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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Beside The Rising Tide: And Then, There Were Four NASCAR Races Left

A couple weeks ago one blustery and cool evening, I went to put some laundry into the back of my Jeep. A gust of wind slammed shut the Cherokee’s door, trapping my right thumb and index finger between the door frame and the whole rest of the truck. To make things that much more special, those rear doors lock themselves and the keys were in the console. After some contortionist-style moves, I managed to get the front door open and hit the power unlock button.

Yeah, I probably sounded like Kyle Busch over the radio a couple minutes there. As a result, I have some vivid purple and green bruising at the base of that thumbnail. Past experience has taught me over the next couple months, that bruising will gradually move from the base of the thumbnail to the tip of it. Then, I’ll be able to trim it out.

I present this cliffhanger of a story as yet another example of my mindless stupidity as I get old (er) not to elicit sympathy. It’s rather to say I spent much of Sunday afternoon (Oct. 21) during the race staring at that thumbnail watching it begin its imperceptible growth to the top. Watching the thumbnail grow was far more exciting than much of the race.

When NASCAR, struggling mightily at the moment to remain relevant, offers up a Christmas gift to its remaining fans I’d suggest a shorter schedule of shorter races on shorter tracks… and the complete and total elimination of the “within arm’s reach rule” for tires being changed on pit road. Kurt Busch and Almirola, for starters, would be pretty happy about that. When pit penalties are the only memorable moment I’d consider going back to the drawing board.

With that in mind, as NASCAR’s season heads down the homestretch, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the Cup Series to date.

Martinsville Mayhem

Is it perhaps ironic that after Sunday’s event at one of the newest tracks on the Cup schedule, Kansas (joined in 2001) the circuit heads to its oldest remaining track, Martinsville? (The first Martinsville race was run in 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season.) No, I doubt it. NASCAR only does irony well when it’s completely unintended. In fact, the sport deals with irony the way Brian France deals with sobriety.

I will note that next week’s Martinsville event is the one race of the final four I look forward to with great anticipation. There’s been some memorable finishes as of late at the storied old track. Few of you will have forgotten Matt Kenseth’s little brouhaha with Joey Logano in 2015.

While it wasn’t quite the same level of aggression in last fall’s Martinsville race, Denny Hamlin fired the shot heard around the world. He cheap-shotted Chase Elliott, who had led 123 laps in that event, late in the race only to lose the win anyway.

Hamlin, who has been doing this awhile, said he was quite surprised by the blowback after that incident involving the heir apparent to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award. Young Master Elliott, meanwhile emerged from his car a changed driver if not a new person altogether. He said he was done getting pushed around. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

As you reap, so shall you sow. Just under a year later, Elliott has accumulated his third Cup victory and remains a championship contender. Somewhat surprisingly, Hamlin finished seventh that day and hasn’t won a Cup race since. Hamlin now has just four more races to try to score a win; he’s earned one every season since going full-time in Cup way back in 2006. Kyle Busch went on to win that autumn Martinsville race and coincidentally finished runner up to Elliott Sunday.

Clint Bowyer’s popular win at the track this spring snapped a winless streak that went back to 2012. It also served notice that Kevin Harvick wasn’t the only SHR driver ready to run with the big dogs this season.

But longer term fans may recall a memorable finish at Martinsville Bowyer was snout deep in: spring 2012.  Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had combined to lead 440 laps that day and were running 1-2 on a late restart. Bowyer bulldozed the HMS duo, handing the lead and the win to a thoroughly surprised Ryan Newman. That afternoon, Newman never led a lap until that final caution flag for the incident that caused the race to go 15 laps past its scheduled distance. He’s only won two Cup races since.

Who’s Still Winless? And A Look At The Manufacturer’s Race

With just four races left to run in 2018, at least three drivers who won a points-paying Cup race last year won’t do so this year. The group includes Kyle Larson, Newman, Kasey KahneRicky Stenhouse Jr., Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Perhaps Kenseth can be given a “bye” because he’s only run in 12 of this season’s 32 races. Larson, who won four times last year and has finished second six times this year, is a major surprise (if not a shock) to be listed here.

The other stunning name left off the winner’s list to date is seven-time Cup champion Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 car has won at least two (2011) and as many as 10 races (2007) since 2002. With 83 wins spread over 18 seasons, Johnson had been averaging almost five wins a year prior to this one. Even forgetting that winless statistic, it’s been a bad year for him. He’s managed just two top-five results down from a career high of 20 such finishes in 2007.

But a quick glance at his stats reveals more troubling numbers. Johnson had just four top-five results last year. To date this year, he’s averaging a 17th place finish, the lowest of his career though down only .3 from last year’s number. While he has four more races to add to the total, currently Johnson has just 11 top-10 results this year, the same number he managed in 2017. Also to date, Johnson has led just 27 laps this year. He’s never not posted a “laps led” number with less than three digits and led 2,238 laps in 2009. Oh, and let’s not forget while an announcement is said to be imminent, for the first time in his career Johnson doesn’t know who will sponsor the No. 48 car next year.

Larson and Johnson have one thing in common even if they are on opposite ends of their careers. Both drive Chevrolets and this hasn’t been a very good year for the Camaros. While Austin Dillon kicked off the season, winning the Daytona 500 in a Chevy, the Bowtie Brigade has won just four races this year. It’s a once unthinkable level of mediocrity for the winningest brand in NASCAR history.

But Elliott has those three wins at the wheel of a Camaro and finds himself solidly fourth in the standings. He’s the only Chevy driver to make it into the Round of 8. Toyota still has Busch and Truex in the championship hunt but the rest of the final eight drive five Fords. Four of them are out of the SHR stables, the first time in history the whole team’s gotten this far.

But back to the Chevys and Johnson. My guess is when he looks at Elliott’s success as of late, Johnson is getting an idea of how former teammate Jeff Gordon felt when Johnson exploded on the scene and started winning races and championships. Like that old Eagles song goes, “There’s a new kid in town, everybody loves him. don’t they? And you’re still around.”

Toyota has had a somewhat better season with 12 wins. Kyle Busch has seven of them and Truex four more. But the only other race winner at the wheel of a Toyota was a surprising Erik Jones in the Firecracker 400.

But NASCAR racing tends to return to stasis cyclically. Next year, the Ford teams will switch from the Fusion (a car Ford Motor Company is dropping altogether) to the more sporting-oriented Mustangs. Ordinarily, the introduction of a new model race car is reason for great optimism. For gearheads like me, the return of the Mustang can only be seen as a positive. But of course, I don’t race one for a living.  With those tried and true Fusions being retired for a new model car it seems the only way Ford can head is down.

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    At Martinsville in 2012 Newman had a bit to do with the GWC dustup. I’m not so sure Bowyer would have squeezed below Gordon on his own volition (then again maybe he would’ve), but Newman had a run on Bowyer and Clint pulled down to cleanly block him and Newman gave Clint a shot in the rear bumper. That push put Bowyers nose up beside Jeff’s quarter panel at which point I guess Clint said “what the hell, I’ll just try to make this stick.” So, Newman wasn’t exactly a lucky innocent bystander.

  2. Avatar

    Slammed by thumb in the door of a Chevy Lumina one time. It bled under the nail and pain from the pressure hurt so bad I went to the Doc-in-a-Box and they bored a hole thru the nail to relieve the pressure. Of course I blamed the Lumina. Not so much for the slammed thumb, but for being the second-worse vehicle purchase of my life. Someday I’ll share the story about the ’84 Ford Tempo I bought, and the ’72 Mach One I sold to buy it.

  3. Avatar

    Amen for Martinsville. Other than the Daytona 500 (just because it’s been over 2 months since the last race) and perhaps Darlington (because it’s awesome) it’s the race I always look forward to most and am rarely disappointed.

    Since you mentioned the tire penalties, did anyone else notice that on Bowyer’s last pit stop one of the tires careened off the wall into the next pit stall and there was no call? Bowyer’s crew member even reacted in a worried manner like, “Oh shit, the tire got away!”. Just wondering.

    And don’t forget, what happens at Martinsville usually creates opportunities for paybacks at Phoenix. In the two examples you mentioned, Elliott ruined Hamlin’s playoff run (albeit less blatantly than Hamlin did) and Gordon exacted his pound of flesh from Bowyer sending him into the wall ruining his slim chance of having a shot at Homestead (back in the Chase days).

    Sorry to hear about you finger mishap but it did give you a good analogy for watching the Kansas race. Next time just open up a can of paint and watch that dry. I agree with Ozark Lee, there is a good chance it will fall off.

    • Avatar

      As I mentioned about Bowyer’s tire, here is a new wrinkle in the tire rule that I bet no one knows (this is from an article on the NBC Sports website….

      > The Stewart-Haas Racing driver could have had an uglier day.
      > On Lap 213, Bowyer pitted. During his stop, the tire taken off his right rear was rolled back to the pit wall near the front of his No. 14 Ford. It then rolled into the adjacent pit box.
      > It was not called as an uncontrolled tire penalty.
      A NASCAR spokesperson said tires are allowed to cross into the adjacent pit boxes on the inside of the car as long as they do not impede another car or go passed the halfway point of the adjacent stall.
      > Had a car been pitting in front of Bowyer or if it had rolled past the pit stall number painted on the pit wall, it would have been a penalty

      So there you have it. An uncontrolled tire is OK some of the time, I guess. Had anyone ever heard that stipulation before with regards to runaway tires?

  4. Avatar

    Jimmie has never been able to drive a lighter car with less horsepower, why the surprise by everyone. Don’t look for it to change one iota before he retires. And I’m a JJ fan.

  5. Avatar

    Matt, I hate to tell you but chances are the thumbnail is likely going to fall off. Instead of watching the giant black scar slowly grow out of the nail you get to watch the thumbnail itself slowly grow back.

    Only slightly less painful than your experience was sitting in Section 249 at Kansas. Once the sun went behind the Turn 1 elevator shaft the biting wind nearly froze us to death. Sunday, as opposed to Saturday, was a real snoozer but at least you have “The Sound”. Nothing in the world is like the sonic treat of a start or restart at a NASCAR event.

    • Avatar

      You are so right. I always wear headphones at the race to protect my hearing and to listen to the radio coverage, but during restarts I take em off so I can hear the sonic treat of which you speak.