Kyle Busch dominated the weekend at Martinsville Speedway, turning his previous 0-30 record at the half-mile paperclip into a two-for-two weekend at the Virginia track.
However, despite Busch’s dominance, the best story of the weekend came from the drivers behind him.
A glance at a typical top five at Martinsville will include names like Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. The paper clip’s best drivers tend to dominate the circuit’s two 500-lap races each year. But on Sunday, they were left struggling to make the top 10 as some of NASCAR’s forgotten members rose to the front.
AJ Allmendinger hadn’t seen a top-5 result since he brought JTG Daugherty Racing its first victory at Watkin’s Glen International in 2014, so when he qualified sixth for Martinsville, fans and critics couldn’t be blamed for doubting that he would stay there for the full 500 laps.
When the checkered flag fell, they were right. Allmendinger hadn’t stayed in sixth. He’d risen to second, his best oval finish since returning from NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program in 2013.
In a similar story, Kyle Larson entered Martinsville amid a streak of bad finishes to start the 2016 season. In his third year with Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson had failed to provide any evidence that he was finally working his way toward Victory Lane.
That all changed on Sunday. Larson maneuvered his way to a third-place finish to score his first top five since the 2015 season finale, with the result coming in the same race that Larson missed with vision issues last season.
A further glance throughout the top 20 reveals a litany of other drivers that badly needed a good result.
Austin Dillon overcame a poor qualifying result to finish fourth, continuing the Richard Childress Racing driver’s streak of good runs in 2016. Brian Vickers finally avoided trouble in one of his limited starts replacing the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Chevrolet, ending a solid run with a seventh-place result.
Paul Menard had an uncharacteristically poor March, but followed it with an eighth-place finish to seize some positive momentum. RCR teammate Ryan Newman followed in 10th, giving all three team cars top-10 results.
Even Greg Biffle and Danica Patrick – two of the sport’s struggling stars – were able to celebrate solid results with finishes in 12th and 16th, respectively. Sure, those aren’t the sort of finishes that earn a team headlines or sponsor mentions on tv, but both performances showed significant improvement over recent weeks.
Calling Sunday a day for the little guys would be a bit of a misnomer – everyone mentioned above is affiliated with championship-winning teams – but it was a day that many teams needed.
Will Martinsville translate to strong follow-up results for these teams? It’s difficult to say.
For some of the teams, the answer’s likely yes. Allmendinger and Dillon have both shown consistent success thus far this season. With some luck, one or both of them could make their way to victory lane.
For others, Sunday could be a flash in the pan. Larson seems as capable of winning as he is of finishing 25th, whether the fault is his own or CGR’s. Vickers is only going to get so many chances before Stewart returns from injury. Biffle’s only going to rise as far as Roush Fenway Racing’s equipment allows him.
The biggest issue for Sunday’s surprises aren’t just their own tales, though. It’s the rare misses of their best competitors.
Johnson, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and others all had uncharacteristic finishes. Soon (if not next week) they’ll be back on top.
Still, for now, Allmendinger, Larson and some of the other surprising finishers of Sunday’s STP 500 can celebrate. It’s said that every dog has its day. At Martinsville, the day went to them.