In all seriousness, there wasn’t much for Bobby Labonte to smile about in 2012, as has been the case for the last several years for a former Cup champ who’s now almost a decade removed from victory lane.
There were a few typical Martinsville skirmishes on Sunday. Kurt Busch called Kevin Harvick “half-assed” when Harvick refused to cut him some slack as Busch wanted to move into the bottom groove and Harvick got into him instead spinning him around. Johnson was upset with Mears after Mears got into his right front, wrenching the steering wheel from his hands, though no damage was done. Montoya was upset with Johnson, who shoved his way underneath the No. 42 in the closing laps, sending him up the track.
Jimmie Johnson had the dominant car once Mark Martin was speared by the pit wall opening in a scary, mid-race crash. But as J.J. was strolling to what would have been his series-leading fourth victory, a valve spring failed with less than 15 miles left to run. That handed Greg Biffle Christmas in August, gift-wrapping him a second victory after a green-white-checkered finish and a pesky push from Michigan native Brad Keselowski.
If there was a prize for tenacity, Kurt Busch would have been in Victory Lane to receive it. Busch, running for one of the most underfunded teams in the elite field, bounced off the wall early and finished near the back of the early segments. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Even with a damaged car, Busch raced like it was for the win, running three-wide and never backing down from anyone’s challenge. And Busch’s perseverance paid off: he finished seventh in the final 20-lap segment and eighth overall. A week after showing the worst of Kurt Busch, Busch showed the best in Charlotte.
He didn’t end up in Victory Lane, but Martin Truex Jr. has been knocking on that door for weeks, and it won’t be long now for the Mayetta, N.J. native, who finished sixth on Saturday night. Truex and his Michael Waltrip Racing team have been red hot since last fall at Talladega, when they snatched up four top-10 finishes in five races to finish the year. Truex picked up 2012 right where he left off, with five top 10s in the first seven races and no result lower than 17th. Truex led four times for more than 60 laps on Saturday, flexing his muscle and it looks increasingly like this driver is on the brink of not only a win, but more than one of them.
The season-opening Daytona 500 saw Bobby Labonte in contention to win, as he was right on eventual winner Trevor Bayne’s bumper coming off the final turn before coming home in fourth.
*Who…gets my shoutout of the race?*
It was a particularly tough choice this week as drivers battled back from spins and mechanical issues to pull down top finishes, but one driver avoided the drama altogether to simply be there at the end. As he has done so often in his career, *Bobby Labonte* used patience, skill, and experience, to finish seventh, his second top 10 of the year and first since finishing fourth in the Daytona 500. Today’s run was vintage Labonte as the driver flew under the radar to steal a top spot when it counted.
If there had been a few more laps, Brad Keselowski might have watched the All-Star Race on TV, because Marcos Ambrose was driving it like he stole it in the closing laps, gaining like a freight train overtaking a tortoise. He ran out of time, finishing third, but Ambrose showed that once again, his Richard Petty Motorsports team could indeed be there at the end. Teammate AJ Allmendinger finished fourth to cap off a great night for the organization.
It’s kind of weird to give a shoutout to the same guy who wound up this race’s villain, but you can’t really vote against Paul Menard here. Menard raced near the top of the pack all day long, leading early and finishing a respectable fifth, the best in the Richard Childress stable. Whether the success he’s had early this year will be long-term remains to be seen; Menard has shown flashes of brilliance before but not a lot of staying power in the long-term talent department. Still, other than tangling with one of NASCAR’s most respected veterans, he ran a great race at Bristol.
When he caused the first wreck, a one-car deal with only Kyle Busch suffering the consequences, Michael Waltrip actually might have been loved for spinning out NASCAR’s bad boy. But for his encore, Waltrip ran over his own driver, David Reutimann, and the aftermath involved several teams who, unlike Waltrip’s, are actual championship contenders and will now be behind for weeks as a result. Perhaps staying retired would have been a wise chose for the former two-time Daytona 500 winner; the race could have been a feel-good story for Waltrip, who won this race 10 years ago, but he left half the field not feeling too good at all.