Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Sometimes finishing position doesn’t reflect a good race accurately. That was the case Sunday for Austin Dillon, who gained 24 spots by halfway to get into the top 10. Pit strategy didn’t swing his way following a late caution that shook up the field, but Dillon’s 17th-place finish was still 15 positions better than his 32nd-place start. That shows a team that made real gains before and during the race, and it’s what will, eventually be a factor in winning races. Dillon has had a good year, and days like this are why he’ll continue to get better.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Single-file racing is different at Martinsville. There it is. While single-file racing at a larger track is a recipe for a lot of unhappy fans, nobody should be unhappy with the show this weekend. Even when cars weren’t side by side (and there was not a single lap where somebody wasn’t), there was real intensity as they ran nose to tail, looking for opportunities to root the car in front out of the way.
At one point, six cars were fighting for 10th to 15th place, and the tension was nearly palpable as they jabbed away at one another to sort it all out. There wasn’t a lot of temper on display, but that’s more an indication of the skill and patience of drivers than of a lack of action. Martinsville, in many ways, is a track that time has passed by, and the old-school racing is the best on the Cup circuit. There’s nothing fancy about the races here because there doesn’t need to be.
Where… did the pole-sitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Early on, Martin Truex, Jr. looked like he might dominate at Martinsville, starting on the pole and leading 147 of 500 laps. But when it was all over, Truex faded to seventh, Matt Kenseth captured the bonus of most laps led with 176 and three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars finished ahead of him in the rundown. It was still a good day for Truex, who has four wins this season and was a title favorite right up until he wasn’t, but a bit of the magic was missing Sunday.
Jeff Gordon won what everyone thought was his final race at Martinsville a year ago, but in his final final race at Martinsville this year (probably, maybe), Gordon proved he’s as good as he ever was, even as Jimmie Johnson tied his nine-win Martinsville mark, tops among active drivers and a record that will belong solely to Johnson next year. Gordon didn’t quite have a winning car Sunday, but he had one stout enough for a top-10 run, and he took a few more positions over that, finishing sixth. The race also marked the final time Gordon will race onetime rival Tony Stewart in Cup completion, passing the torch, at least for now, to Johnson.
When… did it all go sideways?
The racing was intense and exciting, though there were few incidents and no overt shows of temper, other than Kyle Busch calling out Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin after the race, apparently for not moving over for him in the closing laps. What did peak the crazy meter was a late-race caution that flew for a Carl Edwards crash just after most of the field had completed green-flag pit stops.
Pit road was closed for several laps as clean-up took place, while Jimmie Johnson and AJ Allmendinger, who had yet to pit, saw their fuel levels dip dangerously low. Allmendinger pitted anyway and took the penalty; Johnson’s car hiccupped but he was able to make it until pit road opened…and then chaos ensued as NASCAR kept the field circling the track as they tried to figure out the running order.
Johnson’s team contended that even after a wave-around, race leader Denny Hamlin should still have been one lap down as green flag stops at Martinsville cost at least two laps. Lapped cars were lined up among the leaders. NASCAR finally told teams that the next driver who jumped out of line would be sent to the back.
They changed their mind on the correct lineup on the radio a couple of times. All the while, the laps ticked down, but NASCAR chose not to throw a red flag while the field was sorted out. Runner-up Brad Keselowski openly questioned the move after the race.
“We don’t need to run 100 laps under yellow trying to figure out where they’re at,” Keselowski said post-race. “It probably cost us the race.”
Why… did Jimmie Johnson win the race?
Face it. Anyone who counts Johnson as anything other than the favorite at Martinsville should know better. Johnson is always a threat at the track, and this weekend’s unusually warm weather and long green-flag runs only helped him win at the track for the ninth time.
This week, Johnson did what he’s always done better than just about anybody: overcome every obstacle thrown at him, including damaged steering from contact and a damaged car from more contact, as well as an error of his own making when he missed a switch in the sequence to cycle his car back on after it stalled on the backstretch under caution. Johnson is a master of making his own destiny…and now he’ll have a shot at doing it again for a piece of NASCAR immortality.
How… good does Jeff Gordon think his driver is?
When Jeff Gordon was given part-ownership in a fourth Hendrick Motorsports team as part of a lifetime contract deal he signed 15 years ago, he chose a second-year then Busch Series driver with no Sprint Cup experience and just one win in the second series, and people thought while Gordon was a great driver, he was a terrible talent scout. But then Jimmie Johnson won three times in his rookie year and led the points for a time, something no other Cup rookie has ever done. And then he kept on winning, five straight titles and then a sixth two years later, 79 race wins.
Gordon, who may have regretted his choice a time or two when his protégé cost him wins and titles, didn’t mince words when he talked Friday about racing with Johnson, knowing that his own equipment was equal to what the younger driver had.
“He is the best I’ve ever raced against, possibly the best there’s ever been,” Gordon, who has also raced the likes of Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, and once, Richard Petty, said. “Even days when I felt like I had a car that could compete with him he did extraordinary things to get more out of it. He’s a pretty calm, cool guy, but boy, when you put a helmet on him and you get him in a racecar, he just becomes another person and takes it to another level.”
The next level for Johnson, is, of course, a seventh title which would tie him with Petty and Earnhardt for the most in NASCAR history.
“He doesn’t have to win the seventh to prove that to me,” Gordon said. “But I also know that numbers mean a lot out there in the world of comparisons. I think it would be great for him to have that to show the rest of the world that he is one of the best, if not the best.”