There’s a reason that Martinsville Speedway, the only residual NASCAR charter member, has been a fixture on the Sprint Cup schedule for the last 64 years: the tiny track continues to provide exhilarating action, and Sunday’s STP 500 was no exception.
Drivers took to tight door-to-door beating and banging with a grandfather clock on the line, in a race that proved that pre-race favorites are just that; once the race starts, all bets are off.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not shows that things aren’t always what they seem in the Sprint Cup Series. History and statistics sometimes mean little to nothing inside the tight confines of the Paperclip, where chrome horns are favored over common pleasantries.
A champion took home the prized Ridgeway Clock after an afternoon of short track racing, but it wasn’t one that Las Vegas or any media outlet gave much attention to leading up to Sunday. It appeared that a Hendrick Motorsports show was in order judging by its drivers’ utter dominance of many statistical categories there, but it wasn’t, making race six one of the season’s early surprises.
Kurt Busch hadn’t won in 83 starts prior to the STP 500, but that all changed after he held off Jimmie Johnson to claim his second victory at the track.
This must be a dream, right? After all, Busch all but wrote himself off after contact on pit road with Brad Keselowski left the No. 41 Chevrolet with a sizeable amount of damage along its left side. Keselowski then proceeded to make life a little harder for Busch after emerging from the garage area piloting something similar to a Whelen Modified.
Yet Busch was still capable of keeping pace with Johnson, and he became the only other driver with a viable chance of winning after Clint Bowyer’s shot was stalled because of a pit road delay.
Johnson and Busch then embarked on a 35-lap sprint to the finish during which the lead swapped hands three times and aggressive measures were taken on the regular.
Busch is perhaps the most polarizing figure in the series, but he definitely knows how to create drama on the track and off it. In that regard, he is good for the sport and asserts him easily atop Hot or Not in a winning-means-everything environment.
Busch’s antics might have taken the spotlight this week, but he wasn’t the only driver who is now set up for success in Cup’s upcoming visit to the Lone Star State.
Last week’s fourth at Auto Club allowed Matt Kenseth a positive Hot or Not review, and he battled back for another top 10 in Virginia.
The No. 20 team’s decision not to pit during a short green flag cycle gave Kenseth the lead on lap 254 but caused an alarming drop off in handling when his tires wore out. Kenseth was then forced to endure the longest green flag run of the event on old rubber and fell a lap down, before finding his rhythm on a late-race charge.
Now Kenseth has a shot to join the winners’ club at arguably his best track. At Texas Motor Speedway, he has produced eight top fives in his past 10 starts – two more than former Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle over the same span.
That’s saying something; Biffle was the main driver featured on Duck Commander 500 promos during FOX’s telecast because of his recent escapades at TMS. That’s also the main reason that he’s receiving high marks in the rundown (because his on-track performance this season certainly doesn’t merit this position).
The No. 16 Fusion has gone to victory lane twice with Biffle at the helm, last in the 2012 rendition of this race. Biffle usually runs well in Texas, making this seem like a reasonable time for a needed early-season turnaround.
Is it fair to label Biffle, who has failed to grasp NASCAR’s new rules package for Gen-6 setup, in the warm category? What about placing a driver who has posted solid results, barring minimal slip-ups, down there?
Jeff Gordon got off to a historical start, even by his Hall of Fame-worthy standards. However, since departing Bristol with his fourth consecutive top 10, things haven’t come as easily for Big Daddy.
Gordon salvaged a 13th in Fontana before finishing 12th at Martinsville. Sure, that isn’t terrible, but Gordon ruined his chances of competing with a No. 24 that appeared on par with Johnson’s No. 48 during a collision on lap 114.
What is terrible are Gordon’s numbers at Texas, his worst track. The speedway is home to his lowest average finish (17.8) and things aren’t getting any better. Gordon placed 38th in both trips to the Great American Speedway last season, ruining his chances for a fifth Cup title at the second date.
Teammate Kasey Kahne has also struggled over the past two races. After an early trip to the garage area spoiled things in Fontana, Kahne struggled with tire wear and handling en route to a 22nd this week. The quick slide accounts for Kahne’s equally speedy move from 11th to 22nd in the standings.
Speaking of freefalling, what about Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Stenhouse’s negative trend has been even more drastic — from 10th to 24th — due to back-to-back finishes outside the top 30. That runner-up finish at Thunder Valley already seems like any eternity ago, and to make things worse, he wrecked in his ’13 Texas debut.
The other half of ‘*Stenica*’ wasn’t able to catch a break at Martinsville either.
It was supposed to be a good track for Danica Patrick, but that all changed with an abysmal 32nd. Patrick started 10th but fell like a rock on race day because of an ill-handling No. 10 Chevrolet. She eventually stabilized around 30th but never recovered enough to make a comeback.
For as bad as Patrick was, she did fare better than the No. 66 team.
The multi-driver effort hasn’t found anything resembling the form that brought Martin Truex, Jr. and the now defunct No. 56 a Chase birth. Its most recent finish – a 43rd — was the worst in a stretch of runs that also includes a 41st, 40th, 41st, and 32nd — and no this Camry isn’t officially a start-and-parker. Maybe the organization would save money if it were, as three races have ended with a crash or mechanical-relatedDNF.
Granted, the team isn’t just one organization; much like Circle Sport Racing’s partnership with Richard Childress Racing to field the No. 33, Joe Nemechek’s Identity Ventures team fields the car when Michael Waltrip Racing doesn’t, meaning that if it’s not Waltrip or Jeff Burton in the car, it’s a lower-budget operation with Nemechek behind the wheel.
But between each it hasn’t mattered who pilots the No. 66. None of the drivers has made a serious impact at any point this season.
They say ‘everything is bigger in Texas’. Waltrip and co. are hoping that the No. 66 team reels in a sizable points day because, right now it’s the laughing stock of the owner standings.
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