I’ve said it many times before, and I’m sure I’ll continue to say it as long as the editors allow me to keep writing this column. There’s nothing in NASCAR that can’t be fixed, at least temporarily, with a visit to the oldest, slowest and flattest track in the sport. Martinsville Speedway is a true gem on the NASCAR schedule, a shining light – no pun intended given the given the upcoming installation of LED lights – that hearkens back to a bygone era of stock car racing. And yet, every time we visit, the race is still compelling: 500 laps of red hot brakes and plenty of bumping and grinding.
The truth is we should cherish every visit to Martinsville and never take it lightly. We’ve seen enough changes in the sport to know that nothing lasts forever. At least we know for the next five years Martinsville will keep its pair of dates, and let’s hope that is a streak that continues until I am very old and very gray. This Sunday’s 500-lap contest will be race number 136 at the little old paper clip – a streak that goes all the way back (waaaay back) to race number six in 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season. That race was won by Red Byron, who went on to compete in 15 Cup races across three years. I can’t wait for the next chapter in Martinsville’s illustrious history this weekend. Is it Sunday afternoon yet?
TWO: And then there were eight
We’re half way home with the Chase – well technically it’s six down, four to go – but in terms of active participants we’ve culled the field from the initial 16 down to just eight drivers. There are five previous champions: Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, and three drivers yet to hoist the big silver wavy trophy, namely Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
The next three races will see us visit a flat half-mile track (Martinsville) and a cookie-cutter mile-and-a-half track (Texas Motor Speedway) before we finish up this penultimate segment at Phoenix International Raceway. Given what we’ve seen so far this Chase, I’d hate to make any kind of a prediction as to who races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And whether you like it or not, expect plenty of drama in the next three weeks.
THREE: Keselowski Wheezes Out:
Sunday was a tough afternoon for 2012 Sprint Cup Champion and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski, who looked like he had the car to beat all day long – right up until the point his engine gave up the ghost.
“[We had] a tremendous race going, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” said Keselowski. “Just the way it goes.”
Keselowski led 90 of the 144 laps he managed and for a while it certainly looked like he was going to tie Dale Earnhardt’s record of three consecutive victories at restrictor-plate tracks. Any time you’re close to the record of one of the sport’s legends you know you’re doing something right. Keselowski, let’s not forget, won at Talladega in May and then again at Daytona International Speedway in the July night race. A contributing factor in Keselowski’s engine failure may well have been a simple piece of debris that somehow attached itself to his grille, while leading.
“I’m not an engine guy, but the car was really strong, and we definitely kept finding debris,” continued Keselowski of his engine woes. “I thought I got it cooled off and only got it slightly over [the maximum temperature], but I don’t know.”
So a second championship is not to be for Keselowski but if we know anything about the the nine-year, 265-race veteran, he’ll be back strong. Don’t be surprised if he wins a couple more before the season is all said and done.
FOUR: Truex, Jr. Season Expires with Engine
Another driver who had a tough day for Martin Truex, Jr who finished last for just the fifth time in his 401-race top echelon career. Like Keselowski, Truex, Jr.’s engine expired after just 41 of the scheduled 188 laps. It was the first engine failure Truex Jr. had suffered since the 2014 Daytona 500 – some 103 races ago.
“It’s disappointing. I mean, what else can you say?” said Truex to NBC Sports. “I feel like we had a team capable of competing for the championship and it’s unfortunate we’re not going to be able to show that.”
And yes it is indeed extremely unfortunate for Truex who would have been a popular champion. Truex, who won two of the first three Chase races (Chicagoland Speedway and at his home town track Dover International Raceway) and has looked the best on mile-and-a-half circuits all year long is left to rue what might have been. Still, given where he was after the Richmond debacle of 2013, which saw him lose his Michael Waltrip Racing ride through no real fault of his own, Truex has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future. There will be other titles to compete for, that you can count on.
FIVE: JGR Debate
And finally, a quick word on the strategy of the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who ran around at the back avoiding trouble all day long. Now I know there are plenty of folks fired up about their approach to the race – just dive into the acerbic Twitter comments on the issue if you don’t know what I mean. Here was Kyle Busch’s succinct summary:
Don't hate the player… Hate the game.
— Kyle Busch (@KyleBusch) October 24, 2016
Simply put, I don’t have a problem with it. The JGR threesome did what they needed to do to make it to the next round. I know some say they didn’t race at 100 percent, but the fact is they knew what they needed to do all race long and they executed. We’ve seen participants with a comfortable points leads eliminated during this race in the past two years.
“Yeah, I knew that strategy was going to be in play,” said the fourth JGR racer, Denny Hamlin. “I mean, obviously when you have three guys that realistically just don’t need to wreck to get in, and you have one that needs to go out there and almost win to get in, you can’t sacrifice the three guaranteed spots that you got to try to get one more in.”
And this from a guy who could absolutely have done with the help of his three teammates. So there you go. At least next year we won’t have this problem.
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