Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2014 STP 500 at Martinsville

Key Moment – The caution flew with 40 laps to go. Teams came to pit road with Clint Bowyer in the lead, but Jimmie Johnson had it when the pit stops completed, a slow stop on the right-rear dooming the No. 15 Toyota to mid-pack. Kurt Busch came out in the third spot, which let him start on the bottom, and as a result, the battle for the race win was set between Johnson and Busch.

In a Nutshell – With a record number of lead changes, the STP 500 was one of the best at the track in its long and storied history. The race started in cold, overcast weather that prevented the track from ever taking rubber. The result was that tires wore out quickly if drivers pushed them hard, and ultimately, the race became a battle of attrition. Johnson was the dominant car of the day, leading almost 300 laps, but when the chips were on the table, it was Kurt Busch who passed Johnson with 11 laps to go and held off the eight-time Martinsville winner.

Dramatic Moment – During pit stops under the competition caution on lap 44, Brad Keselowski made heavy contact with Kasey Kahne and damaged the front end of his car. He felt that Kurt Busch drove through him during the incident and caused further damage. When Keselowski got back on track, he attempted to flatten Busch’s tires, a move that could have ruined his day. But Busch avoided any tire damage and went on to win the race.

The final 30 laps, in which Johnson and Busch accounted for three lead changes was also about as “epic” a short track battle as you’re going to see.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Martinsville is always close-quarter racing and usually results in some ruffled feathers among many of the drivers. But other than Keselowski, there didn’t seem to be anyone after the drop of the checkered flag that was excessively irritated with any other driver. The tire wear may have contributed to that aspect, as wheelmen were busier trying to drive their own pace and didn’t have time to try and take anyone else out.

Keselowski needs to get his facts straight. Keselowski ran into Kahne, starting the Martinsville pit road incident while Kurt Busch was merely a side victim. Yet Keselowski acted, after going behind the wall, like Busch took away his championship chances. Running into Busch, multiple times was the equivalent of a guy who should be a role model inside this sport simply losing his mind. Acting like a petulant child, after the race Keselowski’s push to fight Busch has faded quickly; by midday Monday, he has completely backed off those comments through Twitter and other public sources. Makes you wonder if someone actually showed the driver a replay so he could come to his senses.

BOWLES: The Keselowski Feud Puts Shadow On Busch Comeback

The racing was fantastic, but could have been far better if NASCAR had come up with the sweepers in the final 100 laps. There were so many marbles, mentioned by Aric Almirola and Matt Kenseth post-race that lapped cars were hugging the bottom of what was a one-groove race track. That, at times impeded so many battles for position and kept lead-lap cars constantly on edge, making sure they weren’t run into by slower traffic.

They have been running races at Martinsville Speedway for 65 years. Through 131 races, today was the first time there were 33 lead changes, and two-thirds of those were on-track passes for the lead. Many of them were attributable to the fact that the tires wore out and lost grip if they were pushed too hard. For the third race in a row, Goodyear brought a tire that gives up and the teams and drivers had to manage wear to get a quality finish.

The folks at Martinsville Speedway offered a fantastic deal to ticket holders for both the Cup and Truck races. Since both races were being held on the same day, fans in the stands for the Cup race were allowed to stay for the Trucks at no additional charge. Fans with Truck tickets, meanwhile were allowed to enter the stands after lap 100 and fill in any empty seat they would like since the Truck tickets are general admission.

CRANDALL: Breaking Down Sunday’s Truck Series Race

The Cup fans, who were given the opportunity to see another great race at Martinsville, once again proved the never-ending conundrum that faces the Truck Series. Race-in and race-out, the Trucks provide the best racing in the national touring series and yet they can’t seem to get fans to support them. The stands were roughly 70% full for the Cup race and, by the time the green flag dropped on the Truck race, there were roughly 10,000 people in the stands – and by the end of the race, it was closer to 5,000. Not sure what the answer is, but it is a shame that people who claim to be race fans don’t take the time to watch the best competition when it’s directly in front of them.

The Air Titan 2.0 was unveiled at Martinsville Speedway. Not surprisingly, the engineers decided tethering the trucks with the heads behind them to a flat bed trailer on the apron was not the most practical idea. The new version has the compressor in the back of a pickup truck that pulls the heads, so it is a self-contained unit. It will also burn about 1/10th of the fuel compared to version 1.0 and burns regular fuel instead of diesel. Bottom line is, the track can get dry faster and the carbon impact on the environment is much less.

There is a new fascia piece that is riveted to the rear bumper as part of the new rules package, according to some crew chief chatter on Fanvision. For whatever reason, it popped loose on seven cars on the first lap when the field accordioned up in turn three. Teams will probably need to reinforce that the next time they come to Martinsville. Surprised we didn’t see any of those come loose at Bristol.

Some fans might not realize it, but the winner of a Martinsville Grandfather clock takes it home the same day they win. The Speedway has them in their original delivery carton, in a warehouse on property. They load them onto the team’s hauler after the event and the winner takes them home with them that very night.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Keselowski came in for the competition caution and received service from his crew. When he pulled out of his pit and lined up behind Kasey Kahne, he was ready to head back to the track. Kahne checked up to pull into his pit and Keselowski made contact with his car, severely damaging the front and immediately taking him out of contention. He also showed his rear end with comments about Kurt Busch who he claims had a hand in the incident. Keselowski’s appeal to fans is his honesty, but sometimes it can get him into hot water.

The season to forget for Parker Kligerman continues to trudge along. He has had horrible luck, mostly not of his doing all year and it didn’t even take a full lap before it happened again at Martinsville. On the very first lap, heading into turn 3, Kligerman spun up onto the grass, nosing his car into the wall. He had to go behind the wall for repairs when they finally got his car unstuck from the curbing, and he finished the race in 41st position, 92 laps down. This week, Kligerman brought it onto himself because he was the last car on the track and simply overcooked it into the corner. The resulting unrest on his team was palpable on the radio, team members swearing and arguing with each other during repairs. He is going to have to start posting some better results or the heat is really going to be turned up on his job security.

Jamie McMurray had a good car at Martinsville and was running near the front of the pack when Dale Earnhardt Jr. tried to pass him. Earnhardt had position under McMurray, although only up to his rear tire. McMurray came down and the splitter on Earnhardt’s car cut his left rear, causing him to spin out. The resulting damage caused McMurray to head to the garage for a lengthy period of time and ultimately gave him a 42nd-place finish.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kenseth has seldom been very strong at Martinsville, but he was good there last season, posting career-best results. As a result, many people were lumping him into the possible winner column for this weekend. However, an early race pit call, staying out on old tires resulted in him dropping back in the pack and eventually falling a lap down. That should have ended this story; however, Kenseth received the Lucky Dog on the 11th caution of the race, at lap 341 then worked his way back up through the pack to garner a sixth-place finish. While it isn’t a win, it is efforts like that which eventually push a team over the top and get them into Victory Lane.

Richard Petty Motorsports had a tough week with the passing of Lynda Petty. Sometimes, the cure for sorrow is going to a place that provides comfort. Richard Petty won 15 times at Martinsville. Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose both finished in the top five at Bristol and put a similar stamp on this short track. Ambrose came home in fifth, for his first such result at the half-mile oval, while Almirola scored an eighth-place finish. The two-car team continues to knock on the door and eventually is going to win again. Rest in peace, Mrs. Petty. The world is a better place because you were in it.

CREED: Inside The Petty Recovery On Short Tracks

AJ Allmendinger scored his second-best finish of the season with an 11th-place run. He managed to lead a lap under caution and spent some time in the top 10 before settling for 11th. Allmendinger’s habit of driving deep into the corner seemed to work well for him, as he was able to get under people and make the passes while contending for a second top 10. He’s only had two results better than 18th this season but they have been in the last two races. The momentum is building for this JTG group.

Worth Noting

  • Kurt Busch’s win was his 25th of his career. It comes in his 477th start.
  • Busch’s win ties him for 26th on the all-time wins list with Jim Paschal and Joe Weatherly.
  • There were 33 lead changes during the event which is a new record for Martinsville Speedway. The previous record was 31 in 2011. The best part of that total was that 22 of the lead changes were on-track passes for the lead.
  • This win breaks an 83-race winless streak for Busch. His last win was at Dover on October 2nd, 2011.
  • This is Busch’s second win at Martinsville. His first win was in October 2002.
  • There have been six different winners in the first six races of the season. That is the most in the Chase era and is the most since the beginning of the 2003 season.
  • Johnson’s runner-up finish was his 12th top-two in 25 career Martinsville races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. has yet to win a Martinsville clock, but he has come home in the top three six times in his career.
  • Austin Dillon (15th) was the highest-finishing rookie, the only one to finish inside the top 20.
  • Five Chevrolets landing in the top-10 finishing positions at Martinsville, the best of any manufacturer. They were joined by three Fords and two Toyotas.
  • Keselowski (38th) had had three straight runs outside the top 10 after starting the season with three straight top-five results, including a win.
  • Not that it necessarily belongs in this section, but this race was the 30th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports’ very first win. If Geoff Bodine hadn’t won that race, HMS was going to shut its doors. It is worth noting that the sport would look entirely different were it not for that single victory in 1984.

What’s the Points?

With his third-place run and Carl Edwards’ 13th-place finish, Earnhardt Jr. has reclaimed the point lead. He is nine points ahead of Kenseth. Kenseth’s rebound has him one point in front of Edwards, who sits third. Fourth in points is Jeff Gordon, who finds himself one marker behind Edwards and 11 points out of the lead. Johnson rounds out the top five, some 18 points behind Earnhardt.

The first car in the second half of the top 10 is Kyle Busch. He is 38 points behind Earnhardt after a disappointing 14th, dropping from the pole. Busch is one point in front of Keselowski and two points in front of Joey Logano, who is 40 points in arrears to Earnhardt. Dillon is the highest rookie in the point standings, 48 behind Earnhardt after running a respectable 15th Sunday. The final driver in the top 10 is Ryan Newman, some 53 points from the top spot.

Overall rating (On a scale of 1-6, where 1 is a stinker and six is the finest of brews and a instant classic) — Martinsville Speedway has been on the schedule since the very first year of NASCAR. They’ve hosted 131 races in that time in the Cup Series. While there are some folks who can remember all of them, most people only remember the last 30 years or so. This race was one of the best in that time frame. The most lead changes, tires that fell off along with very few hurt feelings was simply an A+ effort. For that, it gets six well-chilled Three Brothers Brewing Resolutes (Bourbon Barrel Imperial Stout).

What’s Next? — Next on the schedule is Texas Motor Speedway and the inaugural effort for “Big Hoss,” the World’s Largest HD Screen. The Duck Commander 500 will roll off at 3:00 p.m. on FOX. It will also be available on PRN at the same time. The most outstanding part of the weekend still promises to be the ridiculously large cowboy hat, placed on a driver’s smaller than average head once they reach Victory Lane.

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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