The tight confines of Martinsville Speedway were the setting for NASCAR’s return to action after Easter break. Minus Denny Hamlin, some familiar faces put on an all-too-familiar show at Sprint Cup’s smallest track.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not takes a look at the drivers who sit on top after battling it out short track style, and who needs to turn the page after encountering a nightmare ending Sunday afternoon.
Martinsville Speedway has always been kind to Jimmie Johnson, and the running of the STP Gas Booster 500 proved no different. The five-time champion appeared better than ever at the 0.526-mile oval, winning Sunday for the eighth time.
Johnson led a career-best 346 laps and became the active wins leader at Martinsville, third overall behind Richard Petty (15) and Darrell Waltrip (11). He also regained sole possession of the points lead, making him the hottest commodity in NASCAR once again.
“We had a great weekend, probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out we’ve had. We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that,” Johnson said afterwards.
That approach paid off all weekend for the No. 48 team, who broke the track record during a pole-setting qualifying attempt and consistently posted some of the quickest speeds in practice before the record shattering victory.
The performance was so dominant that runner-up Clint Bowyer questioned whether Johnson had led every lap. If not for the Lowes Chevrolet, Bowyer might have been the driver celebrating in victory lane even after his involvement in a multi-car accident on lap 181 that left the entire Michael Waltrip Racing fleet with damage. A heavily taped No. 15 Toyota Camry was able to make a run through the field afterwards, before restarting aside Johnson on the final run.
While Bowyer was disappointed by the finish, it jumped him to eighth in the standings; an important rebound after his engine went sour at Fontana two weeks ago. He’ll look to continue on the upswing at Fort Worth, where he finished sixth during the ‘12 Chase.
A dialed-in No. 24 Chevrolet helped deliver a much needed boost for Jeff Gordon at perhaps his best track, finishing just behind Bowyer in third.
Gordon came back to race among the leaders despite sliding through his pit stall and losing several positions during yellow flag pit stops after a lap 70 caution. Sound adjustments kept Gordon near the front and solidified his chances for a solid finish leading up to the final restart.
With his first top-five of the season in pocket, Gordon moves into 12th in the standings, impressive after a lackluster showing at Las Vegas and crash at Bristol left him as low as 21st position just two races ago.
The 41-year-old driver has been slow out of the gates for the last few years making the early top-five a welcomed sight. Now Gordon will look to capture another positive result at Texas Motor Speedway, where he’s averaged an eighth-place finish over the past three races there.
Jamie McMurray cruised to the finish line in seventh position after running safely inside the top ten for much of the afternoon.
The mistake free day is a good sign for the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver. With two top-ten finishes after six races, he’s off to his best start since the Daytona 500 winning 2010 campaign. And a repeat performance in the Lone Star State would move McMurray closer to snapping out of a two-year long funk.
The season’s first hiccup came at an inopportune time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who surrendered the points lead at Martinsville. Running in the top ten early, his No. 88 Chevrolet began to fade with 150 laps to go after its handling deteriorated.
Junior might have salvaged a decent finish if not for an untimely spin brought about by contact with Brian Vickers and Danica Patrick. Afterwards his stalled Hendrick machine was then lapped by teammate Jimmie Johnson – putting him a second lap down and erasing any possible comeback – before Junior could re-fire and get going again.
The 24th place result snapped a string of top-10 finishes and dropped him to third in the standings behind Johnson and Brad Keselowski.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is another driver looking to put a poor showing at the Paperclip in the past. The youngster never found his rhythm, struggling en route to a 25th place finish.
A fair share of bumps and bruises are to be expected out of a rookie entering into a full-time Sprint Cup ride, even so, Stenhouse’s dip in productivity has continually worsened since placing 12th in the Daytona 500. While this is somewhat disconcerting, he still sits 15th in the standings, well within range of the top ten.
The rookie will look to buck that trend in Fort Worth where his signature Serratelli cowboy hat will be on display and a promising Nationwide resume at the venue – including one win – could be to his benefit.
Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers went on to salvage respectable finishes following the lap 181 melee, but severe front-end damage sent Martin Truex Jr. and the third MWR Camry to the garage for extensive repairs. If that wasn’t bad enough, Truex spun the No. 56 Toyota again after returning to the track, before finishing in 40th position.
Fortunes appeared to be improving for Truex after three consecutive top 20 finishes helped the driver return to the top 20 in points, but this near DNF hurts, forcing him back to the nether regions of the standings.
Truex Jr. must be at his best under the lights on Saturday night at TMS – where he’s averaging a ninth place finish over the past three races – if he hopes to accelerate a return into Chase contention.
From the looks of it, BK Racing isn’t headed to the Chase any time soon. The upstart team struggled through growing pains last season, but managed to keep both of its two entries securely inside the top 35 in owner points.
After an ugly breakup with former driver Landon Cassill, BKR has digressed even farther. His replacement, David Reutimann, has failed to record a finish better than 25th after a 16th place run in the season opener. Teammate Travis Kvapil has been even worse and sits two positions behind Reutimann, 36th in the standings. Combined, the drivers have suffered through four DNFs, including three engine failures.