Paperclips, hot dogs, and close racing. These are all the ingredients of another exciting Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway, the oldest track in NASCAR. The 67th annual STP 500, the second oldest race in all of NASCAR, is in the books. Here is what was surprising and not surprising from Sunday’s event.
Surprising: Kyle Busch finally won his first Sprint Cup race at Martinsville in his 22nd attempt. It’s his 35th Sprint Cup win and yet another weekend sweep as “Rowdy” had won the Camping World Truck Series race the day before.
Busch, who is a month shy of his 31st birthday, has won 169 national touring series races (Cup, XFINITY, and Truck) in just 13 full time seasons. He is only 41 wins away from Richard Petty’s mark of 200, a record nobody thought could ever be broken. That being said, if Cup races were only being counted, Busch would need to win 165 more races to reach Petty’s 200; a near impossibility that would require Busch to go undefeated for nearly five seasons.
Busch is also very close to becoming the first driver in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972 on) to have won at every single track he has ever raced at in Sprint Cup. The only tracks he hasn’t won at are Kansas, Pocono, and Charlotte. He’s already won at both Kansas and Charlotte multiple times in XFINITY and Trucks as it is. The two closest to this mark, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, cannot achieve this as they never won at Rockingham Speedway when it was on the Sprint Cup calendar.
Busch was proud of this diversity when he entered the media room following his win. But, of course, he wasn’t thinking just about Cup.
“As far as being able to check off some more races, I checked off the truck series win yesterday,” said Busch. “I never won here at Martinsville in the trucks. I think I’ve concluded being able to win at all the active tracks that I’ve made a start in the truck series. I believe that’s right. And then I’ve got Watkins Glen left on the XFINITY side, and I’ve got I think three, Kansas, Pocono and somewhere — Charlotte. Imagine that.
“So it’s a pretty good problem to have. There’s not very many left on the list, but we’ve certainly put some emphasis on that over the past few years and being able to try to do that last year was a big year for us, knocking off a couple of those, as well. I’m pumped when I’m able to do that. I don’t know that many guys have ever been able to accomplish being able to win at every single active track that they’ve made starts at, and I look forward to trying to complete that feat.”
Even so, Busch isn’t thinking too much about old Cup records, even when asked if he could match David Pearson’s 105 mark.
“Man, I thought I’d get that question when I was like 75 or wherever the hell Jimmie is at,” Busch responded. “Y’all just asked Jimmie if he could make it to 100, I think last week or two weeks ago. We’ve got a long ways ahead of us. Let’s get to 50 first; how about that?”
Not surprising: There were more accidents at Martinsville than at any other races so far in this young season. It all started off when David Ragan got into the fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. just six laps into the 500 lap endurance race.
“The No. 23 pushed up in the middle of the corner and just barely touched us and it cut the left-rear tire,” Earnhardt said following the race. He battled for much of the day to get back on the lead lap and ended up 14th after pitting on the last caution.
Some of the other incidents included Brian Scott knocking Michael Annett into the wall, Regan Smith’s two wrecks, and shockingly, favorite Denny Hamlin.
“It’s my first time ever doing it here, so it’s a little embarrassing, but I mean we were the fastest car those last 30 laps and we got back to the top-five and I was making up a lot of my speed on entry,” Hamlin said about his misfortune on lap 222. “As the tires wear, the rears get hotter, less grip, you can’t brake at the same amount and I, just – it was really out of the blue. I didn’t ever have a hint of it up until that moment, so a bit of a rookie move on my part – been around here too much to do something like that, but learning for the fall and I’m really encouraged about how good our car came up through the pack and I really thought we had a car that could win.”
Surprising: AJ Allmendinger ended the day second after spending most of the race in the top 10. It matched his record finish at a NASCAR oval, another runner-up finish at Martinsville in 2012.
It’s the Los Gatos, California native’s first top-five finish since his win at Watkins Glen in 2014.
“Well, Brian Burns and Tony Palmer, my crew chief and race engineer last year, they were just at a bit of a disadvantage,” Allmendinger said, reflecting on what has changed since last season at JTG Daugherty. “We didn’t have the personnel to have the cars where we needed them when they left the race shop, exactly where they needed to be, getting put into the hauler and getting brought to the racetrack. Ernie (new competition director, Cope) is really good. He’s had a relationship with RCR working there, and obviously, when he worked with Kevin Harvick and they had the truck and Busch teams at the time. So he’s been really good about making sure we got what we need for the race cars and built the way they need to be to the specs that he wants them and things like that, and Randall, for a first-year crew chief, you wouldn’t really know it. He’s great on the box. He calms me, which shockingly I don’t know if you guys know that, I probably need that sometimes.
“It doesn’t seem like he’s only done this for six races. They’ve brought a lot, but it’s not just about those guys. Brian Burns and Tony Palmer, they stepped back into new roles and instead of feeling like they were downsized or demoted they’ve stepped up and embraced it.”
Kyle Larson, who ended the day third, had run top five all day before moving up on the final restart.
“Yeah, it was a solid weekend for myself, also,” Larson said, referring to his start in the truck race the day before. “I was able to do double duty this week, and I think that definitely helped me get my rhythm early in the weekend and better myself each time I was on the track.
“Our car was way better than it has been here in the past. I felt like I learned a lot throughout that race. I was able to run behind great drivers here, AJ, Jimmie (Johnson) Kevin (Harvick), Kurt (Busch), (Brad) Keselowski, there was a lot of people that I could learn off of. You know, this was — in the past it’s been my worst racetrack on the schedule, so to get a top-three finish here feels great, feels like a win, to be honest, and hopefully, this is a good momentum shift that we need. We’ve been struggling all year long so far and been working hard, but it hasn’t paid off.”
Not surprising: Change the cars, change the tires, change the point system. The one constant in NASCAR, outside of Kevin Harvick winning at Phoenix, is that restarting on the outside line at Martinsville is not a good thing.
Matt Kenseth and Harvick, after being up front almost the entire day, struggled to 15th and 17th respectively after being on the outside line on the last restart.
It has been the story of the year for Kenseth. He has been fast every week but outside of a seventh at Phoenix has always faded back by the time the checkered flag waves.
“Yeah, we had a great Dollar General Toyota today,” Kenseth said following the race. “We’ve had fast cars this year, but got shuffled to the back, so disappointing ending but it was an encouraging day. We ran really well, had great pit stops and they gave me fast cars. Hopefully, we’ll start getting some finishes soon.”
Harvick did not speak to the media following the race.
Surprising: Austin Dillon, at a track where he had a best finish of 12th going in, ended the day a strong fourth after a back and fourth battle between himself and teammate Paul Menard in the latter stages of the race.
It has been a career year for the Richard Childress Racing driver, who has an average finish of 10.3 and has doubled his career number of top fives. He currently sits eighth in points. Dillon, however, puts most of the credit on his crew at RCR.
“We just keep getting better every week,” Dillon said. “I didn’t like myself last year. I didn’t like who I was for the team. I was frustrated and I wanted to be better for these guys. When they step-up, they make me better. I’m trying to be different, but I’m not doing a lot of different stuff. They’re just building me a lot better race cars. Everybody back at the shop putting all those 80-hour weeks in, I hope you understand how important it is because you’re making it happen. I wish we had one more spot, but that was pretty darn cool.”
Not surprising: Brad Keselowski has never won at Martinsville but has always been very consistent, with seven top 10s in 13 starts at “the Paperclip”.
This didn’t change on Sunday when the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford finished fifth.
“It was a good Martinsville race,” the 2012 Sprint Cup champion said. “We had a lot of speed with the Miller Lite Ford on the long runs, but just not quite enough on the short runs to make anything of the Gibbs cars. They were really strong all day. All in all, I’m real proud of my team. We’re starting to get to this place where we’re real consistent and can run up front and that’s a good feeling.”
Next week, it’s the first night race of the season at the Texas Motor Speedway. Tune in Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. EST for the Duck Commander 500.