From the first short track of the season with the grandfather clock as the trophy, here is what was surprising and not surprising from Martinsville Speedway’s STP 500.
Surprising: Denny Hamlin embarked on his own version of the ‘Drive for Five’ while the driver trying for his fifth championship doomed his own chances of winning with a pit road speeding penalty late in the race.
“Well, by no means did we have a smooth race at all, and we still won,” the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota said after his fifth win at Martinsville. “So that to me shows what we’re capable of, and once we get everything worked out the way it needs to be and we’re back to our normal selves on pit road and we don’t have any penalties and everything just runs a smooth race, we can win a lot of these things.”
Conversely, Jeff Gordon, with an eye on a fifth championship in his last full-time season, doomed his victory chances with a pit road speeding penalty on Lap 462, finishing in the ninth position in his No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so disappointed in myself,” Gordon said. “I felt like we finally got the car, got ourselves in a position to win the race. I knew I was pushing the limit but I didn’t think I had done anything different than I had all day. I’m very, very disappointed.”
Not Surprising: Although Chase Elliott made his first Cup debut, qualifying his way into the show, he joined his Hendrick teammates in having unusual struggles at Martinsville.
Elliott finished 38th after some damage sustained early in the race, while teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. suffered not only damage from incidents on the track. but also mechanical problems to finish 35th and 36th respectively.
“A lot of guys I think were having some transmission or gear problems,” Junior said. “We got some real bad vibration in the car 30 laps into the race and it just kept breaking the shifter. It was just swinging up there like a tuning fork.”
“It was a tough race.”
Surprising: While Team Penske seemed to experience some moral dilemmas about wrecking, they still managed to finish in the second and third positions respectively.
Brad Keselowski, on one hand, wrestled with his conscience as to whether or not he should wreck Denny Hamlin for the win, while his teammate Joey Logano was hoping beyond hope that Keselowski and Hamlin would wreck each other so that he could have the win and the weekend of his life.
“I did everything I could other than wreck him,” the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford said after the race. “Morals and racing are pretty subjective, but I just felt like I raced him the way I wanted to be raced and I guess that is what it is.”
“I was hoping so,” the driver of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford said when asked if he thought Keselowski and Hamlin might wreck each other. “That was my only shot at it once they got pretty far away.”
“That was the only shot I had for the win.”
Not Surprising: In NASCAR, records are made to be surpassed and broken and both happened at Martinsville. Martin Truex Jr. continued his streak of consecutive top-10 finishes for the sixth race in a row, while Kevin Harvick’s streak of top-2 finishes came to an end with his eighth place run.
“It is awesome,” Truex Jr. said of his top-10 streak. “I can’t say enough about the team. Again to battle like we did today. We showed we never give up. We haven’t all year long. We haven’t given up on each other since I started here.”
“It feels good to have another good run at one of my worst race tracks,” Truex continued. “Just can’t believe we were able to stay on the lead lap, fix the power steering and all that and drive back through there. It was a hell of an effort.”
Although Harvick led the most laps, 154 of 500, the driver of the No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet lost track position on a late-race restart and simply could not recover.
“I just got hung on the outside and couldn’t get back down,” Harvick said. “By the time I got down, I was 10th or 11th.”
“Everybody did a good job, just lost track position at the wrong time.”
Surprising: NASCAR seems to be in significant need of recovery, with the announcement of J. D. Gibbs facing a significant health issue and Kyle Larson fainting during an autograph session.
“We’ve been dealing with this for about six months and basically what the doctor’s say is that they really don’t know,” Coach Joe Gibbs said of his son’s situation. “J.D. has lived a very active lifestyle. All the things that he’s done in his life physically he’s loved all sporting events and it’s everything from football to snowboarding, racing cars, racing motor bikes – he’s lived in a lot of ways for him, he loved all those things.”
“We can’t point to any one serious thing that happened to him, certainly any injury is a possibility that led us into some of the symptoms that he’s experiencing now.”
In addition to Gibbs, Kyle Larson suffered his own surprising health symptoms after passing out prior to the Martinsville race.
After fainting at an autograph session in Martinsville, VA, Kyle Larson was first evaluated at a local hospital in Martinsville and ultimately evaluated at a Charlotte hospital,” Chip Ganassi Racing said in a prepared statement prior to the race. “Although all tests came back negative and Larson feels completely fine, the doctors felt he should be held for more testing.”
Regan Smith, sub extraordinaire, filled Larson’s seat and after starting from the back of the field in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, managed a respectable 16th place finish.
Not Surprising: In spite of scoring his first ever top-five at Martinsville, David Ragan had nothing but thoughts of Kyle Busch, for whom he continues to substitute in the No. 18 M&M’s Crispy Toyota, and his recovery from injuries sustained at Daytona.
“I just hope I helped the 18 team for the Chase race later in the year,” Ragan said. “We’ll enjoy Easter and I cannot wait to get to Texas.”
Surprising: Smoke surprisingly got in the eyes of both Austin Dillon and AJ Allmendinger. The two Chevrolet drivers both had motor issues that determined their 41st and 43rd place finishes.
“I’m not sure what the exact problem was with the motor,” Allmendinger, driver of the No. 47 Bush’s Beans Chevrolet said. “I noticed some smoke start rolling in the car and I could see it start out of the back of the car.”
“I was smoking so bad they black flagged me.”
“Yeah it was a motor issue,” Dillon, driver of the No. 3 Cheerios Chevrolet, said. “I think the same things as the No. 47. We just have to do a better job of going through our procedures at ECR right now. We have some power but we are not finishing races.”
Not Surprising: It was a weekend of celebration for the Gilliland family, with dad David, in his 300th Cup start, having his best run ever at Martinsville with a 25th place finish and 14 year-old-son son Todd winning his first Late Model Stock Car race at Southern National Motorsports Park.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Gilliland, driver of the No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, said. “The pit stops were good and this was the best I’ve personally ever run here, so we’ll build from it.”
“And I couldn’t be prouder of my son,” Gilliland continued. “He’s a great young man and a great race car driver. I think he proved a lot with his win.”
“I’m so glad I was racing in Martinsville this weekend so I could drive down to see this race.”
Surprising: The penalty of uncontrolled tires in the pits continued to dominate. There were five such penalties in the Martinsville race, adding to the total of 21 of these out-of-control tires for the season.
Not Surprising: Danica Patrick about summed it all up at Martinsville. When asked, how she avoided the wrecking on the track, she asked “Well, which one are you talking about?”
“That’s kind of the way it goes at Martinsville,” the driver of the No. 10 TaxAct Chevrolet said. “I think all four corners were banged up.”
“It’s all a matter of luck, too,” Patrick continued. “I could have got drilled from the back and hit into the car. I could have swerved to the right and had somebody clip my right rear and spun, somebody could have been out there.”
“Crashes are about observing where you’re at and making a good decision about where to go, but they’re also about luck. I got lucky that there was nothing in my way to get around that one. That would have probably wrecked my day.”
Patrick finished seventh at the track known as the ‘Paper Clip’, tying her second-best career finish in the Cup Series.