Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Martinsville Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: 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.

In a Nutshell: 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?

Dramatic Moment: In addition to the key pass for the lead, mention must be made of Hamlin’s kamikaze lap 455 pass on Johnson going into turn 1 on a restart. That was classic stuff, the likes of which we don’t see often enough in this era of points racing.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Some of the best racing of the day involved a four-way battle for the lead around lap 350. That great run was ended when the caution was thrown once some numbskull I won’t call a fan tossed a can of Coors Light out on the track. Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us, moron.

Maybe that chat Rick Hendrick had with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. on Wednesday yielded some quick dividends? There’s a reason Hendrick has been winning races in motorsports’ toughest arena for the last 25 years while other teams have fallen by the wayside in hard times.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: For Dale Earnhardt Jr., Does Fun Trump Having It All?

In just another sign of the changing times, the Wood Brothers didn’t enter a car at Martinsville for the first time since 1953, well before even Mark Martin was born. The Wood Brothers had always considered Martinsville their home track, and ran there even during those seasons with David Pearson where they focused their attention on the superspeedways. Some say change is inevitable, but nobody can tell me I have to like it.

If NASCAR is bound and determined to stick with the new cars, maybe we can change over to a season that runs all 36 races at Martinsville?

A once extinct species is apparently making an unexpected comeback in these tough economic times. Some NFL stadiums will be reintroducing the $1 hot dog this year to try to lure more fans to the stands by reducing the overall cost of attending a game. Could the $1 dog make a comeback at NASCAR tracks, venues where it hasn’t been sighted since the early ’80s? If it does happen, you can bet it won’t be at an ISC track (although a Martinsville hot dog remains just $2). Now, if someone would reintroduce the $1 12-ounce cup of cold beer.

Call it a Freudian slip. Earnhardt Jr. was quoted this weekend saying that racing at Martinsville was a headache and a pain in the butt at the same time. For most of us, those two areas of discomfort are separated by at least several feet.

Exactly 25 years ago on Sunday, Rick Hendrick enjoyed his first Cup victory as a team owner when Geoff (pre-Geoffrey) Bodine won at Martinsville. Hendrick was not at the track that day, as he was attending church services, but was glad to be in attendance Sunday for career victory No. 176. Remember that while Martinsville has been the scene of numerous triumphs for Hendrick – particularly with Johnson and Jeff Gordon as of late – it was also the scene of his greatest tragedy. Mr. Hendrick lost his son, two nieces, a brother, and other employees/friends in a plane crash outside of Martinsville in 2004.

As a devout fan of this sport’s rich history which far too many fans know far too little about (one day, I will find a way to convince this site’s editors to let me re-run the history series I wrote back in 1998), it was nice to see Bodine back at the track and getting some recognition for his breakthrough win for the Hendrick organization – even if he was wearing a fruity hat. But it’s sad nothing was said of the veteran crew chief, Harry Hyde, who called the shots for Bodine’s historic win.

Hyde was an irascible old dude who shot from the hip, the main reason why, despite their success, Hyde and Bodine never got along. It took until 1986, when Hendrick moved Hyde over to call the shots for Tim Richmond in the Folgers car, for Harry to finally get his moment in the sun. The two men were polar opposites, but they made their peace and went on to win seven races, contending for that year’s title late in the season in an era when men were men and racing was racing.

Richmond is now finally getting some of the respect he deserves with the yellow journalism that labeled him a murder suspect long since debunked. This year, an ARCA event is named in his honor, and I’m told that the Pocono racetrack where Tim enjoyed such success has some special things in store to honor Richmond this June 7, which would have been Tim’s birthday. That’s great, and it’s long overdue.

For years, people have been debating whether Gordon (and by association, Johnson) would ever have gotten a shot at HMS if it wasn’t for Richmond. Folks can go on debating it forever, but let there be no doubt; if there was no Harry Hyde, Hendrick Motorsports would never have survived or possibly even gotten off the ground. As my Irish ancestors might say, Good on ya, Harry and Godspeed. I bet you’re sitting atop the No. 25 team’s pit box at whatever short track lays beyond those Pearly Gates.

There’s no doubt that technological excess has compromised the competition in Formula 1 racing, but a new rule in that series this season fascinates me. This year, the teams may use what the Grand Prix folks are calling the KERS system, which basically uses wasted energy from braking to either power up a battery system that powers an add on electric motor in the cars or a flywheel that stores the energy. We’re talking a Prius on steroids here. Packaging the battery motor (and in this case it genuinely is a motor, not an engine) is a challenge because of the additional weight of the components.

All F1 cars must meet a minimum weight standard, but the weight of the batteries and motor gives the team less ability to distribute ballast weight where it can best be used to improve handling. Rules mandate that the electric engines most teams using KERS systems have adopted be limited to 80 horsepower. As with any new technology, there are safety concerns about the batteries and the electrical system, not only for the drivers strapped into the cars but for the fire and rescue crews that might have to respond to a wreck involving a KERS-equipped car.

Still, it occurs to me if the F1 folks can adopt and perfect such a system for their lightweight open-wheel cars, it ought to be a piece of cake to add such a system to a vastly heavier and full-fendered Cup car. At a brake-intensive track like Martinsville, that added power would probably make for exciting new race strategies. Add in the idea of appeasing environmentalists who take a dim view of auto racing to begin with, and this looks like a win/win situation from where I sit.

Did anyone else feel seeing Jeff Hammond eat a hot dog smacked of cannibalism?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Hamlin seems to be able to lead a lot of laps and lead races late without ever sealing the deal. Kudos to Hamlin for his classy post-race comments, though.

See also
Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville Prove It's the Drivers That Have Changed - Not the Racing

After starting the season hotter than the Fourth of July, Matt Kenseth just can’t seem to get out of his own way lately. A pit-road penalty for a runaway tire just added to his misery.

The race might have been powered by the Home Depot (FOX’s way of ignoring race sponsor Goody’s for not buying ads during the race broadcast) but Joey Logano was pretty much deflowered by the tricky track on his first visit here in a Cup car.

Kyle Busch is hardly the humblest guy in the series, but he freely admitted entering this weekend that he can’t run worth a lick at Martinsville. Sunday’s race offered ample evidence that was the case.

Problems on pit road sent Carl Edwards back deep into the pack, where incidental contact cut down his left-rear tire and ended the day for the only Ford entry that seemed competitive.

Considering how many times he went into the spin cycle at Martinsville, Robby Gordon might want to seek sponsorship from Maytag.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Gordon’s winless streak continues, but he did score another solid top-five finish. To do so, he had to avoid the stricken cars of Elliott Sadler and Aric Almirola as they dove for the pits with flat tires.

Martinsville is Mark Martin’s least favorite track, and Martin was forced to start 31st Sunday after qualifying was rained out Friday. To rally back to a solid and competitive top-10 finish had to be a morale booster for a No. 5 team which has clearly been struggling this season.

Ryan Newman’s year is off to a less than stellar start, but a sixth-place finish gives the No. 39 team something to build on.

Clint Bowyer’s efforts could have been done in early after contact with the No. 55 car bent up his right-front fender, but he persevered to finish fifth.

In addition to a great race, NASCAR fans got to cheer the second consecutive FOX pre-race show without a Digger and Friends animated segment. Now, if they’d just get rid of the other rodents in the Hollywood Hotel, FOX might really be onto something.

It’s not NASCAR-related, but Brawn Racing became the first F1 team to sweep the top-two spots at a Grand Prix in their debut race since 1954, when the incomparable Juan Manuel Fangio at the helm of the Mercedes streamliner took the win in the French Grand Prix. Of course, there’s still the possibility that the win Sunday in Australia will be overturned given some protests of the Brawn cars’ rear diffusers. I hate it when race results get decided in a courtroom rather than on a racetrack.

Also not NASCAR-related, but cheers to the folks of Fargo, N.D. and surrounding towns along the Red River who took matters into their own hands under brutal conditions to erect those sandbag walls and save their own towns rather than waiting for the federal government to ride in and save the day. There’s a lesson there for the rest of us.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson’s win was the first victory for Chevrolet in 2009. Chevys dominated the top-10 finishing positions, in fact, claiming seven of those spots to leave room for just one pilot each out of the Ford, Dodge and Toyota camps.
  • Logano was the top-finishing rookie of the race way back there in 32nd, four laps off the pace.
  • Johnson has now strung together three consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Hamlin finished second for the second week in a row. He also led more than 75 laps in a Cup event for the first time since Richmond last spring.
  • Tony Stewart’s third-place finish was his first top-five result of 2009 and his best finish since he won at Talladega last autumn.
  • Gordon (fourth) now has five consecutive top-10 finishes this season. His 13th-place finish in this year’s Daytona 500 is the only anomaly on his record to date.
  • Newman’s sixth-place finish matches his best result since last year’s Bristol night race.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) enjoyed his best finish of the season.
  • Michael Waltrip’s 13th-place finish was his best on a non-plate track since Dover last fall.
  • Kyle Busch’s 24th-place finish was his worst since the Daytona 500.

What’s the Points?

Gordon retains the points lead and is now 89 ahead of second-place Bowyer, who bypassed Kurt Busch to take over the runner-up slot.

Johnson had the best day in the points (winning races will do that for a fellow), moving up five spots to fourth in the standings. Hamlin also had a good points day, moving up three spots to fifth.

Meanwhile, Edwards and Kasey Kahne took it on the chin at Martinsville, falling three spots each in the standings to wind up eighth and ninth, respectively. All drivers from eighth-place Edwards on back are already more than a full race’s worth of points out of the lead.

Despite winning the first two races of the season, Kenseth fell two more spots to 12th in the standings. Jeff Burton finds himself knock, knock, knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and a top 12 points position after moving to 13th, just seven points behind Kenseth.

Other drivers making notable forward progress at Martinsville include Earnhardt Jr. (up three spots to 16th), Waltrip (back up four spots to 17th), and Newman, up a notable nine spots to 18th.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll give this one all six icy bottles of Corona served up by a Russian supermodel with the morals of a minx. I know some of you will take exception at this high rating, but as tepid as the racing has been this year, Martinsville stands out as a classic.

Next Up: Expect the usual stampede of clichéd western puns as the series heads west to Texas.

About the author

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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