Five hundred laps around Martinsville Speedway tests the patience of everyone involved, from the drivers behind the wheel to the fans watching at home. It's always a long day of racing, chugging, bucking and jerking along toward a finish that often feels so far away.
Amid that often interminable-feeling distance are plenty of opportunities for hopes and dreams—based both in the race itself and in the larger picture of the championship—to be dashed by an overly aggressive competitor, a flat tire, a mechanical problem or something else. Sunday's fall race at the Virginia short track featured plenty of that and more.
Find out who used Sunday's 500 laps and 17 cautions to gain the most, and find out who left the old track gritting and smarting from a disappointing day.
Jeff Gordon is no stranger to winning at Martinsville Speedway, but Sunday's return to the track's Victory Lane couldn't have come at a better time.
Gordon grabbed third in the point standings and closed to 27 points behind Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, the duo tied for the Chase for the Sprint Cup points lead, with the win. It was Gordon eighth career win at the track—he's tied again with teammate Johnson in that category—and his first since he took the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last season.
Gordon's winning move came when he passed a surprisingly strong Kenseth on Lap 479 of the 500-lap race. It's the 88th win of Gordon's career.
The Halloween-themed paint job wasn't the only thing scary about Kyle Busch's car Sunday at Martinsville—its handling proved to be frightening as the laps wore on. Busch faded to a disappointing 15th-place finish in the waning laps, leaving him fifth (36 points behind) in the Chase standings with three races left.
It was a surprising no-show for the No. 18 after Busch started third in Sunday's race and supplanted Johnson from the race lead just 25 laps after the green flag. Busch lost the lead to teammate Kenseth 12 laps later and never got to the top spot again.
The late fall was even more head-scratching because Busch averaged a running position of seventh throughout the event.
Not being a Chase for the Sprint Cup contender has reduced the glow of the spotlight on NASCAR's defending champion, but Brad Keselowski hasn't let the disappointing end of the season hurt his effort on the track.
Keselowski turned in his best career effort at Martinsville Speedway Sunday with a fourth-place finish. It was the second top-five finish for Keselowski in the past three races after he won the 500-mile race at Charlotte two weeks ago. Keselowski never led a lap Sunday, but the finish let him slightly close the gap to Jamie McMurray in 14th—the highest he can finish in points—to 24 points.
Kevin Harvick rolled to a sixth-place finish in Sunday's race at Martinsville. He remains within shouting distance of the Chase for the Sprint Cup leaders in fourth place, just 28 points back.
But Harvick's Saturday at Martinsville Speedway when he got in to a rift with Richard Childress Racing teammate Ty Dillon during the Camping World Truck Series race may have sealed the fate of the No. 29 team. Harvick, rightly or wrongly depending on how you view short track racing, wound up wrecked and out of the race after contact with Dillon late in the event. Harvick responded by gesturing to Dillon's RCR team on pit road and calling out Dillon as a driver undeserving of his opportunity. Harvick apologized Sunday as team owner Childress fumed.
What are the ramifications going to be for Harvick over the final three weeks? There's a great chance the blowup could fracture Harvick's relationship with many Childress team members at a time when he needs all the help he can get to play catchup in the championship. Nobody won in the accident Saturday, but Harvick—amid his best title chance yet—probably lost the most.
For a stretch of Sunday's race, a litany of cautions left the race's proceedings halting and jerking toward a finish that seemed to only get farther away. All told, there were 17 yellow flag periods for 111 laps of the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 that lasted three hours and 44 minutes.
But even with the jerky nature of the race's middle points when debris, crashes and expired engines slowed the pace, Sunday's race once again proved a well-known fact of NASCAR racing: Short track racing is always entertaining. Martinsville Speedway, a .526-mile paperclip oval that ranks as NASCAR's oldest, keeps the field bunched together and rarely lets a single driver manhandle an entire event. Sunday's race stands as the lone race in the Chase on a track shorter than a mile.
Three races remain on the schedule this season—Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami—but none of them have the guarantee of tight, close racing like that is provided year in and year out by the venerable Martinsville. NASCAR can't return soon enough.
The ship carrying Ryan Newman's championship hopes in the current edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup likely sailed a few weeks ago, but Sunday's 38th-place finish for the No. 39 still left the driver disappointed. Newman was racing in the top 10 when contact with Harvick—the driver slated to fill Newman's seat at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014—nudged the No. 39 into a full spin and heavy contact with the Turn 1 wall.
"We didn’t start out the day too strong, but once we had track position, I felt like we had a chance to come out of it with a good finish," Newman said. "I don’t know what happened there with the No. 29 car. He got into us going off into the corner, and the next thing you know, I’m in the wall."
Harvick, for his part, apologized after the race and said he simply made a mistake. Newman finished 68 laps off the pace.
Quotes obtained firsthand from NASCAR and/or team post-race transcripts.
Danica Patrick won't get a trophy for finishing 17th Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, but the finish is a noteworthy point in Patrick's otherwise disappointing rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.
The weekend started horribly for Patrick when she crashed early in Friday's practice and was forced to a backup car for the race. She started 41st and found herself a lap down early in the event—a sure sign of a long day on the half-mile bullring.
Patrick didn't let that happen, however, and improved throughout the race. She needed just one free pass during the race's seventh caution to get a lap back. While Patrick capitalized on heavy attrition throughout the race to finish 17th—her second top-20 finish at Martinsville this year—she also managed to avoid the trouble to earn the fifth-best finish of her career.
David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team likely were not going to factor in the late-race jockeying to snare the win of Sunday's race, but they certainly didn't look destined to finish dead last.
Ragan started Sunday's race in eighth thanks to a recent test the team had participated in at Martinsville and a new type of car design built by FRM making its debut. He dropped seven spots in the first 25 laps to 15th—likely due to starting in the notably slower high groove—but started to climb again by Lap 50 when he was 14th.
But soon thereafter Ragan started to experience engine issues and ultimately went to the garage on Lap 109. He finished a disappointing 43rd.
After the race, Kenseth told ESPN cameras that he had missed out on his first win at Martinsville simply because he lacked the experience of racing at the front at the track as the laps clicked down. Kenseth insisted that experience gave Gordon the advantage to catch and pass him for the win with 21 laps left.
But all told, Sunday's race was a massive success for Kenseth as he battles down the stretch for the championship with Johnson. Kenseth has had a notoriously bad streak at Martinsville—by average finish before Sunday's race, Martinsville stood as Kenseth's second-worst career track—and he wound up leading the most laps (200) and finishing second.
Even better? Kenseth beat Johnson in Sunday's race to tie the Chase standings and keep the No. 48 from using the track he's dominated in the past several years as the breakaway point in the championship fight. That could be huge.