Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville

Key Moment – During the pit stops for a lap 476 caution, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out while Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and the rest of the lead lap cars came in for two tires. Johnson restarted behind Keselowski and worked him over for four laps before taking the lead for good. In the end, Keselowski ended up about where he would have finished with tires, while some of the other top contenders on the day ended up falling back to unsatisfying results.

In a Nutshell – Johnson owned Martinsville from the fall of 2003 through 2009, but his last few races there have been less than dominating. On Sunday, he made a statement that he is the man to beat in the Chase and that Martinsville is still his house as much as anyone else’s.

Dramatic MomentDenny Hamlin was poised to make a second dramatic, come-from-behind win on the weekend as he rebounded from pit road penalties to have himself poised for a run at the win. Instead of taking home a second grandfather clock in as many days, he suffered a debilitating electrical malfunction that not only ended his bid for a win, but eliminated him from championship contention.

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

Hamlin was a title contender for six races in the Chase. Coming into Martinsville, he had to feel like he’d leave in great position to race the final three events for the championship. Instead, a fluke electrical issue ended his race and his title chase on one of his best racetracks.

Keselowski’s average finish at Martinsville coming into this weekend’s race was 13.4. He was in the lead of the race with 15 laps to go and came home with a sixth-place finish. Although he’s leaving the second-oldest track on the circuit behind in the points for the first time since New Hampshire in the Chase, he has proven that he’s no fluke in this title battle and he’s going to be there until the end.

Earnhardt Jr. returned to competition with a full-on assault on Martinsville. Although he didn’t lead a lap and ended up with a 21st-place finish (thanks to a late-race dustup with Carl Edwards), the legions of fans in Junior Nation have to be glad that the No. 88 was back in the hands of Earnhardt this weekend.

Clint Bowyer and Brian Pattie were both visibly disappointed in the result of the race at Martinsville this weekend. It speaks volumes about where Michael Waltrip Racing is when the driver and crew chief of their flagship car at this point in the season are upset because they thought they should have won the race instead of being thrilled with a top-five finish.

The race wasn’t a sellout, but the stands were 95% full shortly after the green flag dropped on Sunday. Martinsville Speedway is nestled in the hills of Virginia rather far from any major metropolis, but it is still one of the best places to see a stock car race on the planet.

Although it isn’t Cup-related, racing lost another future star this weekend when Tyler Wolf was killed in a sprint car wreck in California. It is a stark reminder that, no matter how safe the equipment is, racing is still a dangerous sport and the worst can and, sometimes, does happen.

Brian Vickers inked another contract with Michael Waltrip racing and proceeded to go out and have another great run in the No. 55. Although he’s only a part-time driver in the MWR family, Vickers continues to put on shows when they stick him behind the wheel of the car. You have to think that he’ll get a full-time ride at some point if Mikey can ever sell a sponsor on the idea.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Number one on the list this week, without a doubt, was Hamlin. He comes into one of his best tracks within shouting distance of the top of the points and he leaves more than a full race behind. To add to the abuse, it was supposedly a post that fell off of the master switch that derailed his strong run toward the finish.

Earnhardt Jr. was looking to make a triumphant return from his two-week concussion recovery stint out of the No. 88. He ran in the top 10 for the vast majority of the race only to go for a loop off of the front bumper of the No. 99 with nine laps to go. Although it wasn’t Edwards’ fault (he was bumped from behind by another competitor), it was still a very disappointing end to what could have been a storybook day for Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports.

Kevin Harvick was sporting a Chasing the Cure paint scheme this weekend, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness month. He started 13th and fell back into the 20s early in the race. He clawed and scratched his way back into the top 10 before his engine done blowed up. A 32nd-place finish was a letdown for both the team and the cause.

Edwards hasn’t had much to smile about in 2012. Martinsville was looking like it just might smile on him for a change and give him a decent finish, until he was hit from behind heading into turn one and spun himself and Earnhardt Jr. Not only was Edwards’ day ruined, but now he’s going to get hate mail on green stationary for the next 10 years.

”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Aric Almirola had a great run at Kansas that went south in a hurry. He had a run that was in the toilet at Martinsville for most of the day but turned the corner right before the finish and ended up with a top-five run. The No. 43 team “changed everything they could change on the car” according to Almirola after the race. Then a late-race call for two tires by crew chief Todd Parrott gave them track position and the typical beating and banging at the end of the race afforded Almirola a fourth-place finish in his Gwaltney-sponsored car. Hopefully, there will be some sort of ‘free bologna Friday’ promotion in celebration.

In a move that happened more than once at Martinsville on Sunday, Kyle Busch spun around and didn’t hit anything hard enough to do any damage to his car. He battled back from a spot in the 30s to come home in second place. Although it wasn’t a win, the results could have been vastly different if he’d drilled the outside wall when he went for a loop.

Greg Biffle and Sam Hornish Jr. both started deep in the field with Keselowski. Both soldiered their way to the front by the end of the race. Biffle finished 10th and Hornish crossed the line in 13th. Although grandfather clocks, or even wrist watches, are not awarded for such finishes, both drivers can be pleased to have battled through the minefield that is Martinsville and brought home strong finishes.

Chevrolet notched its 699th victory in the sport and clinched the manufacturer’s title for the 10th year in a row on Sunday. The bowtie brigade has long been the standard in the Cup series and this is just another notch in their belt of long, storied success in stock car racing and auto racing in general.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson notched his 59th career victory in 396 starts. His winning percentage is 14.9% which ranks him eighth on the all-time list of drivers with at least 100 starts. Johnson is the only active driver in the top 12 on the list; Gordon is 13th.
  • Chevrolet has notched 699 wins in the Cup series over its career. GM as a company has 1,034. Ford has 712 with Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. Chrysler has 466 with Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler. Toyota has scored 49 wins in their short time in the sport.
  • Johnson’s win is his fourth this season. He has 17 top fives and 23 top 10s in 33 races this season.
  • The win is Johnson’s seventh at Martinsville, his fifth in the fall race, and his 19th top 10 at the track.
  • The victory is Hendrick Motorsports 207th win all-time and eighth win this season. It is their 19th win at Martinsville and 12th win in the fall race.
  • The second-place finish for Kyle Busch was his 10th for 2012 and 17th top 10 for the year. He has seven top fives and eight top 10s all-time at Martinsville.
  • Kasey Kahne’s third-place was his 11th top five and 18th top 10 of the season. Kahne has two top fives and three top 10s all-time at Martinsville. Kahne has more DNFs (four) than top 10s at Martinsville.
  • Stephen Leicht was the highest-finishing rookie, finishing in 34th place.
  • Almirola’s top-five finish is his second top-five finish of his career and first this season. It is his second top-10 of the year.
  • Bowyer’s fifth-place finish marked the ninth time this year he’s come home in the top five. It is his 21st top-10 finish. This is the second top five of Bowyer’s career at Martinsville and eighth top 10.
  • Bobby Labonte crossed the line in ninth place today for his second top-10 finish of the season. It is his 14th career top 10 at Martinsville.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski has led the point standings since Dover (which means he led for almost the entire month of October). However, his sixth-place finish today drops him two points behind Johnson in the run for the title. Two points is still a mere pittance no matter how you look at it; so heading into the final three races, the Chase is still either of the frontrunners’ to lose.

Hamlin’s foul fortune not only kept him from competing for the win this weekend at Martinsville, it has KO’d his hopes for landing a championship in 2012. Hamlin is now 49 points out of the top spot and in fifth place in the overall point standings.

Bowyer finished in fifth place, but that dropped him further behind Johnson and still too far back to think he has a realistic shot at the main table in Vegas. Certainly, 26 points out isn’t a death sentence; but when you have to leap-frog two people who are competing at the top of their game (Johnson and Keselowski), it is just too long of a row to hoe.

Kahne scored a top five at a track where he almost never does and vaulted himself into the fourth spot in the point standings. Like Bowyer, it is too little too late. For now, the only point battle Kahne has on his hands is whether he can beat Bowyer for a podium finish in the points.

The rest of the Chasers are just squirrels trying to find a nut at this point in time. They can obviously win races and take home a big fake check on any given weekend, but their title hopes have long been out the door. The only interesting development would be if Earnhardt Jr. somehow managed to overtake Harvick or Tony Stewart for a spot above 12th over the final three races. That would be a true slap in the face to either of the other drivers, since Earnhardt was on the sidelines for two races.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): On scales of Martinsville classics this was hardly an epic race. Although there were 11 caution flags for 64 laps, there were no serious incidents in which cars ended up driving around with a fender pointing to the sky or both front quarter panels removed so the car looked like a modified. The race did, however, contain a lot of intrigue from a racing standpoint. There were 22 lead changes among nine drivers and many of them actually took place on the track. Hamlin’s miscues on pit road, his charges back through the pack, and then his ultimate demise most assuredly added some edge of the seat moments to the racing action. The intensity on the track picked up markedly during the last 50 laps. Cars were moved out of the way on numerous occasions during the final five laps, with some good cars coming home with less-than-anticipated finishes because they were pushed up and out of the groove. Adding to the score is the fact that it is Martinsville, the only track still on the schedule that was contested the very first year of the sport and the most unique track in the Chase, it deserves four cans of savory adult beverage and one dozen Jesse Jones Hotdogs. Let’s hope we’ll see more short tracks in the Chase in the future.

Next Up: The series heads to the final Intermediate quad-oval on the schedule for the year. The track that laid claim to the fastest track on the circuit title for several years is now just one of the quick ones. What we can look forward to at the end on Sunday is a driver who is not anywhere close to a cowboy wearing a large, goofy looking hat and firing off blank rounds of ammunition in an attempt to make themselves look cool in said goofy hat. It will most likely be a great race because the surface is smooth but abrasive, tires make a difference and, in the end, the battle for the season title will probably have the last two contestants standing looking each other in the eye most of the weekend.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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