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?
At the end, staying out on the final caution while most of the field took fresh tires wasn’t a winning move. But it was a bold one, and it showed that Tony Stewart is as willing as ever to take chances if they could mean a win. Sure, Stewart may have lost a step since his days as a brash youngster who could win races on swagger as easily as he could win on finesse. But he showed something that has appeared to be absent for much of 2014, even before the fatal accident he was involved in in August – the drive to do whatever it takes to beat his opponents, even if it means losing on a risk.
“I think if we were in that position 100 times over that is same call we would do,” said Stewart afterward. “It felt like it was the right thing for this team. Running fifth there or fourth there I guess before the caution. I felt like it was the right call for sure. I didn’t feel like it was a gamble. I thought we gave ourselves the best shot to race for the win. I don’t think it we would have restarted fifth of the guys that pitted we could have raced through those guys to get where we were. If three or four more lead lap cars stayed out and gambled like we did it may have put enough cars in between us to make it pay off. I thought the risk versus reward was worth it for sure.”
What… does the Chase picture look like with three races to go?
The short answer? A lot different than it looked a week ago. For the first time in seven Chase races, a driver not in contention for the title won, and points became that much more important as one spot in the final cut is no longer available for winning. Jeff Gordon made a statement loud and clear that he’s not done in 2014, retaking the points lead by three over a winless, but ultra-consistent, Ryan Newman, who’s showing the world that winning isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Joey Logano is one point behind Newman, and Matt Kenseth, also without a 2014 victory, is fourth, one point behind Logano and ahead of the next cutoff for now.
Denny Hamlin also had a good points day, finishing eighth to move into fifth place, seven points behind Gordon. From there, it’s a little dicier. Carl Edwards is 20 behind, already a lot of ground to make up if the top drivers don’t stumble. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick had the kind of race that’s ended other Chasers’ hopes of moving on to another round. They’re 31 and 33 behind, respectively, and will almost certainly need a win to be in it at Homestead.
For the first time, it looks like two of the four best teams of the year overall are in real danger of missing the cut to someone who’s had a strong Chase. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson, the honorary pace car driver for the weekend, said before the race that he didn’t think the current format was a fair way to determine a champion, and after the race, his words had a bit more bite. It may come down to NASCAR having to convince fans of a champion’s worthiness, which isn’t a good position for the sanctioning body to be in.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Polesitter Jamie McMurray led four times for a total of 84 laps on Sunday, once again showing the rest of the field why they need to keep one eye on Chip Ganassi Racing in 2015. McMurray ran in the top 10 for most of the first three-quarters of the race but found himself mired in traffic at the end, coming home 16th, a disappointing finish after the start he had to the weekend.
Gordon gave it everything he had in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite catch his teammate in the end. Gordon finished second in a vintage performance; he even said afterward that he’d have moved his teammate if necessary. He took back the points lead he held for much of the season. He served notice that he’s a very real threat to win a fifth title… and maybe to reach the 100-win mark before he’s done.
When… did it all go sideways?
Martinsville is a throwback to the days when NASCAR thrived on running the bullrings, when rubbing was racing and races were settled by drivers and not by 7-post shaker rigs and wind tunnel hours. That was what fans were treated to on Sunday. The race was a free-for-all at times but in a different way than at Talladega, where it’s a waiting game for the inevitable. Instead of a game of roulette, it was drivers taking what they wanted, and that meant someone usually wasn’t happy.
There were a couple of short-lived feuds – it might be said that if you don’t leave Martinsville mad at somebody, you’re doing it wrong. Brian Vickers got into Kasey Kahne ,who then got back at Vickers, who then got back at Kahne. It might have continued but NASCAR put an end to it. Martin Truex Jr. made contact with Danica Patrick and she later sent him for a ride. It was just typical short-track action.
As far as bad luck went, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski found that. Busch had an oil line break under caution, setting the No. 41 ablaze briefly, though the team did make repairs and sent him back out on the track. Keselowski had an axle break in traffic on a restart that caused the biggest mess of the day and ended with destroyed cars for Casey Mears, Kahne and Truex. It was a wild one in a totally different way from last week’s race. Imagine the days when the type of racing seen this week was common rather than a rarity?
Why… did Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the race?
Earnhardt Jr. and Co. certainly didn’t want to see the last caution come out, bringing with it choices that can snatch defeat from victory in the seconds it takes to change tires. Earnhardt and his team made the right call, though, taking tires for the final five-lap showdown and storming back from a fifth-place restart to the front. From there, Earnhardt held off Gordon to win his first Martinsville race at a track where he has almost always been strong but never quite lucky enough. This time he was both lucky and good, taking his fourth win of the year, the first time he’s won that many since 2004.
For Earnhardt, a student of the sport’s history, the win was an extra-special one.
“We’ve been trying to win here for so many years. And this place is so special to me,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “I’ve wanted to win here so bad. We brought the good cars. I’m out of breath from celebrating more than driving. It’s a real emotional win. This team on pit road was great and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the guys did a real good job all day. They gave me a great shot at it there with the call at the end to take tires. I can’t believe we won here. This means so much to all of us. It’s just real emotional.”
How… did the little guys do?
JTG Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Clorox Chevy): The No. 47 didn’t look too pretty with a bashed-in rear bumper, but the top-10 finish sure looks nice on the No. 47 team’s resume. Allmendinger wasn’t a threat to win, but he showed once again that he belongs in the conversation about the sport’s most underrated drivers.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Wendell Scott Hall of Fame Tribute Ford & No. 38 A&W Ford): Ragan honored local hero and Hall of Famer Wendell Scott with a special paint scheme this weekend, and using solid pit strategy, he carried Scott’s old paint scheme all the way into the top 10 Sunday. Gilliland had his ups and downs and made a few others angry along the way for some alleged brake-checks. He came home 22nd at the end of the day.
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 Auto-Owners Insurance Chevy): Allagier was in his short-track element this weekend, and he showed speed in Saturday’s practice sessions. He scrapped it out on Sunday for a 17th-place result, another quiet top 20 for this team that’s slowly turning some heads.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 DipYourCar.com Toyota & No. 26 Uponer Plumbing Systems Toyota & No. 83 DipYourCar.com Toyota): Three cars, one hood. That’s the way the BK trio finished the day. Whitt grabbed a top 20 for the outfit, finishing 18th with the hood on his No. 26. Bowman and Yeley both finished without theirs, though, as both suffered damage early. Bowman spun on lap 4, and Yeley went to the garage for repairs early on as well. Both returned to the track, though, with Bowman winding up 29th and Yeley, after his extensive garage visit, finishing 39th.
Circle Sport/Hillman Racing; Travis Kvapil & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 Newtown Building Supplies Chevy): Cassill was sneaky on Sunday, making a stealth run at the top 10 at one point. For his team, a lead-lap finish is a big deal, and one at a track where cars are lapped early and often was a solid follow-up to Cassill’s unlikely top five last week at Talladega. How long will his tiny team be able to hide his talent from the bigger organizations? Kvapil’s luck did not run the way of Cassill’s on Sunday. His car was damaged early in a lap 16 spin, and eventually the engine expired as well to end Kvapil’s day in 41st.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No 7 Allstate Peterbilt Group Chevy & No. 36 Zing Zang Chevy): Annett managed to avoid short-track feuding and drove to a relatively solid 24th-place finish. Sorenson was caught in a pair of incidents, which relegated him to 35th at the end of the day.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Chevy): Wise fought his way to 25th at the end, a lap down to Earnhardt, after tangling with Kvapil early in the day. He stayed out of further trouble while others found it, and that allowed him to climb from 37th at lap 150 to his eventual finishing position.
Jay Robinson Racing; Mike Wallace (No. 66 Testoril Toyota): Wallace quietly waged a good battle for much of the day, staying out of real trouble, and bringing home his team’s best result since Daytona in July with his 26th place.
GoFAS Racing; Kyle Fowler (No. 32 corvetteparts.net Ford): Fowler had a rough go of things, spinning at lap 75, but he recovered enough to do what a rookie driver needs to do most: gain some seat time and knowledge. Fowler’s 28th-place finish wasn’t terrible, and he learned something going forward.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears suffered his first DNF of 2014 Sunday after Keselowski’s axle broke in front of the No. 13 and Mears couldn’t see him quickly enough to react. He slammed into Keselowski and then the wall, getting the wind knocked out of him. But he climbed from the car and walked to the ambulance after which he was quickly released from infield care and credited with a 37th-place finish.