Who’s in the headline – Jimmie Johnson had eight wins at Martinsville Speedway entering this weekend’s activities. While that is an impressive number, he had gone six races without a win and had not finished better than ninth in the last four. The race wasn’t a dominating effort by the No. 48 team, but they were strong when it counted most and took the victory, ensuring their spot in the final four that will run for the title in Homestead.
What happened – Martin Truex, Jr. won his first pole at Martinsville and immediately took the lead at the drop of the green flag. He led 147 of the first 180 laps but never got to the front again. Matt Kenseth took the point from Truex and led the next 175 laps. During green-flag pit stops, a caution flew for a wreck by Carl Edwards that threw the running order into chaos. NASCAR took 29 laps to figure out the running order before turning the field back to racing. Denny Hamlin led from the restart through lap 408 but was passed by Johnson who led the remaining 92 laps of the race.
Why you should care – The win by Johnson assures two things. First, there will be at least one car not from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable contending for the title in Homestead. Secondly, Johnson will have a one in four chance of tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in series history. The race also saw the two Stewart-Haas Racing teams still in the Chase struggle mightily. They will have an uphill battle to make it to Homestead without a victory in the next two races.
What your friends are talking about – The scoring debacle highlights an ongoing issue that has been maligned in this column many times. Wasting racing laps to conclude a caution period is unacceptable. There should be a rule in place that, unless the one to go signal has been displayed from the flag stand, when five consecutive caution laps have been completed the race should be red flagged until the situation is rectified. Spending nearly six percent of the race in one caution period is simply uncalled for.
Kyle Busch was quite vocal during and after the race that his teammates allowed Johnson to win the race by letting him drive away without giving Busch the opportunity to pass them and contend for the win. Busch was so incensed that, after the cameras and recorders turned away from him on pit lane during the post race, he told team owner Joe Gibbs he had “Great F$#%@ing teammates”. One of the beautiful aspects of NASCAR racing is the raw emotion we see after the race and Kyle has won 38 Cup races and 169 national touring series races because of that drive and emotion. He’ll certainly get ripped for voicing his displeasure but, in the end, he was trying to be a good teammate who didn’t rough up his fellow JGR drivers and it cost him any chance he had to try and contend with Johnson for the win.
NASCAR announced limits this week on Cup drivers competing in the XFINITY and Truck series starting next season. With the advent of the Chase in both of those series, any driver with five or more years experience in the Cup series will be prohibited from competing in the Chase races for the support series along with the Dash 4 Cash races in the XFINITY series. There are 23 races scheduled for 2017 in the Truck series. Prior to the Chase there are 16 races, so a Cup driver may run just under half of them. On the XFINITY side, there are 22 races that are not in the Chase or Dash 4 Cash so again, a driver can compete in just under half of the events. This is the first salvo fired by NASCAR to appease fans over the issue of Cup drivers stealing the thunder from the lower series drivers. It is a tough balancing act when so many sponsorship deals hinge on Cup drivers competing for the companies writing the checks. For clarification, a year of Cup experience is defined as attempting to qualify for all of the races on the Cup schedule.
NASCAR was rumored to be considering reducing the over the wall pit crews by one member in a move designed for cost reduction and safety. After discussions with the owner council the decision was made to keep the total at six people over the wall for 2017.
Who is mad – Edwards freely admits that Martinsville is one of his weakest tracks. Unfortunately for Edwards, while he was poised for his seventh career top 10 in 25 starts he had a belt separate on his right front tire that put him into the wall and ended his day. It quite possibly ended his title hopes as well, although he can certainly win his way in at Texas or Phoenix. One fun tidbit about Edwards troubles, his team actually went to the garage, fixed his car and he returned to the race all during the caution that flew for his incident because of the timing and scoring issues.
AJ Allmendinger has a win at Watkins Glen in the Cup series, but he has yet to score a victory on an oval. When the caution flew for Edwards troubles he was one of two cars still on the lead lap who had not pitted. He assumed the lead of the race but ran out of fuel before the pits opened. He made it to his pit box and stayed on the lead lap but had to start at the tail end of the field because of the infraction. He was overheated due to a team decision to not put driver air conditioning in the car and was unable to improve his position by more than one,which opened because Kyle Larson bounced his car off of the wall and fell off of the lead lap.
Kurt Busch has made his entire Chase successful by running solid races and not giving away large chunks of points. Unfortunately for him, the whole SHR organization missed the setup this weekend. As a result Busch came home in 22nd place and finds himself in a deep hole with two races to go before Homestead. His teammate Kevin Harvick is dominant at Phoenix so he has a good shot at overcoming his dismal performance this weekend. It is going to be a challenge for Busch as his team has not found the kind on speed necessary to win at Texas or Phoenix.
Who is happy – Brad Keselowski was eliminated from Chase contention at Talladega. He started off his Martinsville weekend with a 19th place qualifying effort. He slowly inched his way forward through the race to the back half of the top 10 but wasn’t rushing to the front. His team adjusted his car on the final pit stop and it came alive over the long run that ended the event. He charged to the front over the final 50 laps of the run and was gaining on Johnson as the race ended. With nothing left to run for but wins, Keselowski had to feel good about his chance at a victory at the end of the event.
While the post race comments from Kyle Busch might not seem indicative of it, the JGR camp has to still feel good about their prospects of having two or three contenders for the title in Homestead. Hamlin, Kenseth and Busch finished third, fourth and fifth respectively and are sitting right behind Johnson in the point standings. Assuming Johnson wins his fifth straight fall race at Texas, the JGR camp will be poised to garner a couple of spots for the title if not the remaining three.
Greg Biffle is rumored to be leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2016 and the main factor has been their lack of performance. Biffle qualified 25th for Martinsville, but surged forward over the second half of the race to come home a solid 13th in the race. For a champion like Biffle it is far from what he expects but it was enough for him to walk down pit road with a smile on his face after the race.
When the checkered flag flew:
Jimmie Johnson took home the trophy for the 79th time in his career in his 540th start.
Johnson is still seventh on the all-time wins list, four behind Cale Yarborough.
The victory is his fourth of 2016 which ties him for the series lead.
This is Johnson’s ninth career triumph at Martinsville Speedway.
Brad Keselowski came home second for the sixth top 2 run of the season.
This is Keselowski’s second career runner-up finish at Martinsville.
Keselowski has come home second 17 times in his career which ties him for 48th on the all-time list with Geoff Bodine and Sterling Marlin.
Denny Hamlin rounded out the podium at Martinsville with his ninth top 3 run of the season and his second third place finish in a row.
Hamlin has finished in the top 3 ten times in his career at Martinsville Speedway.
This is Hamlin’s 85th career top 3 which ranks him 30th on the all-time podium list.
Chase Elliott finished the race in 12th to claim the Rookie of the Race honors.
Current Chase Standings:
- Jimmie Johnson
- Denny Hamlin (-5)
- Matt Kenseth (-5)
- Kyle Busch (-7)
- Joey Logano (-11)
- Kevin Harvick (-23)
- Kurt Busch (-25)
- Carl Edwards (-39)
What is in the cooler – Five caution flags for a total of two single car spins and a whopping two cars out of the race does not sound like much of a race from Martinsville. However, the race was quite compelling with quite a bit of side-by-side racing in the pack and three on-track passes for the lead. It was certainly no barn burner but it wasn’t a snoozer either. We’ll give it three frosty Shine Runner Pils from Chaos Mountain Brewing.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – Race two of the Round of 8 will take place at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, November 6th at 2:00 PM. The action can be seen on NBC and streamed on NBCSports LiveExtra. It can be heard on your local MRN affiliate or SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
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