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 in her Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
At a track as unpredictable as Martinsville, there are usually any number of strong candidates for this one, but in the end, AJ Allmendinger came out of nowhere to be a major player on the final green-white-checkered run to the finish. Allmendinger wasn’t even in the top 20 at halfway, yet he muscled his way to 11th place by the three-quarter mark and to second when the checkers fell. The finish was a big one for Allmendinger because although he was widely expected to be an immediate contender following his move to Penske Racing, his previous best finish in the No. 22 was 15th at Fontana; he was 26th in the standings entering this weekend. Allmendinger’s run, just like that moved him up six spots in the points to 20th. That’s not all that important now, but it’s part of the requirement, along with wins, to gain a “wild-card” Chase berth in September. If Allmendinger continues to run like he did Sunday, that second prerequisite will get checked off soon.
What… was THAT?
The one thing I will never understand in NASCAR reared its ugly head on Saturday at Martinsville. In post-qualifying inspection, the No. 37 of Tony Raines failed because the car was too low. NASCAR subsequently threw out Raines’s lap time, as it always does in this situation. This issue happened to Clint Bowyer in Daytona as well. The difference? Because Raines had to qualify on speed at Martinsville, having his time thrown out meant that he didn’t race on Sunday (the No. 49 of JJ Yeley made the show instead). Bowyer, on the other hand, faced virtually no consequences as he merely had to start in the back of his Gatorade Duel (and at any other race, would have started Sunday from the back of the pack) because he was locked into the race by virtue of his Top-35 points position and the guaranteed starting spot that it brings.
Does anyone see the problem here? What this sets up is essentially two different penalties for the same infraction, based only on the offending team’s current owner point standings. The obvious fix would be to create a rule that any team that has its qualifying time tossed for failing inspection cannot race that weekend. To be fair, give that team a chance to prove a part failure if that caused the infraction. But if there is none? Let a legal car in the field. Yes, you run the risk of a popular driver missing an event, a small price in my opinion you pay for integrity.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
If there is one word that describes Kasey Kahne’s season to date, it would be snakebit. After waiting an entire year to take over his dream ride, Kahne has a season-best 14th place at Fontana to show for it. This week would be no different for Kahne, who won his second pole of the year, but was forced to watch the end of the race from the infield after his engine detonated on lap 316. Kahne finished a dismal 38th, the worst among all drivers planning to run the full event. The finish drops Kahne to 31st in driver points and the No. 5 to 32nd in owner points. Kahne is still 17 points ahead of 36th place and having to qualify on speed, but one more week like this one and Kahne could be looking down that barrel.
When… will I be loved?
Although it was a banzai move that wrecked the leaders and set up the final green-white-checkered finish, it was a puzzling one that caused the leaders to even be in that position. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were battling for the lead with fewer than five laps to go when the No. 10 of David Reutimann slowed for engine trouble. The first time Reutimann passed pit road, he couldn’t get to the bottom of the track. But the second time? Well, he stayed on it because the team needed two more laps to gain the single point that would have kept the No. 10 in the Top 35 in owner points. But the end result, a caution with two laps to go, left three Hendrick Motorsports teams fuming as they were denied the team’s 200th win as a result of the caution. That meant all lost more than a single point in the end. While both Gordon and Johnson were close on fuel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in third and good to go. Earnhardt lost the spot in the pits and Gordon and Johnson stayed out, only to both be wrecked by Bowyer on the restart. Although Johnson said afterward that it was just a racing deal, Earnhardt was more skeptical, blaming carelessness on behalf of Reutimann and his team for the second incident and the subsequent trouble for him and his teammates. NASCAR apparently agreed, as they called both Reutimann and his crew chief to their hauler for a discussion after the race.
Why… was HMS doubly disappointed at Martinsville?
Because despite having three teams in the top three with only a handful of laps remaining, Hendrick Motorsports went home empty-handed when the next win by a HMS driver — Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt or Kahne — will be the team’s 200th Sprint Cup win as an organization. Kahne started on the pole, but engine woes ended his chance at making his first win with HMS a big one. Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt were running 1-2-3 as the laps wound down, but a car stalled on the racetrack set up a restart that saw Earnhardt lose position on pit road and Gordon and Johnson get turned around.
The last time HMS visited Victory Lane was last fall at Kansas, where Johnson took the checkers in first. The Hendrick organization was a dominant one in the NASCAR garage in recent years, but had just four wins in 2011 and none so far this year. With the 200th win on the horizon, there are two questions remaining: where will it happen, and who will the driver be? With a total of 141 wins, Hendrick’s current lineup accounts for more than half of the 199-win total to date. Gordon leads the organization (as well as all active Sprint Cup drivers) with 85, which is also good for third place on the Sprint Cup all-time win list. Johnson has 55 victories for Hendrick (second among active drivers; tied for seventh all-time) and one of Earnhardt’s 18 career wins is with the organization. Will Texas be the track where the organization finally gets to break out the special hats at Rick Hendrick has faithfully brought to the track every week since Kansas?
How… good was the crowd at Martinsville?
It wasn’t a sellout, but the crowd was healthy. In fact, in proportion to the size of the venue, the attendance was much stronger than at Bristol two weeks ago, where there were entire sections left nearly empty. It looked like about 80%, if not more, of the seats were occupied, which would rank among the best of the year in those terms.
One thing that has always been puzzling is Martinsville’s TV ratings though. It was one of the lowest-rated races last spring, lower even than Fontana, despite some of the best racing on the Cup circuit. Want side-by-side competition with plenty of bumper action and chrome horn blowing? Forget the old Bristol where there was plenty of it… but also plenty of extraneous carnage to go along with it. Martinsville has action aplenty, all day long. As Sunday’s race showed, that doesn’t always mean caution after caution, just good, clean, hard racing. If Martinsville isn’t on every race fan’s bucket list, it should be.