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The Big Six: Questions Answered After the 2016 STP 500

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

AJ Allmendinger put on a heck of a show in his late-race bid for the runner-up spot, but it was Kyle Larson who took full advantage of the real estate battle, squeezing through to finish third at a track where he’s struggled mightily in the past. Larson missed this race last year with dehydration.

In his first four trips to the speedway, larson’s best finish was a mediocre 19th, with an average that was near the bottom of the barrel.  He used Saturday’s Truck Series race as a preparation of sorts, and it paid off for him. The result is more in line with expectations for Larson as well. After a strong rookie campaign that left many wondering when he was going to win multiple races, Larson faced a slight slump in 2015. Is this the year he rebounds and finds Victory Lane? If he continues to be strong, it could be.

What… is the takeaway from this race?

In a year that’s been one of the best in recent memory in terms of competitive racing, Martinsville wasn’t a barn-burner. It was a good race, with plenty of beating and banging and gouging, but the lack of rubber in the groove and the importance of track position kept it from being a great race by Martinsville standards.

Kyle Busch put on a clinic, but the lack of attrition and absence of the tempers that usually flare at the half-mile meant it was OK, but not great, by Martinsville standards. That usually means it was still better than any other race in recent memory, but as good as the races have been this year, that’s not the case. As far as entire races go, it ranks middle of the pack. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it was still fun to watch and one you wish wasn’t over so soon. They can’t all be instant classics, but expectations were high this weekend and the race may not have met them for some fans.

Where… did the pole sitter and the defending race winner wind up?

Joey Logano started on point but faded fast, at one point falling off the lead lap and never being able to regain the handling he needed to make a run at a top-10 finish. He came close, in 11th, but was never a threat to finish what he started.  A pit road penalty didn’t help matters. It was still a better day than he had at Martinsville last fall, when Matt Kenseth enacted revenge on him in the Chase. But it wasn’t the kind of day most expected of Logano.

Denny Hamlin was looking for his sixth Martinsville win Sunday. He’s currently second in wins among active drivers at the track.

Hamlin qualified eighth and ran as high as sixth before he spun on his own in turn two, causing enough damage to the No. 11 that he was done for the day in 39th place. There was some speculation that the No. 43 car had dropped fluid on the track from a blown engine, but Hamlin said it was on him, noting afterward, “It was really out of the blue. I didn’t ever have a hint of it up until that moment, so a bit of a rookie move on my part—been around here too much to do something like that, but learning for the fall (race) and I’m really encouraged about how good our car came up through the pack and I really thought we had a car that could win.”

When… did it all go sideways?

There were a few minor scuffles, but no tempers got out of control, making it a pretty tame race for Martinsville. What hurt teams Sunday was a lack of rubber buildup on the track — something many had counted on when setting up their cars. Because there wasn’t much rubber laid down, cars fought for grip throughout the race. The lack of tire marks was evident on the racing surface, and several teams felt the effects bitterly as they fought cars that had handled better just a day before. The low-downforce package with a soft tire combination is a good one, but perhaps a tire than lays down a little more rubber at some tracks (and maybe even leaves a few more marbles to contend with at others) should be on the drawing board.

Why… did Kyle Busch win the race?

Track position was extremely important at Martinsville this go-around, and Busch had it for most of the day. His 352 laps led was the most at the track since 1998 and his No. 18 car was strong on both restarts and long runs, a lethal combination, as it turned out.

It also seemed as though Busch and teammate Kenseth took a page from the Team Penske book from last fall, teaming up on restarts to keep the competition behind them, something that worked until the final restart when it was every man for himself. On the penultimate restart, it was a bit surprising that Kenseth played as nicely as he did because that late in the game going for the lead should have been the name of the game. But he did and it ultimately allowed Busch to be in the position he wanted to be in at the end of the day.

How… did the little guys do?

The three best:

AJ Allmendinger; JTG Daugherty Racing: The team was strong all weekend long, qualifying sixth and running in the top 10 all race long, challenging for position. On the final restart, Allmendinger shoved his way to second, and while he couldn’t run down Busch, he showed that his team is much stronger this season than a year ago.  They’re currently 12th in points and have been strong on different types of tracks. In the past they’ve needed a surprise win to make the Chase, but this year if they hold steady, they could squeeze in on points. Are they going the way of Furniture Row Racing and moving into a different tier of competitiveness?  It’s looking good for them so far.

Ryan Blaney; Wood Brothers Racing: Despite its original headquarters being just 20 miles up the road, the No. 21 hadn’t raced at Martinsville in five years.  It’s not an easy track for a rookie driver, and Blaney acknowledged that he “probably gave more that I should have took,” but his respectful racing meant a respectable top 20 finish.

David Ragan; BK Racing: Here’s a team that didn’t land in the top 3 in this group much last year, but they have been creeping in this year.  Ragan got into Dale Earnhardt, Jr. early and probably wasn’t too popular with fans afterward, but he’s a good short track racer and he brought his team another top 25 finish—something that was a rarity last season.  He and DiBenedetto continue to make the most of upgraded equipment and appear to be gelling as teammates.  After stagnating for a couple of years, the team is on the rise now.

All the rest:

No.DriverTeamCarStartFinish+/-Points Position
47AJ AllmendingerJTG Daugherty RacingKroger / Butterfinger / Coffeemate Chevy6th2nd
Strong start and held in the top 10 all day long, didn’t quite have enough for Busch at the end but a big day for the team
+412th
+7
21Ryan BlaneyWood Brothers RacingMotorcraft / Quick Lane Ford12th19th
Strong start to the weekend—team has not raced here since 2011.  Got pushed around a little bit but overall drove a smart race.
-715th
+2
23David RaganBK RacingDr. Pepper Toyota22nd21st
Another good day for this team—Ragan has been an asset and they’re improving steadily along with the No. 83
+130th
95Michael McDowellCircle Sport-Leavine Family RacingKLOVE Radio Chevy27th24th
Strong in 1st half; used good strategy to get a decent finish; is regularly finishing better than a year ago
+333rd
-1
15Clint BowyerHScott Motorsports5-hour Energy Chevy30th25th
Had good practice times—looked like he might be a surprise spoiler but struggled on race day once again.  It looks like the driver isn’t the main issue here.
+532nd
-1
38Landon CassillFront Row MotorsportsMDS Transport Ford33rd33rd
Ran a smart race—held his own and worked traffic well to gain a few spots in a competitive group. Wave around strategy didn’t work out midrace, but Casill said afterward it was good call to try it.
+529th
-1
83Matt DiBenedettoBK RacingCosmo Motors Toyota35th29th
Acknowledged early struggles Friday/Saturday but ran a smart race and held his own in mid-20s—attitude this weekend was impressive
+634th
-1
98Cole WhittPremium MotorsportsChevy31st30th
Ran well early and was competitive within this group-good day for a team that needed it
+137th
13Casey MearsGermain RacingGEICO Chevy18th31st
Optimistic going in but got freight-trained early and fell from 14th to 33rd; should be running with the 47 every week, need to figure out why they aren’t. Had a loose wheel late that cost several positions. “That was pretty much a disaster” said Bootie Barker after the race.
-1328th
-2
34Chris BuescherFront Row MotorsportsCSX Play it Safe Ford36th33rd
Gained some valuable experience at Martinsville and should improve with time; RFR improvement key to FRM future
+336th
-1
7Regan SmithTommy Baldwin RacingAPC Chevy34th34th
Had a decent day going early; got knocked around some and a late slide into the wall caused minimal damage but a lot of spots
27th
-4
46Michael AnnettHScott MotorsportsPilot Flying J Chevy38th35th
Got pushed around a bit by leaders and had a couple of spins.  Overall hasn’t shown the improvement he should have by this point in his career.
+335th
-1
32Joey GaseGO FAS RacingDonate Life Ford37th36th
Spotter did a good job of coaching the young driver in traffic and he showed poise while driving a slower car in traffic
+1N/A
55Reed SorensonPremium MotorsportsChevy40th37th
Way off the pace all weekend-two teams might be too much right now as 98 has struggled this year
+342nd
1st start
30Josh WiseThe Motorsports GroupCurtis Key Plumbing Chevy39th38th
Went to the garage with less than 300 to go with for blown engine—they had passed some cars and were better than a few on this list.
+138th

 

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