Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
So many drivers had strong finishes Sunday, but the real praise belongs to Martinsville Speedway. One of the last short tracks on the NASCAR schedule, it’s still the best of the best, and Sunday’s show had it all: drama, hard racing, underdogs, and a legend of the sport standing alone when the dust cleared. At the end of the day, this race was what it’s all about! It was one for the ages, and short of your own personal hero winning the day (and maybe minus a move that was ill-timed in its delivery), it would be hard for anyone to ask for more from a race than what we saw this weekend. If NASCAR raced at tracks like this 36 times a year, there would be no complaints of boring racing.
What… is on my mind at Martinsville?
Jeff Gordon holds the active driver lead for just about everything at Martinsville: wins, poles, average finish, average start. Except after this, he won’t. Love Gordon or hate him (and I suspect many who started out despising him now at the very least respect him for what he’s done), when he retires at the end of this season, the sport will lose something, and the void will be big at tracks like Martinsville, where Gordon has so often dominated. Jimmie Johnson will take over the wins and average finish stat, as well as the average finish number, but he won’t hold all the numbers as Gordon has; Ryan Newman will have the qualifying numbers among active drivers. No driver in recent years has dominated the sport like Gordon did early in his career. And for this writer? I’ve never seen a Cup race run live, in person or on TV, without Gordon in it. Many fans don’t remember races without him or even his reign of terror on the field in the late 1990s, but all will feel the void. Johnson, as good as he is (Chase titles aside, his win numbers don’t lie and he has those), isn’t his mentor and car owner. Neither is Tony Stewart, who will follow Gordon into the sunset a year from now. Gordon is as irreplaceable as the legends who went before.
By winning the race, for a moment, you could see the kid in Gordon, the one Dale Earnhardt nicknamed “Wonderboy” because he was so good, so young. There were shades of the Gordon who wept in victory lane after his first win, in what could, perhaps, be his last. Is he the best of an era? Yes. And one of the best to ever sit in a NASCAR Cup car.
Where… did the polesitter and defending race winner wind up?
Joey Logano looked like he might be on his way to a fourth win in a row… something that hasn’t been done in the Chase since 2007, when Johnson did it en route to the title. But Logano ruffled some feathers on his way to winning the last three, and Matt Kenseth hadn’t forgotten the move that took him out of contention. Kenseth’s move late in the race left Logano in 37th place… and out, for now, of the final four.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t repeat, or even lead a lap, but he had a strong finish at one of his favorite tracks, keeping his nose clean as has become his trademark and working through traffic like it was a Sunday drive to finish fourth.
When… did it go sideways?
You can call this race many things, but boring is not one of them. The defining moment was when Kenseth, still smarting from a spin by Logano at Kansas that ultimately cost him a chance at the title, made sure Logano’s chances were also in jeopardy when he put the No. 22 in the wall with under 50 laps to go Sunday (Kenseth claims he had a tire going down). And there’s where the waters get murky… and where NASCAR has to take a stand. By potentially taking Logano out of the title hunt, Kenseth also significantly increased the championship chances for two of his teammates, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. If there is no penalty for Kenseth, does that mean it’s ok for something similar at Homestead? If Earnhardt Jr. thinks Kevin Harvick ruined his title hopes by intentionally causing a caution at Talladega, is it acceptable for Earnhardt to put him in the wall at Homestead, clearing the way for a Gordon title? What about if Kurt Busch “blows a tire” and takes someone out next week, clearing the way for Harvick? There is so much more than payback for one driver on the line.
Why did Jeff Gordon win the race?
Gordon, a veteran who knows the value of position, put himself exactly where he needed to be late. He didn’t have a car, perhaps, to contend with Logano or Brad Keselowski, but he didn’t have to. He was able to make the winning pass and hold off all comers thereafter, and that put him in victory lane for the ninth time at Martinsville. Gordon savored the moment, and so did the fans, many of whom stayed for an hour after the race, still cheering for the future Hall of Famer as his career reaches its end.
How… did the little guys do?
The three best:
Martin Truex Jr.; Furniture Row Racing: As I’ve said before, this team has easily reached elite status, a far cry from a year ago when they were fighting for dominance in this group with the No. 47 and 13. Truex had another impressive day at Martinsville and took yet another step toward being a title contender at Homestead. He’s made few enemies, which should help him, and he’s consistently strong enough to make him a threat.
AJ Allmendinger; JTG Daugherty Racing: It was an up and down day for Allmendinger, who fell a lap down at one point, bounced back to lead with fewer than 50 laps to go, and then got into the wall and fell to 11th. That’s still an excellent day for this team.
Justin Allgaier; HScott Motorsports: Allgaier was in full sneak attack mode Sunday, slipping by several cars in the closing laps to finish 13th. He’ll be a title contender in the Xfinity Series next year in top equipment, and he didn’t really deserve to lose this ride.
All the rest:
|No.||Driver||Team / Car||Start||Finish||+/-||Points|
|78||Martin Truex Jr.||Furniture Row Racing
Furniture Row Chevy
Led early, then faded a bit but had a strong finish
|47||AJ Allmendinger||JTG Daugherty Racing
Team raced with heavy hearts after loss of team member Mark Bieberich earlier this week. Very fast early, dropped back to 10th by competition caution
|51||Justin Allgaier||HScott Motorsports
Auto Owners Insurance Chevy
Got by several cars on final restart
|13||Casey Mears||Germain Racing
Top 10 in two of three practice sessions; very fast for most of race, got shuffled a few times, including at the end; should have finished top 15
|35||Cole Whitt||Front Row Motorsports
MDS Transportation Ford
Significant damage in crash with Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick; impressive race
|40||Landon Cassill||Hillman Racing
Very strong run; avoided trouble and was there at the end
|7||Alex Bowman||Tommy Baldwin Racing
Nikko/Toy State Chevy
One of Bowman’s best driving performances
|46||Michael Annett||HScott Motorsports
PJ Fresh Chevy
Spun in turn 2 on lap 101; recovered for a good finish
|38||David Gilliland||Front Row Motorsports
Jerry Cook HOF Ford
Involved in several incidents; decent finish out of it all
|23||Jeb Burton||BK Racing
Rocky Ridge/Estes Toyota
Tough day all around for BK but top-30 result is good
|26||JJ Yeley||BK Racing
Unscheduled pit stop hurt effort, but decent finish
|83||Matt DiBenedetto||BK Racing
Tangled with Annett for lap 101 caution
|33||Alex Kennedy||Circle Sport
Stayed out of trouble… half the battle?
|34||Brett Moffitt||Front Row Motorsports
Dockside Logistics Ford
Never looked as strong as teammates.
|62||Timmy Hill||Premium Motorsports
Acredale Vending Chevy
To garage early for mechanical issue; got back out but damage was done
|32||Kyle Fowler||Go FAS Racing
Had a great save at one point but overused his brakes, which was ultimately his undoing.
|98||Ryan Preece||Premium Motorsports
Vydox Plus/Champion Ford
Made a big rookie mistake, got into turn 3 too hot and wheel-hopped with his right front off the curb, spun with Sam Hornish Jr.