Home / Bryan Davis Keith / Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 STP 500 at Martinsville
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 STP 500 at Martinsville

The Headline(s): Brad Keselowski put what Larry Mac dubbed a “Southern tail kickin’” on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field. He led 446 of 500 laps Sunday (March 24) and held off a late charge from Chase Elliott to score his second win of 2019, his second career win at Martinsville, his 29th career Cup win and his 69th career NASCAR national series win (that’s a thing now).

Elliott proved strong all race long, nearly catching Keselowski at the end of both stages and finishing only a few car lengths behind the No. 2 at the checkers. Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

MARTINSVILLE RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL

How It Happened: Joey Logano started Sunday’s race from the pole but dropped like a rock from the green flag, so much so that teammate Keselowski made contact with him six laps in to take the lead. As Logano parachuted through the field, Keselowski held the lead for the duration of the first stage, including the first cycle of pit stops after a lap 64 yellow flag that flew after Michael McDowell hit the Turn 4 wall. Elliott made it close coming to the green-and-white checkers but came up short.

It was more of the same in the second stage. Keselowski led the whole way through even as Team Penske teammate Blaney came on strong in the closing laps. 

It wouldn’t be until lap 325 that Keselowski would cede control, with Elliott taking the lead shortly after a lap 320 restart for William Byron’s spin. Elliott would hold this advantage until a lap 372 yellow for Matt Tifft’s brush with the Turn 2 wall. But he’d lose the lead on pit road when his crew struggled with the rear tire change, yielding the lead back to Keselowski. 

The race’s final restart came on lap 456, with Keselowski having to first hold off a hard-charging Kyle Busch, who made hard contact with Keselowski’s bumper early in the run before Elliott retook the second spot. Keselowski drove off to a two-second lead as Kyle Busch and Elliott battled hard for second. Elliott eventually cleared Busch and, using the high line on the track, managed to close the gap to Keselowski to a couple of car lengths by race’s end.

Should You Care: Yes, for several reasons. One, this race was the first since Daytona where fans didn’t have to check a flow chart to figure out which “package” the Cup cars would be running on Sunday. Two, it’s Martinsville. And three, it’s Martinsville. 

For one, this race is an invaluable event for the teams contending for the Cup in 2019, as NASCAR will again return to Martinsville in October for a crucial playoff race. Just ask Logano, who won the 2019 Cup championship largely based on his bump-and-run victory at this track last October. While current point leaders Kyle Busch and Keselowski both appear to have the packages they need to contend this fall, the same can’t be said for Logano (who finished a distant 19th despite winning the pole). Other stragglers included Kurt Busch (who saw his streak of consecutive top 10s come to a quiet end) and Martin Truex Jr. Last year’s bump-and-run victim was never a factor toward the front of the field despite a top-10 result. 

But more than anything else, returning to the only short track NASCAR still has on the schedule from its inaugural season returned racing to an on-track product where aerodynamics and restrictor plates (err, tapered spacers) were nowhere to be found. While there were plenty on social media groaning about how dominant the No. 2 car was out front for this race, there were comers and goers behind him in both stages. Coming to the checkered flag, teammates were beating and banging with each other (more on that later). Up front, we saw the leader have to hold off two separate challenges in the final 45 laps. 

This race likely won’t go down in the annals of Martinsville lore (especially seeing as Elliott made sure Keselowski didn’t break Fred Lorenzen’s lap leader record). And for those trying to evaluate race quality with a stat sheet, this one won’t look good.

But for those paying attention beyond the top of the scoring tower, NASCAR’s oldest short track delivered.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Going back to that stat sheet, Keselowski won both stages and led 446 laps. That’s plenty of accomplishment on its own. But also of note today was how Keselowski’s entrance and exit made it hard for both Elliott and Kyle Busch to make the pass despite closing to his back bumper on at least a half-dozen occasions. Given that Keselowski lost the win at Martinsville in a playoff race in October 2017 to the same Elliott, it’s obvious this team is not getting complacent despite being on the money at this paperclip.

And speaking of being on the money, the only entity to perform stronger on Sunday than Keselowski was his pit crew. Regan Smith’s post-race praise for their efforts was well-deserved; the crew kept Keselowski up front all race long.

On a day Hendrick Motorsports looked a hollow shell of its old self, only Elliott proved to be competitive Sunday. He ran in the top five for the entire event and proved to be the only driver in the field capable of passing the No. 2 car. With another aero-dependent race coming this Sunday at Texas, the momentum the No. 9 team takes from Martinsville is literally all the HMS organization has to go on.

Kyle Busch didn’t manage to contend for the win in the closing laps but made steady progress all Sunday long in finishing third. Busch has run top three in all but one of his 12 starts in NASCAR’s top three series this season. 

Hamlin rebounded from falling to 20th after a mid-race uncontrolled tire penalty to finish fifth, his fifth top-10 finish in the first six races of 2019. That’s the first time Hamlin has accomplished that in his career… and he’s been full-time in Cup since 2006. 

Austin Dillon’s newfound qualifying prowess was nowhere to be found on Saturday. But he didn’t stay in the 29th position for long, charging up to 10th by the end of the first stage. He stayed near there the rest of the afternoon before fading to 11th in the closing laps. Though outside the top 10, the composure and consistency the No. 3 showed this Sunday proved to be a strong effort. The same could be said for his younger brother Ty Dillon, whose 13th-place finish was the best the No. 13 has posted outside of the plate tracks since Texas last spring.

Despite losing at least a half-dozen spots on pit road, Daniel Suarez scored a top-10 finish that saw Stewart-Haas Racing place all four of its cars there.

Finally, rookie Ryan Preece finished on the lead lap in 16th. That’s his best finish since February’s Daytona 500. 

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Logano scored a pole on Saturday afternoon. But after leading the first five laps, he never sniffed the front the rest of the weekend. While teammates Keselowski and Blaney had a banner day with top-five finishes, Logano spent all of Sunday mixing it up mid-pack, finishing a distant 19th, the second-to-last car on the lead lap. Ironically, it was Logano’s worst finish at Martinsville since the fall of 2017… the last time he won a Martinsville pole.

While the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing finished in the top 10 Saturday, Erik Jones (literally) limped to a 30th-place finish, nine laps down. He was forced to crab walk on two flat left-side tires the length of the track to pit road, suffering through one of the most inexplicable non-cautions seen in a Cup race in recent memory (more on that later). After consecutive top-10 finishes to start 2019, Jones has finished outside the top 15 for three straight weeks.

The only highlights for Roush Fenway Racing on Sunday came during stage one. That’s when the commentators praised Ryan Newman for his hard battle with Keselowski to stay on the lead lap (the battle resulted in the No. 6 scoring a free pass they’d later lose). Both Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished well off the lead lap in 23rd and 25th, respectively.

Jimmie Johnson proved a complete non-factor in Sunday’s race, finishing two laps down in 24th, his worst Martinsville finish since the spring of 2015. Even Johnson’s former master crew chief Chad Knaus had an awful weekend in Virginia. His team and driver Byron finished a lap down in 22nd after a mid-race spin and a practice crash Friday. 

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Just as there seemed to be plenty of fans that wrote off Sunday’s race simply because there weren’t a lot of lead changes, Twitter at times seemed to sound like fan reaction to the new Bristol.

There was outrage at the lack of yellow flags.

For one, just because the race didn’t get decided by a bump-and-run is not concrete evidence the field suffers from a lack of urgency. Elliott was half a car-length from passing Keselowski when the first stage came to an end. Elliott was two car lengths away from Keselowski when the checkers flew. Had Elliott broken away from Kyle Busch even two laps earlier and been able to run the high line with five to go instead of three, this race would have been a fender banger at the finish line. The tension in the closing laps between a veteran Cup champion and NASCAR’s new Most Popular Driver was palpable.

There’s a realistic consideration to make here, too. In this playoff structure, every single driver in the field, especially those like Keselowski, Elliott and Kyle Busch know full well they’ll be racing each other again in October. That race, there’s a Cup championship hanging in the balance. It makes absolutely no sense to pick a fight now and have a driver wait until the fall to pay it back – especially on a day where Keselowski was this good.

But there’s a harder question to be asked than whether the playoff system is neutering NASCAR’s early regular season. Can the drivers and fans themselves actually handle racing where beat-and-bang, bump-and-run is the norm?

Consider the tweet below.

Considerations such as this one, along with the FOX booth’s commentary on Newman being as hard to pass as he is, beg this question. There’s almost an expectation among the leaders that slower cars will just get out of the way…such as when Elliott made contact during the first stage with Jeb Burton in a backmarker entry because he thought Burton’s No. 52 was letting him go. In any fight, life or racing, perceived entitlements provoke outrage when they’re denied.

Leave it to Darrell Waltrip to speak about this issue. On lap 400 during the broadcast, he questioned whether NASCAR’s driver crop struggle with keeping their cool and finishing races such as these. After all, consider who was racing in the top five this Sunday. Elliott, who in the fall of 2017 ran over Keselowski inside of 20 laps to go at the same Martinsville paperclip. Kyle Busch, after engaging in a tit-for-tat race with Kyle Larson at Chicagoland, still spent his Victory Lane interview moaning about how he got raced. Even Hamlin, who in the fall of 2017 ran over Elliott to win the same race Elliott ran over Keselowski in.

In today’s field of powder kegs, who can be blamed for taking it easy?

Martinsville Speedway also cannot be faulted for the fact stage racing was ultimately responsible for aiding Keselowski’s dominance in Sunday’s race. In both of the first two stages, Keselowski’s lead would diminish in the final 30 laps. Elliott was literally a lap from taking the lead at the end of stage one; Blaney ate up multiple seconds on the No. 2 car in the last 20 laps of stage two. The price of getting more restarts is more stoppages to long green-flag runs. That kept the No. 2 car in front several times when the lead was in doubt.

Two things have proven consistent in NASCAR since its formation in the 1940s; the Cup Series races at Martinsville Speedway and officiating is inconsistent. Case in point: the yellow flags that flew over the course of the weekend. Late in the running of Saturday’s Truck Series race, Johnny Sauter was forced to ride from Turn 2 to pit road entry on his left rear rim under green, even with lead-lap trucks passing by on the backstretch.

Fast forward to Sunday, where NASCAR brought out a yellow on lap 300 when Byron was half-spun briefly by Ty Dillon. Byron immediately got the car straightened and drove off, leaving no debris or even a smoke cloud. 25 laps later, after hard contact with Larson, Jones saw both of his left side tires go flat exiting Turn 4. That left the No. 20 car doing a literal crab walk…for an entire lap. Even though there was clearly debris dropped from the No. 20 car, NASCAR left the field under green.

The yellow would fly again on lap 372 when Tifft made slight contact with the wall and managed to drive away. But that incident was arguably less impactful than Jones.

Let’s be clear; I’m not advocating for more yellow flags. If the flag were in my hand, I wouldn’t have thrown a yellow for Byron, Jones or Tifft. But the complete lack of consistency NASCAR has with cautions is inevitably going to decide a race at some point in 2019. Just ask your nearest New Orleans Saints fan how that works out.

Speaking of Jones, it was striking how disparate team cars seemed to perform Sunday. Penske had Keselowski and Blaney fixtures in or around the top five while pole sitter Logano was an also ran. JGR put three Toyotas in the top 10 but Jones wound up 30th. Austin Dillon was as competitive as he’s been all season while Daniel Hemric was invisible for RCR. Elliott had one of, if not the, strongest car in Martinsville while the rest of Hendrick Motorsports might as well have not left Charlotte. Martinsville truly is its own animal.

Rewinding back to one item from Saturday’s Truck Series race. 38 trucks attempted to qualify for the 32-truck field, the most competitive any of NASCAR’s top national series has seen since Speedweeks. There’s one problem, though. Plenty of time was spent detailing Kyle Busch’s pursuit of the pole (which fell short to Stewart Friesen) and other trucks locked into the field. But at no point during FOX’s broadcast of qualifying did they even identify who did and didn’t make the show. Maybe years of short fields left them a bit rusty, but that’s a ridiculous oversight.

Let’s stick with FOX a minute. Viewers got plenty of insight into the gastrointestinal tracts of the commentary booth (a rare misfire in 2019 from Mike Joy).

However, there was no shortage of storylines towards the back of the field that the FOX crew completely missed, ignored, or were simply ignorant of. There was no mention of why either Cody Ware or Burton parked their entries early. No mention of why Hemric was forced to pit under green multiple times over the second half of the race. No follow-up with Front Row Motorsports despite both McDowell and Tifft suffering from apparent tire failures over the course of the race.

But most striking was how poorly the booth handled the yellow flag that came out around lap 146. That’s when fluid on the track sent Larson skidding up the track one lap earlier and then Elliott into a near spin right before the yellow flew. Twitter was all over the story, with multiple tweets indicating that Ross Chastain had parked just a few laps earlier and that the No. 15 crew were working on the rear end of his car.

More than five minutes and a commercial break later, FOX finally connected the dots that Chastain’s broken axle had brought out the yellow.

Flatulence to blame for that too, FOX?

In case it’s not clear, I thought Martinsville served up the best race NASCAR’s Cup Series has seen since the 500. But I admittedly wax poetic when it comes to NASCAR’s older venues. And, being a proud resident of the Commonwealth that was literally moved by the quiet, restrained pre-race intro that southern Virginia got courtesy of FOX’s broadcast team, I’ll admit that I’d likely leave a Power Wheels race at the paperclip happy. 

So having said that, though I firmly agree with those that spent Sunday calling for more short track races, I will also put forward a word of caution for all of us, myself included, that want to see more old school bullrings hosting big league Cup races. 

With much of my fellow Frontstretch staff saturating the media center in Martinsville, I took Saturday to head to the far southwest corner of the Commonwealth to take in the grand opening of the rebranded Clay Valley Speedway, a dirt track reincarnation of what was formerly Lonesome Pine Raceway. It’s always encouraging to see tracks coming back from the dead rather than closing. The crowd that the track drew despite having no touring series on the ticket and NASCAR in the same state was noteworthy. 

Having said that, as much as I wanted to wax poetic on seeing Lonesome Pine come back to life, the reality is there were significant bugs to work out that went beyond car count. The grandstands were littered with chipped (and chunked) concrete where weathering has occurred to the point of exposing rebar. The officiating showed its rookie stripes, with a track official running onto the racing surface during qualifying while the track was hot to remove debris that wasn’t in the groove.

Most notably, the dust cloud raised by a field of just 10 crate late models was enough to render visibility even from the top of the grandstand zero inside of five laps. Dust always has been and always will be a part of dirt track racing. But when the fans can’t actually see said dirt track racing, there’s work to be done. That’s especially with touring series which will bring 20+ super late models on the ticket for the track later this spring.

The point here isn’t to bring down the hard work of those that brought Clay Valley to life. In fact, the fan turnout makes it abundantly clear that Coeburn, Va. is ready to bring racing back. Those fans, and such a storied venue, deserve that. But it’s also a worthy caution for those of us that follow big league stock car racing. For all the romanticism, a lot of those venues that we’d all love to see Cup racing at need to be tested and vetted before it happens. Seeing changes to the NASCAR Truck and Xfinity schedules in 2020, as a precursor to a major expected Cup schedule shift in 2021, would be in the best interest of fans, competitors and the sanctioning body alike. 

Participation Trophies

Best Paint Scheme: Kevin Harvick. As much as I felt nostalgic looking at the McDowell’s A&W scheme, Harvick’s No. 4 car looked sleek and fast. I’m a sucker for a black Mustang.

Days of Thunder Ice Cream Sandwich: Chad Knaus. Chad, Rick knows you’re great. Honest race fans know you’re great. But until Byron starts posting even top-15 finishes on the regular, especially at tracks where HMS has their name all but on the deed, the No. 24 isn’t going to win a damn race. (well, maybe Talladega).

Uninformed Consumer Award: Martinsville Crybaby. While the intent is clear, the reality is somebody had to pay for a Kyle Busch firesuit to make this come together.

Note to those who swore allegiance against Rowdy Nation: There’s plenty of Ken Schrader M&M’s merchandise out there! (and Elliott Sadler. And David Gilliland)…

How It Rated

There are two sides to every argument. Pick one of the two below.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch, Logano, Keselowski and Hamlin have all locked themselves into the playoffs with their early season race wins. If the playoffs started today, Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola, Truex, Blaney, Elliott, Kurt Busch, Larson, Stenhouse, Clint Bowyer, Jones, Johnson and Suarez would point their way in. Alex Bowman currently sits one point behind Suarez for the cutoff spot.

Dust Off the VCR

After a weekend back on the East Coast, NASCAR heads back to the (mid)west for another “package” race at Texas Motor Speedway. Coverage from the Lone Star State starts at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.

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6 comments

  1. Avatar

    i swear writers see a different race than i do. one driver who leads 446 laps is a so/so race in my book. was it me not paying attention or wasn’t there as aggressive short-track racing that was typical of martinsville. i guess the drivers and crew chiefs are too afraid of failing post race inspection to put a crome horn to the guy in front.

    i lost cable at the end. saw where brad did a lot of burnouts. thought that was unusual too, consider lately it’s just been so/so post race celebration.

    i have a feeling it will be the penske, gibbs, and stewart haas teams vying for homestead again. johnson, not sure what his problem is. seems like younger guys are the only ones trying at hendrick motorsports to figure out how to drive these things.

  2. Avatar

    I think you’re right on about the ‘playoff’ plus the ‘win and you’re in’ scenarios have castrated much of the racing. We saw it at Bristol as soon as the gave us ‘the chase’, and it has just gotten worse. I guess that’s what happens when you try to orchestrate ‘excitement’ and ‘game 7’ moments. If they don’t happen naturally, no gimmick in the world will help.

  3. Avatar

    I don’t know what was missing yesterday but something was missing. As Martinsville races go it was not up to par. However, with that said, it was still more interesting to watch than most races at other tracks. Fox still insists on showing top running drivers where nothing is happening and ignoring the back half of the field where hard racing may or may not be happening. The high down-force package definitely didn’t help the racing. Perhaps the stages are neutering the first two thirds of the race resulting in drivers not willing to push the issue until the last stage. I don’t know but the race was missing something.

    Not much else to say and I have no answers.

    • Avatar

      I agree: a “bad” race at Martinsville is still better than a “good” race at the mile and a halfers. Fox is definitely a big part of the problem. I was at the race yesterday and spent way more time watching racing back in the pack. It was entertaining to watch Bowyer coming through traffic trying to get his top three car back into the top three…twice. Heck, I also spent a lot of laps watching Ross Chastain (after getting the axle replaced) coming back through the lower half of the field after restarts.

  4. Avatar

    Wrong, as even drivers and crew chiefs talked about post race, this aero package has made aero matter at even Martinsville. NASCAR needs to dump this crap pile and lose the downforce.

  5. Avatar

    Other than Daytona, this is the only race I watched end-to-end thus far. It wasn’t the Martinsville of old; certainly has been /will be better than the cookie cutters. Agree with the sentiment that Kez simply had the best car & schooled the rest of the field.