Who’s in the headline – Martinsville resurrected the emotions of both fans and competitors that it has not incited in a decade. In the end, while there is much buzz about retribution and championship ramifications, the most important story of the weekend is that Jeff Gordon will be one of the four competitors vying for the 2015 Sprint Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks. The four-time champion, who has lost several titles due to the Chase format, will now be in the mix when the green flag flies on his final race of his career with a one in four chance at winning his fifth career championship.
What happened – Martinsville Speedway was more of a throwback than Darlington on Labor Day weekend. Only a handful of cars left the event without sheet metal damage or some kind of Barebond stuck to them. Joey Logano was the dominant car for much of the event and was likely headed to a victory before a late-race restart incident damaged the cars of Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch. Kenseth’s crew repaired the No. 20 and he returned to the track significantly off of the pace. As Logano caught him on the front straight and attempted to put him another lap down, Kenseth caught the inside of the leader’s car and pushed him into the outside wall in turn 1. The damage not only crippled Logano’s car but probably his title hopes. In the aftermath, AJ Allmendinger stayed on the track under caution and led 19 laps before being passed after the final restart by eventual winner Gordon.
Why you should care – This race could have long lasting implications in the sport for years to come. The crowd at Martinsville was louder than any NASCAR event in the last 10 years and the buzz was electric. NASCAR has maintained that the competitors should police themselves, but they are disappointed in this situation because Kenseth was multiple laps down when he made the contact with Logano. When the ultimate discipline is handed down on Tuesday, it could kill the momentum that was generated today or it could fuel a resurgence in the sport that is so desperately needed.
What your friends are talking about – Without a doubt the Kenseth-Logano contact is the hot topic that will reverberate through the sports world for the next week or more. The only thing it was missing was a garage fight between the crews to cap it off. Kenseth was upset after Kansas and intimated that he would return the favor to Kenseth before the end of the Chase this season. He took out Logano and has put him behind the 8-ball for the next two races if Logano is going to have a shot at this title. The question now is will the sanctioning body let it stand or will Kenseth receive a severe punishment?
After the race, Steve O’Donnell, Executive Vice President of Racing Operations, was asked if Martinsville Speedway should have lights. He said, had they not reached the full 500 laps due to darkness he would have a different response, but stated that it was something they will discuss with the track. The beauty of Martinsville is that it is historic and maintains the charm it had when it was on the very first NASCAR schedule. It should NEVER have lights.
The race on Sunday started under a green/yellow condition. This isn’t the first time that NASCAR has pulled this stunt and the sanctioning body deserves to be called out for it. The racing surface is either safe for competition or it is not. The excuse was that the pit lane was too wet for the cars to run to their stalls safely should they need to come down for stops. While getting the cars on the track to dry the pits was necessary, they should not start counting laps until the event takes the true green flag. It is as much of a farce to start a race like that as it is to end a race under caution.
NASCAR not only unveiled the 2016 schedule for the Cup series with no change to the Chase tracks or race positions and also announced that all of the tracks have reached a five-year agreement to host races. While the dates and positions of the races may change over the four years following 2016, there will be no races lost for any of the tracks. Considering NASCAR has made it clear they do not want to add any more race dates to the schedule, it is a safe assumption that there won’t be any new tracks added to the race docket. Considering the fantastic action this weekend and the desire most fans have to see more short-track racing, it is truly a disappointment. It is also disheartening that the final race of the second round of the Chase will once again be the crap shoot that is Talladega. The people in the garage were certainly as saddened as the fans at that situation.
Who is mad – Logano is obviously at the top of the list for this category. Coming off of his third consecutive victory last week at Talladega he was riding a wave of momentum and was looking to gain a birth in the final four at Homestead. Leading over 200 laps and running a half of a straight ahead of his closest competition, he was looking to tick off the final 45 laps to the win. Now he’s last in point among the either drivers still alive in the Chase and 28 points behind Kevin Harvick, who is fourth in the points after Sunday.
Kurt Busch was in the mix all day, entering the top 10 shortly after the start of the race and running there all day until the lap 435 restart. Busch went from fourth and looking at a great start to this penultimate round of the Chase, to seventh in points and 26 behind his teammate who is in the fourth spot. Busch was caught up in someone else’s drama that had put him perilously close to a must win situation to advance to the final four.
The other half of Team Penske is on the bitter train after Martinsville as well. Keselowski led the second most laps in the race and, like Busch, was in the front of the pack for most of the race after the crossed flags until the incident that took out both of them. Keselowski managed to get back on track just 10 laps down and finished the race in 32nd and is at the tail end of the title contenders with Logano and Busch.
Who is happy – Jamie McMurray has won the pole at Martinsville before and knows his way around the track well enough to have 14 top-10 finishes at the half-mile paperclip. That is four more than any other track on the schedule. He came home in second, which ties his best result of the season from Phoenix in the fourth race of the year. After making the Chase for the first time in his career and being eliminated in the first round, this has to be a positive momentum builder for the veteran driver.
Denny Hamlin started the race in the 10th position and slid backwards early on in the race. He was then involved in the fourth caution of the event but managed to stay on the lead lap. From being in the 30s twice in the first 150 laps of the race he and his No. 11 team clawed their way back and, through aggressive moves on the final restart, put himself in the third finishing position.
Carl Edwards was well behind his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates for most of the event Sunday, languishing in the 20s and going a lap down at one point. He received the lucky dog on the 15th caution of the event and used that momentum to climb back up to a 14th-place finish. While he is not in a transfer position in the points at this time, he has to feel blessed that the chaos that befell the end of the event knocked three of the title contenders down to the tail end of the finishing order and put him in the position to be only seven points out of the final transfer spot.
When the checkered flag flew
Gordon notched his 93rd career victory on Sunday in his 794th consecutive start. He is still in third place on the all-time wins list, 12 behind David Pearson.
This is Gordon’s ninth career triumph at the half-mile track outside of Martinsville, Va. The win was Gordon’s first trophy of 2015.
McMurray came home in the runner-up position for the second time this season. This was McMurray’s second finish in the first loser spot at Martinsville in his career. McMurray has come home second 11 times in his career, which ties him for 59th on the all-time list with Tim Richmond and Alan Kulwicki among others.
Hamlin rounded out the podium for his ninth career top-three run at Martinsville. It was Hamlin’s ninth top-three run of 2015. He has 76 career finishes in the first three positions, which ranks him 30th along with Kurt Busch on the all-time list.
Jeb Burton scored a 27th-place finish to claim Rookie of the Race honors.
The third round of the Chase started with some remarkable fireworks and has set up Gordon with a 25% chance of winning the 2015 Cup title. As the lone representative of Hendrick Motorsports still in the Chase, he is assured to have all of the resources of the most powerful organization in the sport behind the effort to land their flagship driver a fifth and final title to put the bow on his illustrious career. The remainder of the eight Chase contenders and their points position after Martinsville:
- Kyle Busch
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Kevin Harvick
- Carl Edwards
- Brad Keselowski
- Kurt Busch
- Joey Logano
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $10,876,173 in 33 races, while the last place finisher has taken home $2,559,206.
In the Xfinity series it has been $2,142,274 for the winners and $391,155 for last place in 30 races.
After 20 Truck races the winner has $975,326 in his coffers and the last loser has banked $185,951.
What is in the cooler
For the first time in several years, there is no question whatsoever that this race receives a full frosty six-pack of adult beverages. So here is a toast of American Dream Stout from Big Lick Brewing. Gordon scoring his ninth career win at Martinsville could easily be the story of the weekend. Add in the retribution from Kenseth on Logano and the looming specter of Harvick still potentially facing anger from a dozen drivers taken out by his actions at Talladega, and the buzz around the sport is at an all-time high. The ridiculous nature of crowning a champion with such a random system may turn off long-time fans, but it has ramped up excitement to levels that the sport has not seen since the early 2000s.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – The series heads to the Lone Star state next weekend for the second race in the third round of the Chase. The final D-shaped mile-and-a-half of the season will be knocked off with all of the tension that this weekend has instilled in the sport. To see the action on television next weekend tune into NBC. You can hear the action on your local PRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90. You can also see the event streamed on NBCSports/Liveextra. It all goes down at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, November 8.