer, Kurt Busch and Gordon. Meanwhile, although Kurt was quick to drudge up the past, he may have confused one of those incidents with Gordon and Wallace with himself from back in 2003.
Let’s move on. After being turned by AJ Allmendinger on lap 227, Gordon’s teammate, Mark Martin, had his rear bumper cover removed by Casey Mears trying to avoid him sitting broadside in the middle of the track. Martin’s No. 5 eBayMotors.com Chevrolet slid backwards and made contact with the wall ever so slightly, shortening the trunk and bowing out the quarterpanels in a crash that seemingly put an exclamation point on a difficult season. But 150 laps later, following a wave around and a free pass to get two laps back, what had been a mid-pack Chevrolet most of the race was now a contender. Martin restarted 18th with 99 laps to go, fell almost 10 seconds off the lead, yet was able to cut that deficit to 2.3 by the time Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag – charging hard en route to a second-place finish that could have been one spot better with a few extra laps.
The question then became, during both the race and on the Monday night edition of ESPN’s NASCAR Now, if the damage to Martin’s car actually improved its performance?
With the rear bumper cover gone, the car would have less drag, and with the spoiler in the air a bit more, he would have more downforce. That being said, why then would the No. 5 team be allowed to finish second versus Clint Bowyer’s team being docked 150 points for the thickness of a quarter?
The fact that they actually contacted NASCAR for an official ruling on this one is nothing short of baffling. It’s not exactly a slow news week with the sport or anything…
But I digress. By now, we all know the deal with Bowyer’s car. Suspect for a few weeks, his RCR team was asked to watch its tolerances, and when they didn’t check out when dissected by NASCAR (tow truck or not), it was deemed not legal. Bowyer’s was several weeks of pushing the rules versus Martin’s getting pushed off turn 4 by a guy with nothing left to lose.
A short-track accident means a number of things are going to get ripped off the car. Sometimes it makes the car driver better, sometimes worse, and sometimes, it has no effect at all. Remember the 1991 Martinsville race that Harry Gant won with half of his nose and brake ducting collapsed? Fast forward almost 20 years to Sunday, and ask yourself this question: Would the loss of a bumper cover really have much effect when accelerating from 60 mph to 110 with a 900-horsepower engine?
Stick your finger in a glass of water, then pull it out – that’s about how much of a difference it would make. The left-rear quarter was also flared out behind the tire, which would have increased drag as well.
As far as the rear spoiler, the decklid was also shortened a few inches; a shorter rear deck lid does nothing for downforce, and a review of the video will show that the center of the trunk was bowed up, exposing roughly half of the spoiler blade that would normally be there. Besides, how many times with the CoT have we seen bumper panels come off, only to make them drive unbelievably loose? This car wasn’t Bobby Allison’s 1982 Miller Buick that Gary Nelson rigged up to have the bumper fall off intentionally at Daytona.
I know the March race was run on a Monday and the No. 5 team has been off their game a bit this season, but that event saw Martin drive from the middle of the pack to the lead until a pit-road equipment penalty saw him sent to the rear. Driving from the back of the field to third, he was felled by a blown tire late in the going, so it isn’t like the car or the driver has the chops to turn it around at a short track.
Finally, on to the third and final “memorable moment” from the weekend. If it wasn’t enough for Busch or Martin to offer a friendly reminder on some of the questions that arose from Sunday’s race, Jeff Burton jogged a memory of his own with teammate Kevin Harvick.
Harvick had radioed to his crew halfway through the race, telling them that Burton was “out of mulligans” for the way he had been racing him into turn 1. Harvick felt that Burton was cutting him off going into the first corner, which pretty much resembled any other race that has been held at a half-mile flat track. Harvick’s response was to go so far as to confront him under caution, rubbing the side of his car against Burton’s.
It wasn’t the first time that Harvick has had run-ins at Martinsville. In 2002, he was benched for a week after intentionally wrecking Coy Gibbs in a Truck Series race. While that was all many moons ago, he has had a number of confrontations over the years, including one with his RCR team last season that had him rumored to be on the way out earlier this year. A memorable dustup with Joey Logano this summer followed, with finger pointing at Burton for perceived wrongdoings at Loudon, Indianapolis and now Martinsville the latest drama.
The typically diplomatic Burton was more than happy to jog his memory, though, upon exiting his No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet:
“There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him,” Burton said of his teammate after fading to ninth by the checkered flag. “Every time there’s a conflict, he’s involved. And you would think over the amount of years he’s done it that he would get the hint that he’s always in the middle of it. Maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he’d be OK.”
So while the “victim” offered a condensed summarization of the past, he also touched on the present and future with Harvick — a teammate who recently acquired his other teammate’s pit crew on request.
“I’m not out to harm him,” Burton continued. “I’m a teammate of his. I’m trying to help him. There comes a point where he’s got to catch his breath and realize that it’s my racetrack too and I didn’t do anything wrong. And if he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can’t race. There’s nothing I did that I regret and there’s nothing I won’t do next week.”
With that, we have everyone on the same page again just in time to go off to Talladega, where predictably, everyone will forget what happened last spring on the final lap. Or last fall. Or in April. Or that bump-drafting in the corners just doesn’t work out.
Yeah, Talladega is bound to fog and jog some memories, too.