Sunday was a special day for me, personally. I took my soon-to-be five-year-old to his first Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, the track I witnessed my first race years ago. While like most typical kids, he knows a lot of his racing from the movie Cars, but he does know quite a few of the drivers, at least by their cars/paint schemes, and sadly, most of the sponsors, too. He and his soon-to-be three-year-old brother can recognize Best Buy, Burger King, FedEx, McDonald’s, etc. just by the corporate logo. Other guys they recognize by name, like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, perhaps because we have a lot of die-cast 1:64 cars or other toys. These are how the seeds are planted, and why corporate sponsorship is so huge to the sport, as they’re cultivating a whole new generation of fans who grow up with the names.
Perhaps the biggest name is Johnson. For the eighth time, Johnson picked up a victory at Martinsville Speedway, and he was dominant in doing so. Johnson was on the pole for this race, and while challenged at times by the likes of Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and teammate Jeff Gordon, it seemed like Johnson’s car was the strongest all afternoon. In fact, he led 347 of the 500 laps. The only way he was getting beat was if there was a repeat of last season’s spring race, when he, Bowyer and Gordon were collected in a late wreck, with Ryan Newman squirting through for an unlikely win. On the final laps, it seemed like deja vu, as those three were jockeying for position, and David Reutimann was even emerging from the garage to get back onto the track. You’ll remember Reutimann running out of gas on Turn 1 last season, bringing out a late yellow, thus leading to that fateful crash which sprung Newman.
Quote of the day
“I think the fact that we had such a calm weekend was the biggest part. It’s easy to start chasing things here and get yourself off track. We always race well, and fortunately here you pit a lot and you can make big changes to your race car to get you in the ball game. We’ve won races where we were just terrible to start the race, having no fun. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) is throwing spring rubbers in the car and the track bar is coming up or down, wedge in and out, all those huge, huge changes, and we get ourselves in contention.” – Jimmie Johnson
Hendrick Motorsports dominated at Martinsville, with Johnson winning, Gordon finishing third and Kasey Kahne picking up a fourth-place finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the only difficult day for Hendrick, turning in a 24th-place finish after a late spin. The poor finish caused him to tumble from the perch of the overall Sprint Cup Series standings, going from first to third. Johnson assumes the overall points lead yet again.
Kyle Busch managed a Top 5 finish, but things weren’t so hot for his brother Kurt Busch. Well, actually they were pretty hot. His car burst into flames after a late crash in the south end of the paperclip, bringing out the red flag. Even though Busch hasn’t had the best relationship with the media, fans, etc., the respectful crowd at Martinsville cheered loudly when the elder Busch emerged from his ride unharmed and in good health.
It was strange seeing ‘Martin’ across the front windshield of the Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx No. 11 Toyota. Mark Martin, the one-race replacement for Denny Hamlin (back), turned in a Top 10 result after starting 35th. Michael Waltrip Racing’s Brian Vickers, who was in the No. 55 machine, will move over to JGR to take the reins of the No. 11 until Hamlin is healthy enough to return. He was nipping at the heels of Martin, bringing his Toyota home in 11th place, a very respectable finish. In typical Southern fashion, there were plenty of well-wishers in the crowd and parking lot with ‘Get Well Denny’ signs dotting the landscape.
Five things we learned on Sunday
48 plus eight equals 20?: That’s Hendrick math. Johnson rode his Lowe’s Chevrolet to Victory Lane to claim the traditional grandfather clock eight times at Martinsville. Overall, Rick Hendrick has been to Victory Lane 20 times, tying Petty Enterprises for the most ever at the Virginia short track.
Sunday was a first for Johnson: Johnson has accomplished a ton in his career, but Sunday’s spring race at Martinsville marked the most laps he has ever led in a single race. With his 346 laps led, Johnson became the seventh driver to lead at least 2,000 career laps at Martinsville Speedway.
Martinsville is old school: Typically at most of the larger tracks, there is a set area for the winning driver to negotiate the crowd of crew members, media etc. to get to Victory Lane. At Martinsville, however, there is a blue tractor which connects to the mobile Victory Lane. After driver introductions, it is towed to the infield behind the pits. After the race, Victory Lane is towed to the frontstretch where the celebration ensues. There isn’t a lot of room at the old short track, and this is how it has been done for years. The first NASCAR-sanctioned race happened at Martinsville on Independence Day back in 1948, and the first Cup race was Sept. 25, 1949.
You better qualify well: Johnson nearly went start to finish for the win, starting on the pole and ending up in Victory Lane. At no point during the day was he lower than fifth place. In the 129 Sprint Cup races at Martinsville, 94 winners have come from a Top 10 starting position. Only five winners came come from outside of a Top 20 starting position.
Jeff Gordon always finishes what he starts: Gordon now has 41 career starts at Martinsville, and he has never posted a DNF (did not finish) at the Virginia short track.
Looking ahead to next week
The Sprint Cup Series heads to Fort Worth for the NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway and the intermediate tri-oval track. The scheduled green flag drop is set for 7:46pm PT Saturday night under the lights. The current weather forecast calls for a dry, and relatively warm, weekend.
Roush-Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards leads all active drivers with three victories in Texas. He has a good, but not great, average-finish position of 15.06. While he has the threee wins, five Top 5s and seven Top 10s in 15 starts, he also has four DNFs. So Cousin Carl can really make Fantasy owners happy, or make them pull out their hair.
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth leads all active drivers with an 8.33 average-finish position. He has won twice in 21 career starts at Texas, and he has no DNFs. Kenseth and Johnson might be the safest places in Fort Worth next Saturday. Johnson is the only other driver with an AFP in the Top 10, posting a 9.26 average-finish. He has won twice, and has a whopping 14 Top 10s in 19 career starts with only one DNF.
Martin will be back behind the wheel of the No. 55 Jet Edge Toyota for MWR, and he could be a sneaky play. He has an average-finish of 13.92, with one win, eight Top 5s and 13 Top 10s in 24 career starts in Texas. Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton also have two victories under their belts, as does Tony Stewart.
As far as those who you’ll want to avoid, Penske Championship Racing’s Brad Keselowski has struggled in Texas over years. He has made nine career starts on the Texas tri-oval, but he has just one Top 5, one Top 10 and an average-finish of 22.67. While Stewart-Haas Racing’s Newman has one victory in Texas in his career, he has just three Top 5s, three Top 10s and three DNFs in 19 career starts, posting a 20.26 average-finish position. Kahne has also struggled here, winning once in 17 starts, but finishing 19.18 on average. Marcos Ambrose also has no Top 5s and just one Top 10 in nine career Texas starts.