That Junior has visited victory lane far less than expected since his joining Hendrick Motorsports has been, to say the least, a grain of sand in the Junior Nation oyster. And everyone has a theory why the winless streak continues – from too many off-track distractions to an inadequate crew chief to the ever-comical “he’s driving the R&D car,” as if Rick Hendrick paid millions to hire the most popular driver in NASCAR to test brake setups. Proud members of the anti-Junior Nation gleefully suggest that Earnhardt is simply a mediocre driver. So what’s the real answer?
The record books will show that Jeff Gordon earned the pole at Martinsville this weekend. But he did so without having to turn a lap in anger, instead relying solely on his point lead when arriving at the track to get the spot. With rain washing out the chance to qualify, some folks will say that Gordon earned the pole based on his performance this season to date. In all honesty, Gordon hasn’t qualified outside the top 10 at Martinsville since 2002, and he’s won four pole positions in that period – so it’s likely the No. 24 car would have been starting at or near the front anyway.
I have always maintained that Martinsville is the true litmus test for the opening months of the NASCAR season. Daytona is the Super Bowl of motorsports, and it is easy to get caught up in the hype of the grandest race on the schedule. A win can make a season or define a career (just ask Derrike Cope), but how many first-race finishes have we seen be a little more than a flash in the pan or a fluke of restrictor-plate luck? Just because you catch a pocket of air or get ran into from behind hard enough does not a season make. By the time the series rolls around to the oldest track on the circuit, the .526-mile paperclip in Virginia situated by some railroad tracks and stacked to the rafters with pink nitride-cicles served under the guise of edibility known as a “hot dog,” the contenders and the pretenders are usually exposed for what they truly are.
With their bumping and banging for the lead on Sunday, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were able to make big gains up the Power Rankings ladder. But were they enough to push Jeff Gordon off the top spot? Meanwhile, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Burton were among those who took it on the chin at this short track. Read on to see how far they slid – and which new drivers drove their way up the list – in this week’s edition of the Frontstretch Power Rankings.
Each week, we’ll go through media reports, interviews, PR and all of our own stuff to find the best quotes from the Sprint Cup race, capturing the story of how the weekend unfolded. It’s the most original commentary you’ll ever find: the truth, coming straight out of the mouths of the drivers, crew members and car owners themselves. This week, here’s a sneak peek at what a select few were thinking following the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson ran down Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go. He then moved the No. 11 car aside, with both cars getting sideways and smoking the tires before Johnson pulled ahead to take the lead. There’s nothing so wrong with the new NASCAR racing the sport’s oldest racetrack can’t fix it. Cars and drivers running side by side and nose to tail? Can I get a hallelujah, brothers and sisters?
Nobody can accuse Jimmie Johnson of being too boring or too perfect anymore. The man dubbed “Mr. Martinsville” by teammate Jeff Gordon drove deep into turn 1 with 16 laps to go and body-slammed Denny Hamlin for the lead and eventual win Sunday. The pass was not perfect, a little daring, and showed a side we haven’t seen much of from the three-time defending champion – hunger.
At the top level of NASCAR, there are so many factors to consider every week. There are sponsors to please, fans to appease, and an owner to answer to. Your job is to try to win races and ultimately the championship. And that’s not just at the top. Don’t think for a second that that is any less Robby Gordon’s goal than it is Jeff Gordon’s, because no matter how lacking the equipment might be, racers race to win, to get the best finish within their power, to bring home the highest points position they can claw their way into. Racing should never stop being fun, and as Ken Schrader said, when it stops being fun, it’s time to retire. But that doesn’t mean that fun can be the top priority anymore.
We can talk about how Travis Kvapil’s situation reflects an ongoing problem NASCAR has – the difficulty of teams finding sponsorship in tough economic times. There is certainly truth to that. Drivers less worthy than Kvapil are on the track in Sprint Cup races every week, because they’re more marketable, better looking, or have an easier name to spell, and so sponsors gravitate to them. Yes, that’s troubling, but as long as companies fund racecars, you’re going to have this.
Did You Notice? Kyle Busch seems to be distancing himself from comparisons to the Intimidator these days? His whole tirade in the Nationwide Series Saturday reminded me of a race in the fall of 2000 at Talladega, the site of Dale Earnhardt’s last career win. That was one of the most ridiculous finishes to a race I’ve ever seen, one where Earnhardt came from 18th to first in just four laps in order to take the checkered flag. Busch has no problem being a team player… when things go his way.