Martinsville is perhaps NASCAR’s greatest constant. The only track to be featured on its premier circuit since the sanctioning body’s inaugural season, 1949, it is still today what it was 60+ years ago; a bullring in the middle of absolutely nowhere where contact is inevitable, confines are tight, and technology ultimately takes a back seat to the man behind the wheel. After all these decades, despite all the changes to the cars, to the grandstands, to the sport as a whole the key to success for its on-track product has not changed; it’s characterized by beating, banging, and, well, more of the same.
Sunday’s 500-lapper was just the latest installment in the long, storied history of Martinsville. For all the talk of the sky falling with regard to the altered tire compound that marbled on the .526-mile paperclip instead of rubbering in the racing groove, the quality of racing didn’t change whatsoever. During the event, tire failures were epidemic only for the Nos. 34 and 36 of David Gilliland and Dave Blaney, with both of those teams experiencing a rash of failures due to excessive brake heat melting beads. So once the checkered flag flew, it was not the Goodyears that told the tale. Instead, Sunday focused on nothing but the same vintage short-tracking that this Virginia paperclip has been hosting for decades.
But that, the tenets of basic competition proved the only constant. In the final 100 laps, a plethora of stories that the Sprint Cup Series has staged for the past few seasons, both the tried-and-true and the hypothetical were uprooted, an unpredictable and dramatic narrative taking their place. The suspense was so thick it could be cut with a knife… and there wasn’t a soul in the stands making use of the seat they paid for as it unfolded.
As the race took a green flag look from lap 376 onward (the start of an 89-lap run without a caution), it seemed inevitable that the usual suspects were up to their usual antics. Kyle Busch powered his way to the front, then ran away and hid from the rest of the field while Jeff Gordon, the leader from whom Busch had wrested the point position, was left to scratch his head over the radio.
“We’re good,” said Gordon of his car to crew chief Alan Gustafson after Busch drove away. “It’s just that [No.] 18 is driving so hard. I don’t know how he’s getting away with it.”
Indeed, Kyle Busch wasn’t just “getting away with it;” he was running away from one of NASCAR’s all-time greats. Darrell and Co. in the booth were foaming at the mouth describing how the second coming was changing stock car racing as all knew it.
Cue Jimmie Johnson.
With Gordon fading and Busch riding off into the sunset on the strength of relentless aggression and speed, the five-time champion cleared his mentor… and began to run the No. 18 down. It was a purely mechanical display, impressive to observe; the No. 48 team was all but muted on the radio, communicating in a monotone, emotionless manner when they did in fact have to speak. All the flash, all the shock and awe was gone, but the No. 48 was indeed catching the all-powerful No. 18 every lap. As pit stops neared, the ending seemed clear: slow and steady, cool and collected was going to top brash and “Rowdy.” Hendrick was going to top Gibbs. Again.
Cue the timely caution flag that allowed Busch, Johnson and all the rest of the leaders to come down pit road under yellow, as Regan Smith spun around and smacked the wall between turns 1 and 2 after a failed brake rotor. With the duo exiting the pits 1-2, a competitive restart was almost assured as Martinsville’s master would look to wrest the win away from Busch.
And that’s when the script jumped again. Jimmie Johnson was busted for speeding on entry to pit road, then relegated to start at the tail end of the longest line a mere 29 laps short of the finish. The man who has made a habit and historic career out of not making mistakes when the pay window opens goofed in crunch time, leaving Kyle Busch at the front to take control.
At that point, you’d think the No. 18 would have smooth sailing to the checkers. Instead, he was faced with staving off three-years-winless Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the alternate stand-in for his five-time-defending-champion teammate that was now trapped at the back of the lead lap.
Only this Dale Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t roll over. If you drop the Jr. from his name, the No. 88 car took the menacing persona that the black No. 3 used to on this Sunday. Earnhardt aggressively hounded Busch through the corners following the final restart on lap 472; then, on lap 480 he triggered a seismic event seldom seen in the state of Virginia by bumping Kyle Busch out of the way in turn 3 to take the lead.
For the next 16 laps, every single person in attendance, from those in the stands to those in the suites, had the same vision playing out in their heads. Just like that, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s longest career losing streak was finally going to end… and they would be there to see it. The ultimate in poetic justice was going to play out; the same Earnhardt who saw his first career win with Hendrick Motorsports stolen from him when Busch dumped him from the lead at Richmond in May, 2008 was going to return the favor on another Virginia short track and get even.
Cue… Kevin Harvick?
That’s right. It’s the same Harvick who came out of absolutely nowhere to rocket past Jimmie Johnson, stealing victory from his grasp at J.J.’s home track last week in Fontana. And on Sunday, he delivered an encore, relentlessly charging through traffic and snagging the lead for good on lap 497 of 500.
In doing so, Harvick played the bad guy even though he and Earnhardt had fairly limited contact throughout the event. As he stated post-race, he hated playing the role, but “[he was] in it to win it” and Earnhardt, likable or not, was the biggest obstacle left in his way. So with 50,000+ card-carrying members of Junior Nation rising as one in Martinsville, Harvick raced for the win and took it. In three short circuits, he ended any storybook ending for the legions of No. 88 fans out there, scored his second consecutive race victory, and moved into the top 5 in points barely a month and a half after finishing 42nd in the Daytona 500.
That’s right. It was Harvick, the oft-forgotten third party in last season’s Johnson vs. Hamlin title fight, who crashed the Hendrick/JGR show again. What’s more, in this event he came out of nowhere to emerge on top, setting up an unlikely ending to just another race at Martinsville.
Six races into the season, there’s no reason to start making title predictions or hyping a Johnson vs. Harvick bout set to take to the ring in September. It is way, way too freaking early for that type of stuff. But it is worth noting that, with everything from Trevor Bayne’s monumental 500 upset, to Jeff Gordon’s winless streak ending, to Junior’s return to relevancy, to Kevin Harvick rapidly stealing (from Kyle Busch) the title of NASCAR’s ultimate closer there is no standard narrative taking shape in 2011. The predictable is no longer that as each race, thus far, has taken a life of its own… larger picture be damned.
When Harvick stole the win from Earnhardt, what’s interesting is there were just as many fans cheering in the stands as when NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver bumped Kyle Busch from the point. That’s right; NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was deprived of a win nearly three years in the making… but the crowd loved it. And if every single screaming fan in Martinsville was any indication, this total lack of a storyline is compelling. It’s entertaining. It’s fun.
What more can be asked for?
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