Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
The same pit strategy that cost Jimmie Johnson the race nearly gave it to Jeff Burton. Burton was running at the back of the lead lap for most of the day, getting beaten on, banged up and even spun out once. But by not pitting when the caution flew with 41 laps to go, Burton restarted second. Through a flurry of late cautions, limiting time for the guys on fresh tires, he was able to salvage the day and finish sixth. That gives him back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since last summer, an encouraging sign for new crew chief Luke Lambert his changes are working. It was a much needed pick-me-up for the veteran Burton, who has had a forgettable 2011 season otherwise.
What… was THAT?
Talk about a gamble. When the caution flew with 41 to go, Chad Knaus left leader Johnson on the racetrack… while almost every car on the lead lap pitted. Four tires had proven to be the key to gaining and keeping track position, so the call was a roll of the dice at best… and in the end, it cost Johnson the win by a car length. Did the poor pit work by the No. 48 crew for much of the year cause a lack of trust that they could keep Johnson in the lead if they pitted? Whatever the reasoning is, it’s the second time in two weeks that Knaus’s decisions have cost Johnson, coming on the heels of a decision to keep Johnson at the back of the field at Talladega. That choice, which some have forgotten in light of his comments on the radio ultimately cost the No. 48 team any chance they had at a sixth straight title.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Carl Edwards started on the pole after rain forced the cancellation of qualifying on Saturday, but he quickly slid backwards, twice losing a lap and running in the mid-20s before taking advantage of cautions and strategy to bring the No. 99 home ninth. If what makes a championship year is a solid combination of lucky and good, it’s looking more and more like Edwards’s year to win it all.
When… will I be loved?
The first 100 laps at Martinsville were rough, with five cautions for numerous incidents. Plenty of drivers were involved, but Brian Vickers got in for more than his share, driving very aggressively for the first quarter of the race. He was involved in three of the first five cautions, culminating with an ugly intentional spin of Jamie McMurray at lap 87 after the two bumped each other a few times and Vickers put McMurray into the outside retaining wall. A lot of drivers worked out their frustrations at the paperclip-shaped short track this weekend, but Vickers was at the top of the heap after he hit practically everything but the ambulance and the pace car in the first part of the race.
Why… is Martinsville often overlooked as a key Chase race?
If Talladega is a crapshoot and the 1.5-mile tracks separate the elite teams from the rest, Martinsville is perhaps the biggest test of a driver’s mettle in the Chase. It’s a track where some of the top drivers aren’t comfortable, and the ones who are run extremely good. For many laps, the combination of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Johnson ran 1-2-3 in the race. Those three have 17 wins at Martinsville between them. The rest of the Chase drivers have a combined five, between three of nine drivers, and two of those belong to Tony Stewart. If Edwards doesn’t take home his first Sprint Cup title this year, he’ll likely be able to point squarely at this race as the reason why.
How… are the Chase contenders faring after Martinsville?
Two-time champion Stewart issued a throwdown to points leader Edwards after winning at Martinsville, telling the Roush Fenway Racing driver to watch his back, because Stewart will not make it easy on him in the final three weeks of the year.
“Carl Edwards better be real worried,” said Stewart in Victory Lane Sunday. “That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”
Unless something happens to either Edwards or Stewart in the next three races, it’s looking like a two-horse race, with clear favorites emerging for perhaps the first time since the Chase began at Chicago. While Edwards is having the kind of luck and consistency that often points to a title, Stewart has three wins in the Chase this year. And in recent years, Chase victories have been the deciding factor. Stewart is just eight points behind Edwards, who has not won a race since March at Las Vegas. Unless something drastic happens (and hey, the way this year has gone, anything is possible), the title fight is likely between these two.
Third-place Kevin Harvick will need to make a serious play to contend from 21 back, but it’s still within the realm of possibility if Edwards and Stewart slip. Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth are probably looking at top-five points finishes, but not a title. Everyone from sixth-place Johnson on back are better off trying to go out and win races, but even if they do just that, the championship is probably out of their grasp. For this group, it’s time to start thinking of 2012, and how to outpace the others right out of the box.