The Hottest NASCAR Storylines Going into Martinsville
Talladega is widely reputed as a wild card in the championship scene, and per usual it lived up to the moniker. For one, the battle for the Sprint Cup points lead was already tedious as is, and while the points received a shakeup we saw some unfamiliar faces in the top-10.
Meanwhile, a wild truck series race on Saturday saw the dawn of a new restrictor plate king while the points leader survived another obstacle to maintain his gap on second-place.
Here's some of the biggest headlines in NASCAR as we head to a track that is almost as much a wild card as Talladega, Martinsville Speedway.
Johnny Sauter Wins at 'Dega
While ThorSport driver Matt Crafton has held the points lead for most of 2013, his teammate Johnny Sauter has had a rather up-and-down season despite winning the first two races of the season.
Still, in shades of former truck series champion Todd Bodine, Sauter asserted himself as the new restrictor plate ace in the truck series as he went on to win at Talladega on Saturday, his third win of the season after winning at Daytona and Martinsville.
The race itself proved to be a wild one, as twelve trucks crashed coming to the checkered. The crash saw Miguel Paludo's Chevy turn over while Justin Lofton suffered a broken thumb. Points leader Crafton was also caught up in the mess and still brought it home ninth.
Martinsville couldn't have come at a better time for Sauter as he currently sits sixth in points. He could use a good run at Martinsville to gain some ground on the leaders and maybe salvage what initially looked to be a contending season.
McMurray Breaks Losing Streak
At this point in Jamie McMurray's career, it's all but certain that he'll never be a championship contender. As much of a shame as that is, he's still one of our favorite underdogs to root for. He has had some good runs at other tracks, but restrictor plate racetracks will always be his bread and butter. That alone won't cut it if he wants to be a champion.
Still, it was a good thing to see on Sunday when he earned his seventh career win and fourth on a plate track. His Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing teams have gone through a lot over the past several years, and even if it was a track that he has won at before it was still a special kind of medicine for that team. The last time they won a race was at Charlotte in 2010.
Martinsville has been kind to McMurray in the Cup Series. In 21 starts he has one top-five (a second in the fall of 2004) and 11 top-10s. He finished seventh there in the spring, and on top of that he won a truck race there in the fall of 2004. Expect him to back up his Talladega win with a strong showing next Sunday.
Big Day for Rookie Stenhouse
Sunday was a big day for leading Sprint Cup rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., as he posted a career-best third-place behind race winner Jamie McMurray and second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The finish comes as a blessing to the beleagured Roush-Fenway group, as they fought and struggled for most of 2013 before earning their first top-10 at Richmond in September when they finished 10th a week after earning their first pole at Atlanta. They would go on to finish eighth at Chicago the next week.
Stenhouse's run at Talladega wasn't without incident as contact with the No. 14 of Austin Dillon sent Dillon's Chevy airborne on the final lap, although ultimately no one was injured. Meanwhile, Stenhouse has been having a typical rookie season. Yet with the No. 17's luck in recent weeks, he might be able to pull off a strong showing at Martinsville.
Crew Chief Parrott Suspended
You'd expect this from some of the younger crop of NASCAR's key players. Yet when you hear that a NASCAR veteran has violated the substance abuse policy, it always feels different somehow. It felt very strange when we first heard that Randy LaJoie was suspended back in 2010.
Todd Parrott, crew chief for the No. 43 Ford driven by Aric Almirola, was suspended on Thursday for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy. Although we don't know enough about the details to ascertain whether or not this was the result of personal demons or something minor, like in LaJoie's instance, this is still a case where a bad decision ultimately came to light.
Still, Parrott is a legend in the garage and has been around for close to 20 years as a crew chief. He's an asset to the sport, and here's to hoping a speedy return for the two-time Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner.
Johnson Takes Points Lead
There's four races left in the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Four races where anything can happen, especially in the heat of the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Four races where nothing is set in stone until the last lap.
With that being said, I've got something else to say.
Call off the dogs. It's over.
Now, I know that comes across as fatalistic, but it does not bode well for Kenseth in the coming weeks. For one, Martinsville is next on the schedule. Kenseth has yet to win at the Virginia paperclip, with three top-fives and eight top-10s in 27 starts with a best finish of second in the Spring of 2002. Meanwhile, Johnson has made Martinsville his playground, where in 23 starts he has won eight times and placed in the top-five 16 times and in the top-10 20 times. He has beaten the unholy dickens out of that track, in other words.
Texas is a track where Kenseth could match Johnson, seeing as to how Johnson has two wins there to match Kenseth's two. Phoenix should weigh in Johnson's favor, where he has had more success than Kenseth. Homestead is Kenseth's ace in the hole. His best bet is to keep within a race's distance of Johnson.
But other than yet, it looks bleak for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team.