Who…gets my shoutout of the race?
Most of Monday’s top 10 finishers raced in that pack for most of the day. Seven scored points in both of the first two stages. And then there was Alex Bowman. Bowman, who started 16th, lurked in the top 15 for much of the day, and it generally looked as if that was where he’d eventually finished, but a late-race charge provided Bowman and the No. 88 team their first top 10 of the season. Bowman, who took over the No. 88 from Dale Earnhardt Jr. this year, has been particularly impressive in that it’s his first full-time season in any NASCAR touring division since 2015, and before that, he drove for a backmarker team. You might expect some struggles, but Bowman has come out swinging. He’s the highest-ranked Hendrick Motorsports driver in the point standings at 14th, and while it’s too early to call him a playoff contender just yet, he is on pace to make the postseason so far.
What…is the takeaway from this race?
While Jimmie Johnson has certainly struggled to start the 2018 season, there was no reason to hit the panic button—Chevrolet introduced a new body this season and teams have struggled across the board to find the speed they need to compete. Martinsville, though, should have been a bit of an equalizer because it’s not a track where aerodynamics are king. And for a few teams, it was. Three Chevrolets, those of Bowman, AJ Allmendinger (who always seems to run well at Martinsville, and Chase Elliott, posted top-10 finishes, and while the Chevys are definitely lacking still, it was one of the manufacturer’s better days.
With a halfway decent car, Johnson should be a top-5 lock at the track where he’s got nine career wins. Instead, he barely cracked the top 10 in the first and second stages. He started 18th and finished just three spots better, and the driver who once made passing at Martinsville look easy fought for every position, giving up nearly as meany as he took.
It’s not that he’s getting slow cars, exactly, though Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is far from dominant. It’s more that the cars he’s getting don’t suit his needs, and that’s actually more troubling, because these are lighter, lower-horsepower cars than the Cup cars Johnson won so easily and so often while driving. Instead, they more closely resemble the Xfinity Series cars he never got the same handle on. The driver hasn’t changed, but the cars have, and the magic just isn’t there. It’s still not time to press that panic button…but they might want to have it handy.
Where…did Clint Bowyer come from?
The field was set by owner points this week after qualifying was rained out, giving Bowyer a respectable ninth-place start. His 2018 season has gotten off to a solid start, with three top 10s in six races and some moments where he looked like a win was going to come, and Monday he dominated the second half of the race, leading a race-high 215 laps. For a while late it looked like Kyle Busch might challenge, but he never really mounted much of a charge, and Bowyer handled him easily, even in heavy lapped traffic.
While a win so early in the season is a big load of worry off the No. 14 team’s shoulders, it was a long, long time coming for Bowyer, who hadn’t won in more than five years and almost 200 races. His last victory came in 2012, when he won three times for Michael Waltrip Racing. Since then, Bowyer has run for the now-defunct HScott Motorsports before moving to Stewart-Haas Racing last year. Bowyer’s win shows what a team on the rise looks like; he came to SHR after a few seasons od struggles and one outright scandal, but the No. 14 was struggling as well. The entire organization has come out swinging in 2018, winning four of the first six races and seeing all four teams in the top 11 in points. Bowyer and his No. 14 team have bounced back together for a hard-earned and well-deserved return to Victory Lane.
When…was the moment of truth?
This week’s reality check came not from the racing per se, but from a television snippet. A few teams have struggled with the NASCAR-mandated air guns used for changing tires, though whether that’s due to user error or product malfunction is up for debate. This week, the No. 19 team suffered a broken gun of a different kind…but what was shown on TV was not the entire story. FOX showed a video clip of the gun, with the handle shattered from the body, with a bit of an implication that this was a defect with the gun.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) March 26, 2018
NASCAR’s Steve O’Donnell challenged FOX via Twitter with an explanation of how the gun broke: it was hurled against the concrete pit wall at high speed, a far cry from falling apart from normal use.
It snapped in half because they dropped the jack early and the gun was launched into the pit wall at a high rate of speed. Hopefully that has been reported https://t.co/b1JhWDJ3Am
— Steve O'Donnell (@odsteve) March 26, 2018
It’s likely that the television version was simply an oversight, with the network wanting to get the story out quickly, rather than a deliberate withholding of information, but the team obviously must have known how the tool was broken, as they were able to explain it to NASCAR. Whether the broadcasters simply didn’t ask and showed the bit without sufficient information or if the info was omitted simply for time or even to create some drama, though, doesn’t really matter. It made me wonder what else is being omitted from the information fans receive and puts a little doubt on the accuracy of what’s said during a broadcast. Considering that’s the way most fans get their information during a race, there should be nothing left to the imagination when the correct information is easily available.
Why…didn’t 5-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin pull it off?
Hamlin is a perennial favorite at Martinsville, and with good reason. Only Johnson has more wins on the track than he does, and with Hamlin starting sixth and winning the first stage handily, expectations were high. Hamlin led three times for 111 laps, but his car wasn’t as strong on long runs as many others, and the race featured just four cautions, with only one coming after the conclusion of the second stage. If the car was set up for shorter runs, that’s certainly understandable; Martinsville tends to feature a passel of cautions, particularly near the end. Hamlin raced hard, but just couldn’t hang with the top cars late, and faded to a 12th-place finish.
How…come TV broadcasts don’t show more action?
Thanks to Mother Nature, I watched a race from Martinsville on television for the first time in I don’t know how long, and I have to say…what a disappointment. Races at Martinsville feature hard racing and action from the front of the field to the back, but on TV, we only saw a fraction of it, among a select few cars. It’s like that everywhere anymore, but it’s most magnified (and frustrating) at a track where you know someone is making a move and you’re not seeing it because you’re watching the same few cars, even when they’re not passing each other. Even worse is that the broadcast actually showed more than usual compared to the 1.5-mile tracks. No wonder even races like this one don’t excite fans like they used to. At least at Martinsville, the racing hasn’t changed much. Too bad fans don’t get to watch it like they used to.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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