It’s time to put a nice little bow on everything that happened yesterday at the Virginia paperclip.
This week, I’m going to do my rear-view post a little different. I’m going to do a driver-by-driver recap rather than a full race rundown. If you prefer one over the other, feel free to tell me in the comment section below.
Let’s start with the race winner Jeff Gordon. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet scored his 93rd career win after taking the lead from A. J. Allmendinger with 21 laps to go and also held off a final two-lap charge by Jamie McMurray to take the checkered flag.
“This is turning into one of those just incredible storybook finishes to this year, to this career,” Gordon said post-race. “Of all years, I mean, of all years, I cannot believe this. I’m so excited it’s happening in this year. That was clutch. That was huge. Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor. But you got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were. Our car was pretty solid all day. Our restarts were pretty good. We fought through some things. Our car was good on the long runs. We were having to make some adjustments there.”
It was his ninth win at Martinsville Speedway, a track that’s been his playground since his rookie season in 1993. He finishes his career with 37 top-10s at Martinsville, tying Richard Petty for most top-10 finishes at Martinsville – and 29 top-five finishes. At the end of the day, it’s incredible what this man has done at NASCAR’s last charter track in 23 years of racing and it’s a shame yesterday was his last.
More importantly, Gordon now has a chance to ride off into the Florida sunset with his fifth championship in three weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. You couldn’t write this fairytale ending any better regardless of how it ends. With his career stats at Homestead, it’s a good bet that he’ll be a threat to win the title.
Finishing runner-up to Big Daddy was Jamie McMurray. He put on his best performance of the season at a track that statistically has been his best. While he’s never won at Martinsville, it’s the only place he’s finished in the top-10 in over 50 percent of his starts (53.85 percent to be exact). If the outside line wasn’t the kiss of death at Martinsville, McMurray might have won the race. I base this on Gordon being notorious for bad restarts. Ironically, he said after the race that he wanted the outside line.
“When Jeff gave me the outside, I somewhat wanted that,” he said. “I struggled on the inside. Knowing it was just going to be a green-white-checkered, I thought I might be able to get around him. Honestly, it was really hard to see. I had like a light smoke visor on. It was hard to see with your visor up. When I shut it with one to go, it was really dark. I was a little bit nervous. I haven’t done a restart in the new restart zone. It was kind of hard to see where exactly the restart zone was. Had a lot on my mind there. I drove as hard as I could. Jeff was on the outside. His car stuck a little bit better than mine. I was hoping I could just get close enough to him down the backstretch that I could make some more drama for today versus what we already had. I spun the tires really bad off turn two and wasn’t able to get to his back.”
I’ve always believed that if the Ganassi cars could have a little more performance, he and Kyle Larson would win races on a more consistent basis. I also believe that next season will be the one where McMurray goes from being a journeyman to being a serious championship contender.
After being hit with two speeding penalties, Denny Hamlin rallied to a podium finish. Granted, frequent cautions and few lead lap cars allowed him to get back to the front more quickly, but to do that at Martinsville is commendable.
More and more, I’m continually amazed by the maturity that has taken over Kyle Busch. I remember last season at Bristol in August when Busch got busted for speeding and his night just fell apart. It climaxed with then crew chief Dave Rodgers telling him to “take your whiny little ass to the bus.” He then parked his car at the entrance to the garage area, got out of his car and got the hell out of Dodge.
Yesterday, he ran over a patch of water next to the curb, got loose, hit Austin Dillon and sent both of them spinning.
“We spun him out, spun myself out, had some damage to the car after that,” he said in his media availability. “Just didn’t quite feel right after. I’m not sure what bent, but something was definitely amiss on the front end.”
Instead of coming apart, he kept his eye on the prize and rallied to a fifth-place finish.
“Can’t say enough about our guys,” he added. “They did a great job. Come home with a top five. We’re thrilled with that and time to move on.”
Was there ever a time you could have seen Busch actually doing that or be glad that he got a good finish? This is the same Kyle Busch that not long ago would have responded to a runner-up finish with “yeah, but we didn’t win.” I don’t know if it was breaking his leg at Daytona in February or the birth of his son Brexton, but he’s truly become a more humble, likable driver.
There was also a career milestone for Anthony Wayne “Tony” Stewart. Just driving from last to a 10th-place finish at Martinsville is great no matter the driver. But this top-10 finish gave Smoke his 300th career top-10 finish in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. That’s a career average of 51.11 percent of his finishes being in the top-10. Given how his season – and honestly, his last three seasons – has played out, this is great for a man who’s retiring after 2016.
I’m not going to touch on the incident between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano because for me to do so would be too hypocritical. But I will touch on the comments made by Hamlin.
“It’s a no-holds-barred, Wild, Wild West,” said Hamlin. “The structure…we have around us is not very strong as far as an authority figure saying, ‘No, you cannot do that anymore.’ I love Brian France, but when he says that drivers are ‘doing what they have to do,’ it seems like he’s promoting this type of racing. It’s tough to crown a true champion when things go like this.”
While Hamlin is entitled to that belief, I’m getting real sick and tired of these drivers saying they can’t police themselves and that NASCAR needs to do it for them. I think Dave Moody put it best with this statement. “Brian France and Mike Helton don’t drive race cars. Drivers do. These are grown men (and women) who can handle their own affairs, both on and off the race track. They do not need an ‘authority figure’ to teach them right from wrong.”
As much as I love Formula 1, I do get real tired of seeing the stewards like Charlie Whiting having to settle the disputes of grown adult men. I’ve always loved that NASCAR tends to let the drivers settle the matter among themselves and only step in when it goes a little too far.
That should just about do it for everything that happened at Martinsville. Next up, NASCAR heads to the Lone Star State to run the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. That begins Sunday at 2:00 p.m. on NBC.
*The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and may not reflect the views of Speedway Media.