Even before the race, the infamous short-track tempers were flaring with Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle getting into it on and off the track during practice. Here is what was surprising and not surprising when the green flag flew for the 63rd annual Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”236″][/media-credit]Surprising: It was most surprising that at race end, Victory Lane was more like a Food Network ‘Throwdown with Bobby Flay’ show, with victor Tony Stewart challenging current point’s leader Carl Edwards regarding the Chase.
With his win, Stewart felt free to throw down the Chase gauntlet, climbing two positions to the second spot in the Chase standings. Smoke is now just eight points out of first place, where Carl Edwards currently resides.
“He’d better be worried,” Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, said of Edwards in Victory Lane. “That’s all I can say. He’s not going to have an easy three weeks.”
“This is the best Chase field we’ve ever had,” Stewart continued. “To be in the position that we’re in right now, sitting here knowing that we’re right in the middle of this thing with three weeks to go, it’s obviously a great feeling and a great position to be in.”
“We’ve just got to go out and keep doing what we’re doing here.”
This was Stewart’s third victory of the season, as well as his third win in 26 races at Martinsville Speedway. The forty-year old has now won 42 times in 461 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
Not Surprising: In spite of some Martinsville mayhem, the momentum that has been Carl Edwards throughout the Chase, was maintained, although greatly challenged. The driver of the No. 99 Scotts Winterguard Fertilizer Ford, who was lapped twice during the race and almost penalized for jumping a restart, finished respectably, albeit his worst Chase finish to date, in the ninth position.
“This track has just been really, really tough for me,” Edwards said after the race. “So I think this is one of those days where everything went wrong and everything went right as well.”
Also not surprisingly, Edwards seemed in no way fazed by Stewart’s ‘throw down’ challenges regarding the championship Chase. And he laid down his own challenge as well.
“I told you I thought he was one of the guys that could win this race and be a guy that you’d have to beat for the championship,” Edwards said of Smoke. “I think he’s proving that right now.”
“We’ll go race hard,” Edwards continued. “They’re gonna have to race us too, so I’m excited about the next three races.”
Surprising: It was most surprising to see just how aggressively Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran his Martinsville race. In fact at one point he quipped that he might become known as a ‘dirty driver’ if there were more short tracks like Martinsville on the Cup schedule.
Junior, who finished seventh in his No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Paint the 88/National Guard Chevrolet, seemed absolutely pleased that the race was as chaotic as it was.
“Well, it’s time man,” Junior said. “That right there was basically, hey the season is running down and we are not going to be racing much longer and I am going to miss it so I came to the buffet and got everything I could eat.”
“I drank a couple of AMPs before the race started and probably was a little bit too excited,” Junior also confessed.
Not Surprising: It was not surprising that the so-called ‘Masters of Martinsville’, teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, came ever so close to getting Hendrick Motorsports that coveted 200th win.
Johnson, who finished second in his No. 48 MyLowe’s Chevrolet, posted his 18th top-10 finish in 20 races at Martinsville. Gordon, piloting the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, finished third, his 31st top-10 finish in 38 races at Martinsville Speedway.
In spite of not achieving the 200th HMS win milestone, Gordon in particular still made history. Gordon made his 650th start, as well as becoming the fourth driver to lead more than 3,000 laps at Martinsville Speedway.
“Gosh we came so close to getting win 200 for Rick Hendrick,” Gordon said. “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,” Gordon continued. “It just seemed like the last couple of runs just didn’t quite go our way.”
“So, we came home third and it was a nice top five for us.”
For his part, five-time champ Jimmie Johnson was just trying to mind his ‘P’s and Q’s’, especially when it came time to race with Stewart for the win.
“I just wanted to do the right thing and unfortunately got beat in the process,” Johnson said of his battle with Smoke. “Thought about going in there and leaning on him but that was just not the right thing to do.”
Surprising: It was surprising to see the moniker of good guy ‘Sheriff’ usually worn by Brian Vickers change to the villain of the short track. Vickers was at the heart of many of the race cautions, finally succumbing to the damage and taking his ailing No. 83 Red Bull Toyota off the track.
Chaser Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford, was one of Vicker’s victims. He finished the race 31st thanks to his on-track incident, falling three spots to fifth in the championship standings.
“The 83 car hit me about twice a lap every lap for about ten laps,” Kenseth said. “So, it made me mad.”
“By the looks of his car, I wasn’t the first one he hit.”
Jamie McMurray, in the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevrolet was also involved in an incident with the No. 83 car. The crash with Vickers early in the race effectively ended McMurray’s day, relegating him to a 35th place finish.
“When you don’t feel like you have the corner good, you block,” Vickers said. “I pulled down and blocked and I saw he (Brian Vickers) was going to get in there, so I moved back up the track.”
“I feel like he let off the brake and went ahead and sent me for a ride,” Vickers continued. “I just felt like he kind of took a cheap shot on me and I just didn’t appreciate it.”
Not Surprising: After winning his first ever Truck Series race at the short track, Denny Hamlin went on to have a great run in the Cup race. The driver of the No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota Camry finished fifth, his first top-five in the 2011 Chase.
“We had a great race car today,” Hamlin said. “I felt like the best car most of the day.”
“We thought it was a blessing that last stop when we beat the 24 (Jeff Gordon) out – the pit crew did an amazing job,” Hamlin continued. “It was the dagger for us because it put us on the outside line with those guys that stayed out.”
“We just needed to start on the bottom one or two of those restarts – then we would have been fine.”
Surprising: It was almost spooky to watch the tricks played on Kyle Busch in his No. 18 M&M’s Halloween Toyota Camry late in the race. He and driver Matt Kenseth got into each other during a restart and then Busch lost a tire after leaving the pits for the repair as he was trying to stay on the lead lap.
“The M&M’s Toyota Camry was really fast,” crew chief Dave Rogers said. “We led the most laps again, the second time this year that we’ve led the most laps at Martinsville.”
“That’s just hard racing out there,” Rogers continued. “We were a victim of circumstance at a short track.”
Not Surprising: After an admittedly miserable season, it was not surprising that Jeff Burton, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, continued to turn it around with another good run. Burton followed his second place finish last weekend at Talladega with a sixth place finish at Martinsville, his third top-10 finish for the season.
“I can’t be too unhappy with finishing sixth because the Cat team worked their tails off to get us in position at the end to win this thing,” Burton said. “That last caution probably didn’t help us, but it was another solid finish.”
Surprising: Surprising kudos to Casey Mears, driver of the No. 13 Geico Toyota Camry , who scored his best finish of the season to date. The Germain Racing driver, cheered on by crew chief Bootie Barker, finished 12th at the Martinsville short track.
“I’m so proud of all the guys on this Geico racing team,” Mears said. “We’ve known all year that we could run this well and it’s a nice feeling to have two weeks in a row where we have run up front.”
Not Surprising: A.J. Allmendinger continued his strong run, finishing 11th, just shy of another top-10 finish. In fact, the Dinger’s No. 43 AdvoCare Ford Fusion looked to be the car to beat until a late race altercation, as well as some slower pit stops, relegated him further back in the pack.
“That’s Martinsville,” Allmendinger said simply. “It was a really good car.”
“I was proud of all the guys,” Allmendinger continued. “We’ve got to work on our pit stops a little bit because we kept losing a couple of spots, but what really hurt us was I got put three-wide on the outside and got into one and that shoved the fender over the tire and from there, we were at the back of the pack and everybody was just gauging back there.”
Surprising: Brad Keselowski’s Cinderella carriage turned into a bit of a pumpkin at Martinsville. The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger had a good run going, but ended up finishing 17th.
“That’s racing on these short tracks,” Keselowski said. “We got some good racing in the middle section of the race, but at the end we just didn’t catch a break.”
“It will come back around for the Miller Lite Dodge team,” Keselowski continued. “We came up a few laps short.”
Not Surprising: Kevin Harvick continued his reign as the ‘Closer’, finishing fourth in his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet. Happy has now finished in the top five for three consecutive races at Martinsville.
“It was definitely a battle,” Harvick said. “Everybody was driving hard.”
“That is what you are supposed to do here at Martinsville.”