Amy Henderson, Frontstretch.com
The Big Six: Questions Answered After The TUMS Fast Relief 500
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
This week, this one goes to a pair of drivers who far exceeded expectations to score their best finishes of 2012 in Sunday’s race. For Bobby Labonte, there was a time when finishing ninth was commonplace; but these days, it’s no small feat for his underfunded, single-car, JTG-Daugherty operation. Their ninth-place run is the best of the year for Labonte and Co. It also gives his team some bragging rights: it’s likely he’ll finish the year as the highest–ranked driver for a single-car operation, and even more significantly, within the top 25; that gives a team that badly needs it a piece of the point fund.
For Aric Almirola, finishes like his fourth-place effort aren’t commonplace at all; in fact, this week’s result ties a career-best and represents his second top-five finish ever. For Almirola, whose future at Richard Petty Motorsports is not assured, the finish was doubly important. He was mired midpack for most of the race, but was able to use late cautions to his advantage and pull off his first top-5 effort in more than two years. Almirola and his team are looking for more sponsor dollars. They needed to post a result like this one. Now this is something that will be fresh on RPM’s mind as they go to the negotiating table. Almirola has always had promise. With a little stability, he might be able to use it to help bring RPM to the next level.
What… was THAT?
Sometimes a story is a good one simply because it’s great to tell. There was one such story at Martinsville in the form of Mr. Lonny Richmond, a 102-year-old Danville, Virginia native, who attended his first-ever NASCAR race on Sunday with his bride of five years, an avid Jeff Gordon fan. That’s right, his bride of five years. The two had known each other for more than 60 years, and married after both were widowed late in life. The couple was invited to the drivers’ meeting, where they personally met Gordon (Mrs. Richmond got a hug from her favorite driver).
The Richmonds’ story reminds us that it is never too late to find happiness and that one is never too old to enjoy life. One thing about racing is that it brings people together in a unique way. People who have never met each other connect briefly on race day, sharing in something unique and special. The Richmonds were a part of that on Sunday, and reminded everyone around them that passion is timeless.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Martinsville is a track where a good starting spot is critical; nobody has won starting 20th or lower in the past five years. This race was no exception: Jimmie Johnson started—and finished—at the front of the field. The soft-spoken “Yes, boys, yes,” on the radio was belied by the emotion in the driver’s voice as Johnson took his first Chase win of 2012 on Sunday (his 21st overall). With this win, Johnson also took the points lead with just three races remaining in the Chase.
It wasn’t easy. Johnson led the most laps en route to his win. But in the middle of the race, he appeared to struggle with the handling, and two late-race brushes with Casey Mears and Juan Pablo Montoya shook him a little. But a fast pit stop on what would be the final visit to pit road put Johnson in front for good. Though Kyle Busch got within inches of his bumper on the final lap, Johnson eluded him and drove the car to victory lane for his seventh Martinsville win.
Winning here is especially poignant for Johnson, who also won here eight years ago this weekend, only to be told not to go to victory lane because ten people—ten friends—had lost their lives in a plane crash on the way to the track. In their memory, Johnson carries a small decal on his front bumper with the tail number of the plane—501RH—along with the initials of his good friend Blaise Alexander, who was killed in an ARCA race at Charlotte hours after Johnson qualified for his first Cup race in 2001. The placement of the decal is significant: Blaise and the ten people on that plane cross the finish line first every time Johnson wins. They crossed it first on Sunday with nothing but a clear racetrack in front of them… just the way Johnson wants them to.
When… will I be loved?
There were a few typical Martinsville skirmishes on Sunday. Kurt Busch called Kevin Harvick “half-assed” when Harvick refused to cut him some slack as Busch wanted to move into the bottom groove and Harvick got into him instead spinning him around. Jimmie Johnson was upset with Casey Mears after Mears got into his right front, wrenching the steering wheel from his hands, though no damage was done. Juan Pablo Montoya was upset with Johnson, who shoved his way underneath the No. 42 in the closing laps, sending him up the track.
But the real crying shame is simply that we won’t see another race at Martinsville until next spring. There should be more tracks like this one on the schedule, where the racing is much more immune to the ravages of time than on the bigger tracks, where aerodynamic dependence has slowly gotten more and more critical. Jimmie Johnson said Friday that one reason he loves coming to this track is because the history of the sport lives on here. Johnson hit that nail on the head… the racing at Martinsville is as good as it ever was, and represents everything that is right about the sport. “Racing the Way it Ought To Be” might be Bristol’s slogan… but it’s Martinsville’s God-honest reality.
Why… worry now?
And then there were two.
For a while on Sunday, it looked like it could be a tight four-man title race as Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer ran at the front while Brad Keselowski ran about 20th. At one point, all four were within 15 points. But then Hamlin saw his title chances switch off with his car as a bad master switch caused his car to slow, then stop on the frontstretch. Hamlin’s crew made repairs, but he left his title hopes in the garage when he returned to the race 34 laps down on track and 46 points behind Johnson in the standings. Bowyer didn’t have any drama, but in the end, he couldn’t gain on either Johnson or Keselowski, who slipped to second in the standings. Bowyer moves into third, but is 26 back, meaning that the title is out of his hands in that he needs both Johnson and Keselowski to falter in order to capitalize. Kasey Kahne drove an outstanding race, but it wasn’t enough either, and he’s 29 points in arrears.
And so, barring disaster for both, it will come down to Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the championship. Johnson knows how to win them and has five to prove it. With a slim, two-point lead, you can bet he smells the blood in the water. But Keselowski isn’t going to stop swimming long enough to check the bleeding and, unlike Hamlin two years ago, will not fold under the pressure Johnson will try to put on him in the final three races as he tries to win his first Cup. I’m sure neither driver will give an inch over the next three weeks; are we headed for a second classic title battle in as many years?
How… did the little guys do?
JTG-Daugherty Racing (Pine-Sol Toyota): Labonte tops this group this week with his best finish of 2012. His second top-10 of the year, a ninth-place effort, comes at a time when his team, which cut ties with Michael Waltrip Racing before the season, could really use a boost as the year closes out.
Furniture Row Racing (Furniture Row/Farm American Chevy): Kurt Busch drove an impressive race on Sunday, running inside the top 10 for much of the early going before tangling with Kevin Harvick and spinning in turn 4 on lap 230. Busch recovered enough to finish 15th, on the lead lap.
BK Racing (Burger King/Dr. Pepper Toyotas): Landon Cassill had another solid run, finishing 19th and on the lead lap. If this team is able to update their equipment for 2013, Cassill’s underrated talent could help move this team to the next level. Travis Kvapil had some bad luck early on with a spin in turn 2, from which he couldn’t recover. Kvapil did lead a lap early but finished eight laps down.
Germain Racing (GEICO Ford): Casey Mears probably enjoyed this Martinsville race a good deal more than the last one despite having exactly the same result: Mears was battling the flu during the spring event and spent part of it being sick in his car. Too bad TUMS wasn’t the title sponsor for that race…
Front Row Motorsports (Where’s Waldo? Ford & Long John Silver’s Ford): David Ragan finished 26th on Sunday. But his race was memorable because of the “Where’s Waldo?” paint scheme on his car, which featured the elusive tall fellow in the striped shirt on the hood and hidden elsewhere on the car as well. Ragan said he found him, but wasn’t telling where. A blown tire sent David Gilliland spinning early, and Gilliland never quite recovered, winding up 30th, six laps down.
Phoenix Racing (Phoenix Construction Services Chevy): AJ Allmendinger’s inauspicious 28th-place run is a bit deceiving. Allmendinger had a strong car for portions of the race and was able to make several passes with seeming ease until unscheduled pit stops late in the race put an end to it.
FAS Lane Racing (Southern Pride Trucking /U.S. Chrome Ford): Veteran Ken Schrader managed only a 29th-place finish, five laps down, on Sunday, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The importance of fresh tires was well-documented at Martinsville this week—and Schrader ran most of the day on used practice tires his team got from the bigger teams this weekend to save money without resorting to parking early.
Tommy Baldwin Racing(MOHAWKNortheast / TMone Chevy & @TMone Drive Sales Fast Chevy): Both Dave Blaney (35th) and David Reutimann (36th) pulled into the garage early on Sunday. That’s not this team’s usual M.O., especially when there are sponsors on the car (though one of the two cars often parks if there’s nothing on the hood), so it’s hard to tell if the early exit was planned for either team. Blaney’s listed reason for exit was brakes and Reutimann’s overheating, both of which are common start-and-park excuses. But brakes in particular can be a common problem at Martinsville, so this one could go either way.