Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with 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?
During a week when the sport was mourning a loss in its Royal Family, the family race team shone through. Richard Petty Motorsports honored their boss’s wife Lynda, who passed away last week, in the best way a racer can: by putting together a great performance on track. Marcos Ambrose led 22 laps en route to a top-five run Sunday, his best result ever at Martinsville. Meanwhile, driving an STP-sponsored car that harkened back to the days of Richard Petty behind the wheel, Aric Almirola drove from a 20th-place start to finish eighth. Somewhere, the Queen, “Mrs. Lynda,” is smiling.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
Would Sunday’s results have been different if Saturday had not been a complete washout? For teams, the rain threw a wrench in the works when it came to Sunday’s setups. Several teams who had a solid start to the weekend Friday slipped, leaving those who could find magic on pit road to battle it out.
And while you might be able to say the results would be different, you can’t say the racing would have been better. Throwing in an element of the unknown shows who can overcome adversity and who can’t. It acts as a bit of an equalizer, allowing someone to find something they didn’t even know they had. The rain didn’t “make” the race (in the end, it didn’t define the weekend) but it did make the teams work a little harder, showing who might be able to be versatile when it counts later in the season.
Where… did the polesitter and defending race winner wind up?
Kyle Busch stole the spotlight Friday, taking the pole in the second round of qualifying after Joey Logano set a track record in the first. Early on Sunday, it looked as though Busch would be a player, but it soon became clear that his race setup wasn’t what the team needed as Busch began to fade. By the end of the day, Busch came in 14th while his brother Kurt found Victory Lane a week after Kyle’s visit in Fontana.
Jimmie Johnson won this race a year ago, and he has a total of eight Martinsville grandfather clocks. So it wasn’t surprising when it looked as though he’d be taking home number nine, as he led 11 times for a total of 296 laps. But in the end, he didn’t quite have enough car under him to hold off a hungry Kurt Busch and Johnson would have to settle for second.
When… did it all go sideways?
In short: it didn’t. In a season that’s been marked by some of the best racing we’ve seen in a long time, this one was the best event. There was a close finish after the lead swapped 33 times among a dozen different drivers. There was a typical short-track feud, after which Kurt Busch offered to rearrange Brad Keselowski’s face, and we saw the sixth winner in six races this year. Martinsville Speedway almost always produces superb racing, and this week was no exception. Short-track competition is as good as it gets, and it as was good as it’s ever been on Sunday.
While it seems like there should be a lot of angry drivers after 14 caution periods in a race, much of the day’s yellow flags were for the kind of thing that’s just a part of short-track racing. However, it wasn’t all just racing incidents; the tit-for-tat game of bumper cars between Kurt Busch and Keselowski was the result of frustrating, close-quarters competition. Those conflicts remind us that even heroes have a human side and because they went at it in a manner where nobody was in danger of being hurt, it was good for the sport. On a day when the racing would have been enough, fans were treated to a rivalry of a kind that’s been part of the sport from the beginning… thanks to a racetrack that has been as well.
Why… did Kurt Busch win the race?
On a track where Johnson is a bulldog, Busch out-dueled him. It would be easy to say that Busch won the race solely because he was so hungry for a win, to prove himself after he fell from grace and clawed his way back. But that’s a little too simplistic, and Johnson, driven still by a fear of not being the best, is every bit as hungry. Busch’s refusal to back down, in the closing laps was a big piece of his win.
The race should also dispel any idea that Hendrick Motorsports gives Stewart-Haas Racing inferior equipment. Busch won because he was able to get off the corners better in the closing laps, taking away any vulnerability because Johnson couldn’t get underneath him at a critical junction to use a bumper or otherwise. Johnson could close up getting into the corners, but just as he got close enough to make a move, Busch could pull away again, driving masterfully, not making a mistake that would have allowed Johnson or Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make a move. Busch has grown up in many ways, and the way he ran the end of this one highlights the driver he is becoming.
How… did the little guys do?
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Bush’s Beans Chevy): Allmendinger was the top qualifier from this group and raced his way into the top five at lap 150. He fell back to finish 11th, but this team is showing exactly what having better equipment and information can do as they use their alliance with Richard Childress Racing to become contenders. Allmendinger climbed to 16th in driver points, best among this group. They’re making a case to get off this list altogether by summer if they keep it up.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 AccuDoc Solutions Chevy): Allgaier was forced to pit early for damage after an accordion effect crash in the opening laps of the race. He was able to get back on the lead lap as the race went on, remaining mid-pack and within striking distance of top rookie points. He wasn’t able to race for a lot of positions late, but did have a decent day among his peers with a 23rd-place finish.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): It might be easier to list what didn’t happen to this team. Mears had to pit on the lap 3 caution to remove a dragging rear bumper support. After 40 laps, he reported “it has absolutely zero drive off” the corners, and lost a lap under caution as the team had to make a camber adjustment after the tires were corded within 50 laps. He was penalized for pulling up to make that pit stop in hopes of not losing a lap, which he lost anyway. Mears was spun by David Gilliland on lap 171 and lost another lap, but was later able to get both lost laps back. It didn’t end there, though as Mears had the shifter break, leaving him with only fourth gear for the rest of the day. Given that, a lead-lap, 24th-place finish isn’t terrible. But this team isn’t quite having the success they should be with their RCR alliance. Handling woes are still a bigger problem than they seem to be for the No. 47, and this team should be able to keep step. Instead, they fall a step behind as Mears drops to 21st in points, five spots behind Allmendinger.
Circle Sport; David Stremme & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Mace Brands Chevy & No. 40 CRC Brakleen/FiberLock Chevy): In contrast to the No. 13 bunch, this team had an outstanding day considering what they’re racing with. Cassill ran a great race, losing a lap at one point but making it up with a wave-around and never letting the leaders back by. He finished on the lead lap in 25th, keeping pace with the much better-funded No. 13 for most of the day. Stremme had to go to the garage just after the lap 40 competition caution for radiator trouble, but the team was able to fix the problem and get the No. 33 back on track, gaining valuable information for the future and grabbing prize money for 39th place instead of last. Probably not the race Stremme was hoping for, making his first Cup start since Richmond last fall, but a decent recovery overall.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): This team couldn’t avoid trouble at Martinsville. Gilliland finished 26th but didn’t have his best day. He spun along with Michael Annett on lap 115 and then turned Mears on lap 171 to bring out a pair of cautions. Ragan, meanwhile had to bring the No. 34 into the pits on lap 190 for overheating issues, holding serve after that to finish 28th. Like Stremme, the pair both recovered well from their troubles with decent finishes, but Gilliland, in particular, might wish for a do-over.
Swan Racing; Cole Whitt & Parker Kligerman (No. 26 Swan Energy Toyota & No. 30 Swan Energy Toyota): Kligerman was the first driver to fall victim to short-track racing, spinning on the second lap as cars checked up around him. His team was able to get the car back on track for a 41st-place finish, but this team is still showing growing pains in its second year (understandably so). Whitt finished three laps down in 29th, and while it could have been worse, the day does illustrate the problem that both Swan Racing and BK Racing are having; little saved-up information and very young drivers in the seats. Young talent is a good thing, but sometimes a veteran’s insight might be a help as these teams search for better information on setups.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Ryan Truex (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 83 Borla Toyota): Both BK youngsters had a rough go of it at Martinsville, suffering damage from brushes with the wall and other competitors. Both limped home, a 30th-place finish in the books for Truex and 37th for Bowman. Again, these are growing pains that the team needs to expect, especially since the NASCAR Nationwide Series doesn’t race at Martinsville. Truex has a Camping World Truck Series race at the track, but Bowman had never raced a NASCAR touring car there before Sunday.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Chevy): Annett started off the day with some bad luck, as he spun with Gilliland on lap 115, then added insult to injury with a flat tire on lap 313, having to pit under green just before the caution flew for Bowman. In the end, he’d settle for finishing 31st. Sorenson’s day wasn’t as problematic, but his run wasn’t as good, either, with a 34th-place check for his efforts.
Go FAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 Keen Parts/SK Tools Ford): Kvapil started off a long day at Martinsville with a 33rd-place run in the No. 32. He was able to keep it on the lead lap for quite a while, a positive, and he nursed the finish out of a battered racecar from that lap 115 incident. And just in case Kvapil hadn’t gotten enough of a workout manhandling his damaged car, he climbed out of it and into the No. 50 truck to attempt to complete another 250 laps in the Camping World Truck Series race less than an hour later.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): For this team, finishing races is a positive step. Because they’ve started and parked so often, they don’t have the information to go on for late-race adjustments that their competitors have. For them, this 35th-place run is a start, and if they can find funding, they can try to gain the foothold that other teams have been able to slowly find in recent years. Sometimes, it’s about the small gains.
Leavine Family Racing; Michael McDowell (No. 95 Triangle Office Equipment Ford): Again, it’s about the small gains, and this team is making them as it transitions from a start-and-park organization to running a partial schedule of full races. A late flat tire marred their day and relegated McDowell to 37th place, paired with brake trouble that took them out. This team needs time to gather information, building a foundation, and they know that.
Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Land Castle Title Toyota): Another start-and-parker trying to go the distance, Nemechek’s inadequate equipment showed from early on as he trailed the field. He was able to stay out of trouble for much of the day, at least before he slapped the wall on lap 315, which ended his day in last place.