Who’s in the headline – Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have struggled for over a year to get its cars back into Victory Lane. The cure for what ails a team can be heading to a place where the driver feels extra comfortable. With four Ridgeway clocks already in his home, Martinsville Speedway is quite possibly the best elixir for Hamlin and the No. 11 team. He had a strong car, although not the dominant car, all day at the half-mile track in southern Virginia, and he put himself in the right place at the right time, which was in the top spot as the checkered flag flew.
What happened – Cool temperatures kept the track from taking a lot of rubber on Sunday, and the teams had one fewer set of tires than they normally have at Martinsville. The cars ended up slipping and sliding quite a bit, which led to 16 caution flags totaling 112 laps. The cautions put a premium on restarts, which are a challenge at Martinsville due to the high line being at a severe disadvantage. Passing was difficult but not impossible, which could be seen in the 13 drivers exchanging the lead 31 times. Kevin Harvick led a race-high 154 laps but faded at the end to an eighth-place finish. That brought his streak of top-two finishes to an end at eight.
Jeff Gordon was poised to score his ninth career win at the track, but a speeding penalty on pit road during the final caution of the day sent him to the back of the field and relegated him to a ninth-place finish. Hamlin took advantage of Gordon’s miscue and restarted on the inside lane for the final green-flag run of the race and credited that fortune for his victory.
Why you should care – Joe Gibbs Racing is the flagship for Toyota Racing and to have the team struggle so mightily for the last year has put a lot of pressure on the organization. The team is far from out of the weeds, but it put three teams in the top five on Sunday and helped Penske Racing shut Chevrolet out of the top five altogether. Having all three manufacturers contend for wins on a weekly basis provides more excitement to the sport and excites a larger portion of the fanbase. The racing in general on Sunday was exciting throughout the field, but we all know that you get that on short tracks.
What your friends are talking about – Kyle Larson was not in the No. 42 on Sunday after passing out during an autograph session on Saturday. He was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte for an examination by a neurologist. He was apparently dehydrated when the event occurred but felt fine by the time he was seen in Charlotte. The doctors in Charlotte did not clear him to race on Sunday so Regan Smith jumped into a crew member’s firesuit and wheeled the Target ride to a 16th-place finish. Hopefully this is one of those inexplicable incidents that will never rear its ugly head again so that Larson is able to race as long as he wants to.
NASCAR confiscated tires after Martinsville to continue its audit of tires that began at Phoenix. Rumors are rampant in the garage that some teams have been drilling minute holes in tires to allow air pressure to bleed off as it builds. If teams could control the air pressure in the tires to be more consistent throughout the runs, they would better manage the balance of the car for the entire race. It’s not the first time that rumors have spread in the garage about teams bleeding air off of the tires to keep them at a consistent pressure. In 2006, the Richard Childress teams of Jeff Burton and Harvick were rumored to have laser cut rims so that they would bleed off air as the temperatures in the tires built up. While there were rumors that were vehemently denied by those affiliated with RCR, there were no penalties ever issued.
Bringing up Danica Patrick is always cause for heated debate and discussion, especially in this column, but it should be noted that her seventh-place finish ties her for the all-time lead among female drivers in NASCAR for top-10 finishes. Janet Guthrie had five top-10 runs during her four year foray into NASCAR. She accomplished that feat in 33 races, but both drivers now have five apiece. It has taken Patrick 87 races to accumulate her five finishes, but four of those have come in the last 32 events.
Joey Logano‘s triumph in the Truck Series race on Saturday makes him the 26th driver in the history of NASCAR to win a race in all three of the national touring divisions. Ken Schrader was the very first driver to accomplish the feat in 1995 with a win at Saugus Speedway in the Truck Series. He had previously scored his first win at Talladega in the Cup Series in 1988 and at Dover in the Xfinity Series in 1989. Logano’s first Cup victory was at New Hampshire in 2009 and Kentucky in the XFINITY Series in 2008.
As mentioned above, NASCAR reduced the available tires for Cup teams by a set at Martinsville from 11 to 10. The move will save each team somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 thanks to the cost of a set of tires running $1,900. While it is a step in the right direction, the greater cost savings could be realized if the sport would dictate to Goodyear that it come up with compounds that will work for all of the tracks in a certain class of facility. If NASCAR pushed Goodyear to make a soft, medium and hard compound that worked on all intermediate and 2-mile speedways, the teams could purchase tires for one track and take them to other tracks instead of having to eat the cost of unused tires for each event. With tires for superspeedways, intermediates, short tracks and road courses of different compounds the teams would have a new level of strategy to invoke during the events. It would obviously cut into Goodyear’s bottom line but the fact that it has a monopoly on race rubber already sets it up for a pretty lucrative payday every year from the sport.
On a sad note Earl Baltes, the founder of Eldora Speedway passed away this week at the age of 93. Baltes built the famed dirt track in rural Ohio in 1954 and promoted it until he sold the facility to Tony Stewart in 2004. Baltes promoted the biggest dirt races in the world without the help of television money and had some of the lowest concession prices of any racetrack anywhere. His vision and ethics are the yard stick by which all other promoters should be measured.
Frontstretch also sends out prayers to Steve Byrnes. The longtime broadcaster received poor results from a PET scan this week and continues his battle against cancer. Byrnes continues to receive the love and support of the tight knit racing community and will hopefully be back in the booth soon.
Who is mad – Gordon is mad, but only at himself. He had the car to beat late in the event, came down pit lane with the lead and left as the first person with fresh tires. However, he was busted for speeding in segment five on pit lane and had to start tail end of the field. With 34 laps left in the event, it was too big of a hill to climb and Gordon went home with a disappointing ninth-place finish.
AJ Allmendinger had the Cinderella story of 2014 with the win at Watkins Glen that propelled him to the Chase for the Cup. He started off 2015 looking stronger than he had last season with great runs on intermediate tracks that were the team’s Achilles heel in 2014. His car looked sporty at the beginning of the race on Sunday, but after running in the top 10 for the first 150 laps of the event, the engine went south and relegated him to a 43rd-place finish. Added to the 34th-place run at Fontana last week, the impact for Allmendinger is now a 20th-place points standing.
Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville. His average finish is 7.3 and he has eight wins at the track, second only to Dover on his career list. He only has three runs at the venerable track that are worse than 12th in his 27 career starts at the facility. Interestingly enough, two of those three runs have been in the last two races at the track. We’ve heard it before from Johnson and crew chief Chas Knaus, but there was definite anger on the radio over the state of the car on Sunday. Don’t expect it to mean anything when September rolls around and they are in contention for a record tying seventh championship, but it was interesting to see and hear the current kings of the paperclip sound totally out to lunch.
Who is happy – Joe Gibbs has to be about as happy as they come among the owners in the Cup Series. During the post race press conference, Hamlin admitted that the competition meeting on Tuesday was one of the longest ever and that Coach raised his voice, which rarely happens. The company has struggled as a whole for some time now and is most likely feeling pressure from the folks at Toyota America to step it up. Putting three of the four teams in the top five and having the fourth team in contention for a top five until a flat tire took them out most certainly has to have the patriarch of the company grinning. David Ragan is definitely grinning right alongside Coach after finally landing a top five in his substitute role for Kyle Busch.
Martin Truex Jr. continues to ride the good mojo wave of 2015 after his previous couple seasons of down results. Truex turned in another top-10 run on Sunday, coming home in the sixth position, which makes it six straight to start the season. It is the second most top 10s in a season for Furniture Row, trailing only 2013 when Kurt Busch did it 16 times. Truex hopes to continue riding the wave of good fortune as he heads to Texas, one of his favorite tracks.
As mentioned above, Patrick came home in seventh place for her fifth top 10 of her career. She not only turned in the first top 10 of the season but was the highest finishing Stewart Haas competitor. The naysayers will point out that she is running the best equipment in the business and should be running that well every week, but it cannot be denied that she outran everyone else on her team and was the second-highest finishing Chevrolet on Sunday behind Truex Jr.
When the checkered flag flew
Hamlin’s win is the 25th of his career. He has scored those wins in 332 starts. Hamlin’s win ties him with Joe Weatherly for the most by a Virginia driver in the history of the sport. Hamlin is tied for 27th on the all-time wins list with Kurt Busch, Jim Paschal and Weatherly. This is Hamlin’s fifth career win at Martinsville Speedway in 19 career starts.
Brad Keselowski‘s runner-up finish was his best career run in Martinsville. Keselowski has two consecutive top-two runs, his only top twos this season. This is Keselowski’s 11th career second, which ties him with Tim Richmond, Alan Kulwicki, Paul Goldsmith and Darel Dieringer for 58th on the all-time list.
Logano has finished on the podium twice in 13 career starts at Martinsville. He has two top threes this season. In his career, he has run in the top three 23 times, which ties him with Dick Brooks for 72nd on the all-time list.
Patrick’s seventh-place run is the best by a woman at Martinsville.
Brett Moffitt was the Rookie of the Race thanks to his 28th-place finish.
Harvick’s streak of top-two runs ends at eight thanks to his eighth-place run. Martinsville is where Richard Petty‘s run of 11 straight ended in 1975.
Harvick leads the point standings by 24 over Logano.
Harvick, Logano, Keselowski, Johnson and Hamlin all have wins in 2015. Harvick is locked into the Chase assuming he attempts the rest of the races or receives an exemption should he miss any events. Logano, Johnson, Keselowski and Hamlin have the inside track to the Chase with 20 races left in the “regular season”.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after six races without wins and their standing in points
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $3,136,800, while the last-place finisher has taken home $623,760
In the Xinity Series it has been $440,217 for the winners and $88,872 for last place.
After three Truck races the winner has $188,425 and the last loser has banked $30,813.
What is in the cooler – The oldest race track on the circuit once again did not disappoint. While the penalty for restarting on the outside is quite severe and certainly cost Harvick a shot at continuing his top-two streak, people were able to pass. Keselowski almost made it happen on the outside with just over one lap to go. 31 lead changes and paint traded from first to last all day long, along with 41 cars running at the finish makes for a great day at the race track. It may not have been side-by-side with tire smoke and sparks at the finish but it was a tremendous race after the mind numbing, aero-dependent drivel we’ve seen over three of the last four weeks. That said it earns five ice-cold Witchback Ales from 2 Witches Winery and Brewery.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – Next weekend is Easter and all three of the national touring series have the week off. In two weeks, the schedule swings through Texas where you can see the action on FOX on Saturday, April 11 at 7:30 p.m. It is also available on your local PRN affiliate and NASCAR SiriusXM radio. If you are looking for a racing fix next weekend visit your local track. The long term health of the sport depends on it.
About the author
What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.