Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chase Coverage: Martinsville Wrap-Up Report

Denny Hamlin celebrates in Victory Lane after the Tums Fast Relief 500
at Martinsville Speedway. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
The sixth race of the Chase, Martinsville Speedway did not disappoint. It was 500 miles of exciting racing with plenty of bumping and banging, flaring tempers and a wild unpredictability that left you on the edge of your seat wondering, what's going to happen next? 

Some Chase drivers fell victim to the 0.526-mile short track and effectively ended their shot at the championship. However, the top 3 in the standings rose to the top: Denny Hamlin clinched his seventh win of the year, nearly wiping out leader Jimmie Johnson's lead; Johnson added yet another top 5 to his Chase resume; and Kevin Harvick made an impressive statement with his third-place finish, showing he is in it to win it. Things will surely get interesting between these three next week at Talladega. 

Twelve of our contributors recap how the Chase drivers fared this weekend at Martinsville:

1.) Jimmie Johnson – Rebecca Kivak
Jimmie Johnson left Martinsville on Sunday with a hard-fought fifth-place finish, but the four-time champion’s points lead shrunk from 41 to a mere 6 over race winner Denny Hamlin. It was Johnson’s fifth consecutive top-5 finish in the six Chase races, but it wasn’t an average Martinsville race for the four-time Cup champion, who didn't lead any laps or have a car to contend with in the home stretch. Due to the propensity for cautions at the track, the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet was set up for short runs but would get tight as the run went on, a problem Johnson fought throughout the race. The last long green-flag run only intensified the tight-handling condition, and the changes the No. 48 team made did little to help in the last 100 laps.

Before Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500, NASCAR confiscated the No. 48’s drive-shaft cover. NASCAR discovered stress cracks near the mounting holes during inspection and asked the team to replace the part. After the race, Sprint Cup Series Director John Darby said it was a safety issue and the part was not illegal.

Johnson rolled off 19th in the Tums Fast Relief 500 and was aggressive from the start. By lap 33 he had caught up to pole sitter Hamlin and passed him for 12th, and by lap 85 he had cracked the top 5. After the second caution on lap 111, Johnson lost spots in the pits and restarted 11th. On lap 119 he and Marcos Ambrose made contact, causing Ambrose’s left rear tire to go down and bringing out the next caution. After restarting 9th, Johnson made it back into the top 5 by lap 148 and stayed there for the next few runs. When the ninth caution was called on lap 228, Johnson came in for a track bar adjustment. Because many cars that had pitted earlier stayed out, Johnson restarted in the 18th position, but within 40 laps he had broken into the top 10 again and the top 5 by lap 402. Around lap 448 Kyle Busch and Johnson raced each other hard for the fourth spot for more than 20 laps before Johnson gave up the position. Johnson fell back to sixth in the final stretch, but with eight laps to go he passed Jeff Burton, crossing the finish line in the fifth spot.

After the race Johnson said, “Good top-five finish today. We certainly wanted to finish higher. But it's over and done with. It is what it is. Top five is something would have been a good goal coming in here this weekend. We're rolling into Talladega. We all know what can happen there. Happy to still be leading. Wish the margin had gone the other way. Denny won the race, closed it up. We'll buckle down, go to work the next four. ... If we're close (after Talladega), we'll race like hell.”

The margin may be slim, but Johnson remains the points leader and the drive for his fifth championship is very much alive. 

2.) Denny Hamlin – Holly Machuga
The winner of the Tums Fast Relief 500 is Denny Hamlin. He is the first driver to sweep two races at one track in one year. This is his third win in a row out of the four the has had at Martinsville.

He started out on the pole for Sunday's race, but fell back soon after the green flag was dropped. However, since the No. 11 team and Denny Hamlin are so superb at this track, they were able to bring it back into the top 10 and to the front of the pack to win the race. Of course, the No. 11 team always looks good at Martinsville with their four wins and numerous top-10s. The FedEx Camry driver is also a Virginia native and has raced there previous to his 10 starts.

Sunday's victory gave Denny his seventh win of the season, the most of any driver. Denny is now a measly six points away from four-time champion and current points leader Jimmie Johnson. When Hamlin attended his post race press conference he announced his arrival with, "I told you it wasn't over!"

Denny's strategy is in full effect and seems to be successful this far. He aimed for top-10s in the first five races, but with the final five races aiming for wins. He will do whatever it takes to be this year's Sprint Cup champion.

"We just fought and fought and fought and kept working on it." Denny said, post-race. He kept his patience and it all worked in the end.

As Denny said, it's not over quite yet.

3.) Kevin Harvick – Amber Arnold
Kevin Harvick kicked off the weekend in Martinsville with the announcement of a new pit crew. His pit crew was switched with the crew from Clint Bowyer’s 33 team in an effort to curb the issues the 29 team had been having on pit road. Harvick stated in his first media availability this was done, “by Richard Childress.”

Qualifying on Friday put Harvick in the 36th position when the green flag flew on Sunday. In an unlikely march to the front, Harvick not only led laps on the track known as the paperclip, but he finished in a stellar 3rd place. Harvick attributed much of his success to the pit crew change that was made, stating in his post-race interview he was going “to kiss Bowyer on the lips.” In another post-race interview, Harvick commented about on-track altercations with his teammate Jeff Burton, telling reporters Burton was “out of muligans.”

All joking aside, going into Talladega, the Chase between Johnson, Hamlin, and Harvick is anything but over. Harvick sits just a mere 62 points out of first place. Going into Talladega, a track where he has seen nothing but success, “Happy” is definitely happy.

4.) Kyle Busch – Lindi Bess
A win at Martinsville proved to be an unreachable goal for Kyle Busch this weekend. Qualifying 26th for the Tums Fast Relief 500, the halfway point in the race for the 2010 Sprint Cup championship, Kyle drove into Martinsville 177 points out of the lead, and in 5th place.

The #18 seemed to "go with the flow" in the first half of today’s race at Martinsville. Taking one position at a time as he made his way to the front, Kyle broke into the top 10 around lap 336 and was often racing side-by-side with points leader Jimmie Johnson.

With the decent pit times, pit strategy and Kyle’s driving, the #18 Toyota Camry held its own in a race that had a lot of bumping and banging. With teammates battling each other and rivals seeking revenge, Kyle played nice with others on the track. With a top-5 finish, #18 team leaves Martinsville in the fourth position, 175 points out of first place.

In all reality, it''s probably down to two contenders, Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin. But its still mathematically possible for Kyle to win his first Cup championship. I prefer to think of the possibilities rather than the probabilities. With four races left in the season and the Chase, it would be a lot more exciting with at least three in contention for the championship.

Next week it's ‘Dega Baby!

5.) Jeff Gordon – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon finished 20th in Martinsville after he was wrecked by the No. 2 car. After the wreck, Gordon fell a lap down but was able to get the lucky dog.

A 20th place position is his worse finish at Martinsville since October 2002. Gordon is now 5th in points and he trails the leader by 203 points.

He started the race strong, moving into the top five and moved ahead to first position. He led a few laps until Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead for 90 laps. After a caution on lap 347, Gordon pitted to fix a problem in the left rear, which led to a 16.1-second stop and he exited in the 8th spot.

On lap 370, he dropped to 14th. Ten laps later, he drove to the inside of Kurt Busch in turn 3, bumped him and on the front stretch Busch drilled Gordon then drove him into the wall.

Gordon believes his shot of winning the Cup is gone now that he’s so far behind, unless some major things happen.

6.) Carl Edwards – Amanda Ebersole
If you missed Sunday’s race, all I can say is WOW, you shouldn’t have! Martinsville saw many big newsworthy headlines. Feuds, accidents, 15 cautions and the closest points battle in years are just many of the things resulting from the outstanding race in Martinsville, Va.

Carl Edwards had a great race, finishing in 8th place and leading the way for the Roush Fenway team. After starting in 7th, the Aflac Ford Fusion was very loose off the corners and Carl dropped some positions until adjustments could be made. Handling seemed to be an issue. In some runs the car would be loose off and than changed to tight in the center, but crew chief Bob Osborne made great calls and the Aflac pit crew did a great job executing their stops.

Post race, Carl said, “Bob did a great job with pit strategy.  That was pretty cool and then the guys did a good job on pit road.  On that last run people were just falling left and right, so I started going easier because I figured they were melting the inside of the beads or something.  It was just a really trying day for everybody’s car and for all the drivers.  I know for me personally I was worn out towards the end, but to come home eighth, I don’t know how we did in points, but it’s probably better than we started and that’s good.”

Carl is now up to sixth in the Sprint Cup points standings, and is 213 behind our current leader, Jimmie Johnson.

7.) Tony Stewart – Unique Hiram
Despite a great starting position on the grid, Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice race team finished 24th at the conclusion of the TUMS Fast Relief 500 in Martinsville, Va. Stewart and his team battled a number of adverse moments such as a miscue on pit road, a pit road penalty that sent him to the back of the pack and an ill-handling car at the onset of the race. Approximately around lap 293, Stewart's race car began to show some strong competitive signs and he was able to run in the second position; however, on lap 300 his car began to become ill-handling once again

“We got better and better as the day went on, then got a little bit off at the middle of the race, but we had a fast car after that,”Grubb said. “We had a pit-road speeding penalty that was our own fault, then a pit-road miscue that was our own fault and a couple of other things that kept knocking us back. Then it went green for a really long time at the end, and our car got really tight and we’re not sure really why. But then we blew a bead out (in the right-front tire), had to come in under green and finished two laps down.”

Stewart has dropped down to the 7th position in the Sprint Cup Chase points standings but his and his team will continue to fight until the end.  The next stop for the Chase is Talladega, where Stewart can be a master at getting around that track.

8.) Jeff Burton – Genna Short
To no one’s surprise, Jeff Burton led the most laps in Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. By lap 46, he had already gained 11 spots and was riding in seventh after starting 18th. The 31 car was very strong early on and all throughout the race, it ran very well. He charged to the front of the pack quickly and had the lead by lap 82.

After receiving four tires and an adjustment during a pit stop after a crash between AJ Allmendinger and Mark Martin, Burton fell back and had to work his way back up into the top 10. Although a long stop compromised his dominating run, the 31 team wasn’t through showing off what they had in them. At lap 317, he was back into second but never led again.

As the laps wound down, the 31 car gradually lost speed and momentum. Burton commented on his performance:

"The Caterpillar Chevy just got really loose at the end. We took off and didn't have any rear grip. We never could hold our own. And, of course, it got worse and worse,” he reported in a post-race interview. “We were trying to keep the pace and I was trying to keep myself in position and, in doing so, the right-rear tire wore off. That's the worst thing you can do on a long run. It just didn't accept the speed on that last run for whatever reason and just killed the right-rear tire. We didn't have that problem all day and had it on the last run, so I am really disappointed. Obviously, the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet was fast all day prior to that. We weren't as good as we needed to be at the end. We put a great effort out there and it's hard to believe you can finish ninth in a car that was that good."

9.) Kurt Busch – Katy Lindamood
The 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup isn’t turning out how Kurt Busch had planned. With six of the 10 races complete, Busch's hopes of winning the championship are looking more and more dismal. A series of middle-of-the-pack finishes, ill-handling race cars, and trouble on the track have knocked Kurt down to ninth in the standings, 277 behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

Sunday’s race at Martinsville was one of ups and downs for the 2004 series champion. Starting from the 29th position, Busch was mired in traffic while simultaneously dealing with a racecar that was very tight. Busch was able to overcome the handling issues by the second half of the race and had worked his way into the top 10. A loose lugnut sent Busch back to pit road for a second time after the lap 290 pit stop. From that point on Busch’s day went downhill. Busch tangled with Jeff Gordon on a couple occasions throughout the day before the battle finally ended with Kurt getting into the 24, sending him for a spin.

After the race Busch said, “I didn’t mean to get into him that hard, but I guess that shows the game we’re gonna play. One bump versus another bump, it still seems like the scorecard isn’t even.”

Busch went on to finish the race in 16th position. Next week the series moves to Talladega, where anything can happen and surely will.

10.) Matt Kenseth – Whitney Richards
Earlier this year, Matt Kenseth was battling for the lead at Martinsville Speedway in the closing laps when contact from Jeff Gordon knocked him out of contention for the win, and he finished 18th. This past weekend, Kenseth returned to Martinsville looking to better those results. However, a pit road speeding penalty cost the team the good finish they might have been able to get.

After qualifying in the 32nd position on Friday, Kenseth knew it was going to take a lot of work to make his way through the field at the half-mile speedway on Sunday. When the first caution of the day came out on lap 48, Kenseth told crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford was loose off the turns and that the front tires were sliding in the turns. Kenseth pitted for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and track bar adjustments. He restarted 27th, and soon worked his way to 23rd. However, the front tires were still sliding in the center of the turns. Under the cautions in the first stretch of the 500-lap race, Kenseth’s crew continued to make adjustments to the No. 17 Ford. Around lap 200, the caution came out again. Kenseth and Fennig discussed what else they could do to correct the car’s handling issues. Fennig called for air pressure adjustments as well as adjustments to the rubbers. Kenseth restarted 25 and soon found himself running in the 19th position. When the caution came out on lap 226, Fennig told Kenseth to stay out to gain track position.

The pit strategy had Kenseth sitting 7th for the restart. Over the next run, Kenseth remained inside the top 10, until the caution came out on lap 384. Kenseth pitted under that caution for tires, fuel, and air pressure adjustments, but he was told by NASCAR  that he had been speeding while exiting pit road. The penalty left Kenseth restarting 20th, instead of 7th where he would have been. Despite his best efforts to get back inside the top 10, Kenseth was only able to pick up five more positions to finish 15th when the checkered flag waved. The finish, and the fact Kenseth’s teammate Greg Biffle had issues during the race, has bumped Kenseth to 10th in the standings, 293 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

11.) Greg Biffle – Stacie Ball
In the pre-race for the "Pretty Paperclip" of Martinsville Speedway, Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin really had no idea what to expect from the Tums Fast Relief 500. I think I was totally shocked when I got home to see that the 3M Ford Fusion was in the top 10 of the grid, in third to be exact. Saturday I was doubly shocked to see that they won the Happy Hour practice, being the fastest car on the track.  It actually gave me hope for the race; that hope quickly diminished as the race continued on.   

Biffle was able to hold on to a top-five position after starting third until the first caution on lap 47 but reported that the 3M Ford was a little tight in the center of the corners. The crew sent Biffle right back out in the fifth position for the restart on lap 54 after minor air pressure and wedge adjustments. The handling of the car did not seem to improve and Biffle had dropped back to 11th before the next caution came out on lap 110.

As the car was still too tight, Biffle pitted for four tires, wedge and track bar adjustments. The 3M Pit Bulls picked up six positions in the pits and sent Biffle out fifth for the restart on lap 116. A caution on lap 172 allowed him to pit for a track bar adjustment and the crew again picked up several positions in the pits.
Shortly after the pit stop, however, crew chief Erwin informed Biffle that he would have to come back to the pits and serve a penalty because one of the wheels did not have enough tight lugnuts. Over the course of the next 100 laps Biffle would run as high as 13th in the field despite another penalty for the crew going over the wall too soon for a pit stop on lap 211.

Biffle was just making his way back into the top 20 when he cut a tire on lap 349. The cut tire eventually damaged a sway bar arm, which meant a trip to the garage for repairs. The 3M team worked diligently to get the 3M Ford back out onto the racetrack. On lap 419, Biffle rejoined the field in the 36th position. He was 67 laps behind the leaders at the time but his return to the track gained the team three positions before the checkered flag for a 33rd-place finish.

“It was kind of unfortunate for us today,” said Biffle. “We had a right-front tire go down. I don’t know, but something happened to the car after that because it drug the suspension off or something trying to get to pit road. The good news is we qualified well and practiced well this weekend, but we still have to keep working on it.”

Biffle and the 3M team dropped to 11th in the point standings. They are 316 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and 113 points out of fifth. OK, so with only four races left in the Chase, I really do not know what to think. A couple weeks ago some of the ESPN NASCAR Now said anyone who was eighth and below were pretty much out of it, and I disagreed. Now I really think they are onto something, hoping Biffle and the rest of the guys in the lower four can prove them wrong. And I know he is out of the championship completely, for this season that is. Onto 2011!

12.) Clint Bowyer – Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer came into Martinsville on Thursday with high hopes. Even after the Richard Childress organization made the determination to switch the pit crews from the #29 and #33, Bowyer still believed in his ability to be competitive. Clint needed a strong finish in the Tums Fast Relief 500 to make a run on 11th place in the Chase standings. At the beginning of the race, the BB&T Chevrolet started in the 17th position; it was not a starting spot to write home about, but Bowyer was confident he could reach the front of the pack from there.

Clint made it to the top 10 on lap 151, after battling with the #20 of Joey Logano over the course of several laps. Over the next 40 laps, Bowyer made it through two yellow flags, hard racing, and lots of beating and banging on the track. On lap 193, in 13th position after losing track position during a pit stop, Clint had to hit the brakes to avoid the back end of the Kurt Busch-driven Blue Deuce. Bowyer locked the brakes up and found himself spinning hard into the outside wall in turn 4. As Clint drove it to the garage with major damage on the left side and rear of the car, he said “It's pretty bad, guys. Think it's totaled.”

Bowyer was not quite correct; the maroon BB&T #33 Richard Childress car made it back onto the track on lap 308, 114 laps down. Bowyer ended the race in the 38th position after the rear gear went out of the car. Clint is shown as completing 359 laps, 141 less than the scheduled 500 laps. Bowyer is scored as receiving just 49 points for his efforts in the TUMS Fast Relief 500, and falls further back in the points race. Clint Bowyer is now 406 points behind Points leader Jimmie Johnson, and 90 points out of 11th place.

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