Monday, October 31, 2011

Skirts and Scuffs Takes on The Chase: Tony Stewart emerging as a title contender

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
The short track of Martinsville threw many of the Chase contenders into a tailspin - the beating and banging is akin to racing at 200 mph with bumper cars. A total of 18 cautions slowed the action, though many of the cautions involved several Chase contenders.

Walking away from Martinsville disappointed: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch. Though Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman also were involved in accidents, they were all able to collect themselves and rebound for strong finishes and more importantly, maintain their points positions.

Tony Stewart got his third win of the Chase and has issued a warning to points leader Carl Edwards for the final three races. Only three tracks remain, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, and the Chase is still an open battle.

1. Carl Edwards – Still atop the board with 3 to go – By Melissa Wright

Carl Edwards went into Martinsville determined to stay on top of the points lead even though that track just isn't very fair to the Roush Fenway organization. Edwards and his team fought quite the battle in the TUMS Fast Relief 500. The weekend started off on the wrong foot, with rain that allowed them only one practice session and qualifying was canceled. The advantage Edwards had at this point was his starting position on the pole, per NASCAR's rulebook. Throughout the race, he had some issues with his car being too tight and snug in the center. Then at one point he stated that his car after adjustments on a pit stop was more competitive than the last run.

In a heated battle for position with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Edwards came over the radio and said, “That 88 needs to lay off a little bit or he's going to get wrecked!” He paused and then asked his spotter Jason Hedlesky, “Did you tell the 88 what I said?” Hedlesky responded, “Not yet.” Edwards went on to say, "Just asking for a little relief on that curb.” Evidently an unhappy Earnhardt Jr. commented on his radio and told his crew, “That damn 99 wore the left side out.”

When at Martinsville there are a few key things that you need to remember. One is to keep your fenders on, two is to manage the right side of your car and three, accept being bumped. You'll use up your equipment real quick. Among 17 cautions, Edwards didn't pit every time but on one stop, Lap 198, he pitted for four tires and an air pressure adjustment. It was a slow stop after a lug nut went behind the wheel on the left rear. Edwards told his crew to brush it off; it was just bad luck. He restarted in 26th position. This was the furthest back in the pack he had been all day. Not much longer after that he was lapped by leader Kevin Harvick. He quickly gained his lap back after a spin by Hermie Sadler. Edwards restarted as the lucky dog in 23rd.

He commented about hanging around in the back of the pack as if he were drafting at Talladega. Edwards said, “Last week we were trying to ride around the back, this week we're not. Just trying to catch a break.” As the field was settling up once again, Edwards was instructed by NASCAR to pull up not once but twice, “You’ve got to pass the 31.” Edwards drove around the outside of Burton right as the green was coming out. NASCAR black-flagged him for what appeared to be a jump on the restart. Edwards was beyond irritated. He shouts over his radio, “They told us twice to pull up! They better review that!” After review, NASCAR rescinded the penalty.

Down to the final 19 laps of the race, Edwards was up to 13th after being lapped not once but on two different occasions. It wasn't long before he finally cracked back into the top 10. His front rotors were glowing more than they had all day. Edwards was told to just be smart and that some of the guys were simply losing their heads out there. As Edwards crossed the finish line, he got on the radio and asked what position he was in. He was told they finished in 9th and he replied, “That's a good day, a really, really good day.” Not only that, he's still the points leader by eight points over race winner Tony Stewart.

Edwards said after the race, “That’s just a gift to have finished in ninth and have the day we had.  Did Tony have to come in and pit? I saw on a replay it’s like he cut a tire or something and had to pit and came back through the field somehow. That was our strategy. We were gonna do the same thing we did last week and just cruise around the back and wait for everything to work out. It was a lot of work. We did not deserve to finish ninth. I’m just proud of my guys for sticking with it. Bob did a good job of keeping me calm and now we go to Texas. I’m really excited about Texas.”

2. Tony Stewart (-8) Three wins in the Chase and sights set on Edwards – By Amanda Ebersole

Headed into Martinsville, Tony Stewart was fourth in points and 19 points behind the leader. Now with another win under his hat, Stewart has jumped to second and just 8 behind. Eight points and three races ... that equals a wild finish to the 2011 Chase to the Sprint Cup.

Stewart pulled off the win with an amazing last-lap pass on Jimmie Johnson, a move not just any driver would be able to complete. Looking back, Stewart seemed surprised he was able to pull it off. “I don’t know because I don’t think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside so, just determination, I don’t think we had the best racecar today by any means, but we had the most determined pit crew to get it as good as they can get it. I was pretty mad all day, but I was the only guy who didn’t get in a wreck with somebody, so I was kind of proud of that. Just this Office Depot/ Mobil 1 Chevy, Hendrick engines and chassis and Darin Grubb and all these guys at Stewart-Haas racing, just an awesome group of people.”

After the race, Stewart said of the fight ahead, “Carl Edwards had better be real worried. That’s all I’ve got to say. He’s not going to sleep for the next three weeks.”

As the series heads to Texas, Stewart looks to gain some ground on Edwards, but the match-up is about dead even.

3. Kevin Harvick (-21) A hard-fought battle for 4th - By Amanda Ebersole

After a difficult start to the weekend, Kevin Harvick rebounded with a top-10 finish at Martinsville.

Battling with a loose car throughout Sunday's race, Harvick steered clear of the numerous cautions and brought home a fourth-place finish, leaving him in the title hunt.

“It was definitely a battle. Everybody was driving hard. That is what you are supposed to do here at Martinsville. I know the guys did a good job making the cars better and we got good track position. The No. 31 (Jeff Burton) helped us on that last restart there to get down, I really appreciate that. Just the top was tough for me to get going on the restarts. The No. 14 (Tony Stewart, race winner) was really the only one that could make any ground on the restarts and that is what won him the race. All-in-all, everybody on our Budweiser Chevy did a good job.”

4. Brad Keselowski (-27) A lap short but still in the battle - By Holly Machuga 

Martinsville has always proven to be a rough track for Brad Keselowski, and it was unrelenting this past weekend. After qualifying well (3rd), the team finished a disappointing 17th. Keselowski was spun on the final lap and the caution flag didn’t fly.

"That's racing on these short tracks," Keselowski said, "It will come back around for [our] team. We got some good racing in the middle section of the race, got good lanes that we needed, but at the end we just didn't catch a break. That's just this style of racing. You can't control your own fate. The car came to us, the track came to us. The guys had a good plan. Our [car] was a top-10 car. We came up a few laps short."

5. Matt Kenseth (-36) –Leaving Martinsville a bit battered - By Lindi Bess

Matt Kenseth was recently asked if he has given himself the chance to think about becoming the 2011 Sprint Cup champion. Kenseth’s response was, "You can't help but think about it a little when you are asked about it. You realize you are in the Chase and running good but I honestly don't spend much time thinking about it at all. I am glad we are in the mix but ... there is a ton of racing to do and it really doesn't matter until we get to Homestead where we are."

When the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Fusion pulled into Victory Lane back in Charlotte, things were looking up for Matt Kenseth and his team. Even finishing 18th the following weekend at Talladega, Kenseth still held onto his second-place spot in the 2011 Chase. With a little push and a lot of support, Kenseth took the first lap at Martinsville from his starting position on the outside pole. The No. 17 seemed to be on his way to a strong finish as he held on, remaining in the top 10 through the first 400+ laps. Involved in the normal "bumping and grinding" throughout the race, things were looking pretty good for the Crown Royal Ford Fusion. On Lap 464, Kenseth was involved in a wreck with Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch, bringing out a caution. Kenseth’s car was destroyed with only 34 laps to go. 

With a broken traction bar, brake issues and body damage, the team headed to the garage with the hopes of at least getting back out and finishing the race. The No. 17 Ford Fusion team pieced Humpty Dumpty back together again and Kenseth returned to the track 23 laps down with five laps to go. Kenseth finished in 31st.

After the race, Kenseth was asked to talk about his team repairing the car and being able to get him back out on track. "It's disappointing. I obviously did a poor job today,” said Kenseth. “We were really bad on used tires if we had a restart like we were in practice and we kept getting the outside every time.  That's such a disadvantage on the outside, unless you have a real fast car, which we really didn't. It was a struggle all day.  Obviously, I didn't make good decisions and we ended up in a bad spot. I wish I could do some things over and try again, but we can't do that. We raced hard all day. I thought we had pretty good track position at times and just couldn't capitalize on it."

The Roush Fenway Royal Crown Ford Fusion lost three positions in the standings after Martinsville, but will finish the season with three strong tracks for Kenseth. Remaining are Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, which are all tracks where Kenseth has previously won. Although 36 points out of first, Kenseth is not out of the Chase yet. His RFR teammate Carl Edwards is barely holding onto first place after a ninth-place finish. Jack Roush still may have a chance of snatching that trophy from Hendrick Motorsports.

6. Jimmie Johnson (-43) - Racing like a true champion until the end - By Unique Hiram

Jimmie Johnson was content with his second-place finish at the conclusion of the TUMS Fast Relief 500 in Martinsville. Due to a gutsy call by No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus, he was able to be in the lead on the final restart; however, Tony Stewart was able to pass him on the outside to take the lead from him. Johnson wanted to race “Smoke” clean to the checkered flag, especially because of where the No. 14 was sitting in the points standings.  

“We had a great race car all day long. Chad made a great call. I thought it was going to bite us, staying out like we did; and with all the cautions that gave us an opportunity to win the race. And Tony hung on tough on the outside there and I just couldn’t bring myself to leaning on him and moving him out of the way with where he is in the points. I just kind of race him clean and then he got around on the outside and got in front of us.”

The five-time Sprint Cup champion is feeling very confident about the remaining tracks left in the season schedule and will maintain his fighting spirit until the checkered flag waves at Homestead. Johnson had this to say in that regard: “Yeah, definitely, we are really happy with all the tracks left on the schedule, so that we have a chance to win quite a few races that are left, certainly need to in the position we are in, in points, there is no telling what is going to happen in front of us, but we are going to fight as hard as we can for every race win, every point, and just see where we end up. Of course we want to win the championship but if that door closes on us, we want to finish as high as we possibly can in the points and certainly win as many races as we can. Looking forward to great tracks and ready to get going.”

He has moved up from the seventh to sixth position in the standings, 43 points behind leader Carl Edwards.

7. Kyle Busch (-57) - Busch was merely collateral damage - By LJ Cloud

Kyle Busch followed in his older brother's footsteps ... er ... tire tracks ... by having a tire leave his car during a Chase race. He did not, however, have his brother's good fortune to have that wheel roll back onto the car (seriously, how DID that happen?), and ended up with a 27th-place finish in the mayhem that was Martinsville.

Busch started in sixth place and led four times for 126 laps total. The No. 18 M&Ms Chevrolet ran well and Busch seemed poised to contend for the win. However, when Matt Kenseth locked up his brakes on Lap 464, Busch got caught up the ensuing crash. The pit stop that followed will likely haunt the No. 18 team until Daytona next season. Concerned with losing a lap, the jack dropped before the front tire changer got all the lug nuts tightened. As Busch was getting back on the track, the left front tire came off, bounced into the wall and back onto the track, forcing Busch to limp back to the pits.

Dropping from 6th to 7th in driver's points, Busch sits 57 points behind leader Carl Edwards with only three races to go in the Chase. It would take an epic and highly unlikely combination of events for him to win the championship at this point. 

8. Kurt Busch (-58)  – “It was a wash” – By Lacy Keyser

Kurt Busch had an eventful day at Martinsville. He started off the race battling hard with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for position. Earnhardt Jr. ended up hitting the curb and bounced up and hit Busch, causing both to spin out. However, while Earnhardt would be sent to the back, Busch received no damage and kept his position in the front. Busch seemed to have an OK car when on Lap 427 Paul Menard got into him, causing Busch to spin out and hit Jeff Burton in the process. Busch’s chances of winning the race were over.

Busch finished 14th and sits 8th in the points as they stand.

Busch said of his bad luck, "We had a little bit of everything today with our Shell/Pennzoil Dodge. We struggled a little bit during the middle part of the race and lost a lap, but we took the wave around, caught a caution and made it up. I really hate I got into Jeff Burton, but the 39 got into me and I got into Jeff. Paul Menard got into us and I spun out. The car was fine, but nobody would let you get to the inside. We decided to go for it on that last caution and got tires. We came in 14th and finished 14th, so it was a wash. We’ll try to make up some points next week at Texas.”

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-73) – A man on a mission at Martinville – By Katy Lindamood

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. exited his No. 88 Chevy early Sunday evening, it was evident that he had enjoyed the race. Although he didn't have anything for the 14, 48, and 24 in the closing laps, Earnhardt Jr. was satisfied that his team had been able to rebound from two early race incidents to finish within the top 10. His Diet Mountain Dew Paint the 88 ride showed battle scars, but it could have been a lot worse given the multitude of cautions seen during the 500-lap race.

After qualifying was rained out on Friday, Earnhardt Jr. was slated to start in the ninth position alongside teammate Jeff Gordon. From the green flag it was a slugfest, with drivers beating and banging within the confines of the shortest track on the circuit. The first caution of the night came out on Lap 9 when, while battling Kurt Busch for position, Earnhardt Jr. hopped the curb and went for a spin. Although his car was not damaged during the initial accident, the No. 88 stopped in the middle of the track. There was nowhere for Jeff Gordon to go and the two made brief contact. Gordon's car fared much worse and made several pit stops in an effort to fix the damage. The Earnhardt Jr. team was able to stay on the lead lap and exited pit road in the 31st position, though the team was forced to the rear for pitting before pit road had opened.

From that point forward, Earnhardt Jr. acted like a man on a mission, making his way through the field. Ruffling a few feathers along the way, Earnhardt Jr. was enjoying the race and at one point on his radio he told his team that if there were more short tracks on the circuit, he might just earn a bad reputation. The team found themselves in the middle of another yellow flag on Lap 151 when hard racing between the driver and Joey Logano caused the No. 20 to spin. Earnhardt would later comment that he may have been a little too amped up at the beginning of the event.

Although he was involved in two cautions and caused his share of ire from other drivers, Earnhardt Jr. finished the TUMS Fast Relief 500 in the seventh position. He failed to lead any laps or make up any positions in the Chase, but his comments after the race told a story of a man who had fun and counts himself fortunate to have finished well in both Martinsville races in 2011. “You just know what you are going to get when you show up here," Earnhardt Jr. said. "You know what is going to happen and there is no real surprises and for a long, long time I have been coming here and able to drive really good cars. I haven’t come here and run like crap all weekend and struggled in the race. I have been really lucky to drive some really good cars the last 10 years and that makes it a lot of fun too.”

10. Jeff Gordon (-76) – Gordon rebounds from early damage to finish 3rd – By Amanda Ebersole

Short-track racing results in damage, but Jeff Gordon found it early in the first laps of Sunday's TUMS Relief 500 as a result of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. hitting the curbing. Gordon sustained damage to his brake duct area, but was fortunate that it was relatively minor.

“Yeah, I got caught up in that incident early on. It looked like Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. got into the curb a little bit getting into (Turn) 1 and we just had nowhere to go. I probably should have went low, but I chose to get out of the way of the guys behind me and I center-punched him. We’re pretty lucky. That right-front brake duct was tore up pretty good and at this place, cooling those brakes is pretty important. And I beat it up. I ran it as hard as I possibly could to get our Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet back to the front. It was pretty fun coming up through there and getting up to the front and leading. It just seemed like the last couple of runs just didn’t quite go our way. So we came home third. It was a nice top five for us.”

Overcoming his early challenges, Gordon went onto to contend for the win and bring home a 3rd place finish.

11. Denny Hamlin (-80) – A strong weekend for Hamlin at his home track – By Genevieve Cadorette

Denny Hamlin won Saturday night's truck race in Martinsville, which gave him a little inspiration for Sunday's Cup race. Because of rain, the Cup qualifying was canceled and Hamlin started the race in the 11th position.
Hamlin was involved in a slight altercation early on when Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounced off Turn 1 to send Kurt Busch spinning. Hamlin got caught up in the incident and was stopped on the track. He pitted on Lap 17 but was then penalized for pitting too soon.

Although Hamlin ran as low as 34th, he finally found himself leading by the 63rd lap; he led the leaders to pit road on Lap 68 and got track bar and air pressure adjustments. He lost the lead but stayed within the top 5.

Hamlin battled with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon for third position and eventually got around Johnson for third. He found the leader's spot again by Lap 320 and held onto it even through a pit stop after a caution brought out by David Gilliland. Hamlin brought the field to the green until the next turn of events, when Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman had contact and brought out the caution on Lap 414.

Hamlin battled for position with Hendrick Motorsports drivers Johnson and Gordon. He fell back to the eighth position but flew past seventh and sixth with 10 laps to go. In the end, he finished fifth. 

Hamlin and the No. 11 team are still in 11th position, trailing 80 points behind points leader Carl Edwards.

12. Ryan Newman (-89) Top-10 finish after a topsy-turvy day – By Rebecca Kivak

In my preview for Ryan Newman, I predicted the driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation Chevrolet would leave Martinsville Speedway with a top-10 finish if he could avoid mechanical failures and take care of his brakes. Newman did that and more, rallying back from a late-race spin to finish 10th in Sunday’s TUMS Relief 500.

Newman had a topsy-turvy day at the Virginia short track. The Stewart-Haas driver started 12th by virtue of owner points after Sprint Cup qualifying was rained out. Once the green flag dropped Sunday, Newman spent much of the first 50 laps in the top 10. When the fourth caution came out on Lap 65, crew chief Tony Gibson made the call for the No. 39 to stay out, giving Newman the race lead. Newman led twice Sunday for 41 laps.

After a promising start, however, the No. 39’s handling changed for the worse. Newman battled a tight condition throughout the second half of the race, falling outside the top 10. While running 14th on Lap 475, Newman spun out after making contact with fellow Chase contender Kurt Busch, bringing out the race’s 17th caution. Newman was forced to restart 20th with only 22 laps to go. But Newman, a driver with a reputation for racing hard, fought his way back up through the field. In the last 10 laps, he drove from 14th to finish 10th.

The hard-fought finish was Newman’s third top 10 in the Chase, but the driver of the No. 39 failed to gain any ground in the standings. He remains at the bottom of the points in the 12th spot, 89 points behind leader Carl Edwards.

Newman’s crew chief Gibson said after the race, “We got spun there. We had fresh tires and got spun out there and had to go to the back and drove back up to the top 10. I don’t know what else you can do, you know. We led laps. Disappointing, that’s all.”

As the series packs up their boots and heads towards Texas, will Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart be the drivers to watch? Stay tuned to Skirts and Scuffs on Friday morning as we preview the Chase drivers headed into TMS.

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