NASCAR at Martinsville 2014: Winners and Losers from the STP 500

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 31, 2014

NASCAR at Martinsville 2014: Winners and Losers from the STP 500

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    Kurt Busch Celebrates in Victory Lane
    Kurt Busch Celebrates in Victory LanePhoto by HHP/Harold Hinson for Chevy Racing

    For Kurt Busch, the formula for winning at Martinsville Speedway was an easy one. 

    If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

    “I've been on this journey for a while,” said the STP 500 winner Busch. “Every time you come to Martinsville you draw a line through it; like 'there's no way I'll be able to challenge those Hendrick guys or challenge for a top-10.’”

    On Sunday, Busch beat “those Hendrick guys” using the same equipment they had, courtesy of the deal struck between his team, Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) and Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick builds the cars and engines, and SHR prepares the combination for racing. 

    Not only did Busch beat the other Hendrick cars, he also did it in style, in a door-to-door battle with six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

    Johnson, with eight wins on the paper-clip-shaped Martinsville oval, was the class of the field all afternoon, leading 296 of 500 laps. But it was the last dozen that made the difference. Try as he might, Johnson was unable to hold off a determined Busch in the final laps.

    “Man that is all I had, that is all I could do,” said Johnson in the post-race press conference. “I got back by him and then he got back to me and I was really, really loose in the closing stages of the race.   

    “Once he got back to me and put the pressure to me, I couldn’t keep the back (of the car) under me. I put all the front brake in it that I could and was just hoping I could hold him off, but just wasn’t able to.”

    It was a 1-2-3 sweep for Hendrick-built cars, as Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third.

    Busch became the sixth winner in as many Sprint Cup races in 2014, calling into question whether or not one win is a guaranteed spot in the Chase.

    Even race winner Busch questioned his status with only one win.

    “It’s (the Chase field) going to fill up quick, and we have to do our job on this 41 team to develop as a team and to be a bona fide chase contender when the Chase starts. So we're not going to rest on this win. If we get a second win, that's when I would call ourselves locked in.”

Winner: Stewart-Haas Racing

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    Kevin Harvick (l) and team owner Stewart
    Kevin Harvick (l) and team owner StewartIsaac Brekken

    Following a questionable beginning to the 2014 season, highlighted briefly by Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix, Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) has come into its own, showing the potential of a team whose drivers have four Sprint Cup titles and a Daytona 500 between them.

    Team principle Tony Stewart couldn’t have been any prouder, having been a part of putting his one-time adversary, Kurt Busch, back in Victory Lane after an 83-race winless drought.

    “Really happy for Kurt Busch and everyone on the Haas Automation team,” said Stewart in a post-race interview. “Kurt drove a great race and beat one of the best. And this is a big win for Gene Haas. He had a big hand in putting this all together, and for him and Haas Automation to get a win this early in the season, I think it says a lot about his vision.”

    Joining race winner Busch in the top 10 was teammate Kevin Harvick, who had his best race result since winning at Phoenix back in February in the second race of the season. Harvick finished sixth.

    Stewart’s co-owner Gene Haas, who was not at the track on Sunday, was delighted to see his choice to drive for an at-that-time unannounced fourth team—a choice which many people, including this writer, brought to question—deliver a win this early in the season.

    “Well, we are not point’s racing anymore. This is all about winning. Being ahead in points and not being able to win is really not going to get you very far. I think it’s really a whole new venue—it’s a very exciting one.  

    “I’m looking for wins. How we do in the points isn’t nearly as important. You can look at the points but if you are not winning you are not going be there for the championship.”

    Stewart, who finished 17th and SHR’s other driver Danica Patrick (32nd, six laps down), had less than memorable days with both struggling with ill-handling race cars. 

Loser: Kyle Busch

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Kyle Buschs Martinsville Speedway weekend started out with great promise for him winning two-in-a-row with a pole winning lap on Friday. It was his first pole on the half-mile oval in 19 attempts.

    Unfortunately, the weekend ended with Busch’s Toyota Camry in 14th place, a victim of traffic, worn tires and everything else that is Sprint Cup racing on a short track.

    Crew chief Dave Rogers explained:

    We took some liberties today knowing that we want to race and you’re not guaranteed into the Chase, but odds are you’re going to be in the Chase so we got the most aggressive with our setup and our teammates were less aggressive in areas. 

    We’re just trying to push the limit really hard—obviously we had good speed early and could sit on the pole, could turn some fast laps early in a run, but we just burned the rear tires off. 

    While older brother Kurt was celebrating in Victory Lane, the younger Busch was left to wonder what happened to the race car that put him on the pole, led the race’s first 16 laps and then didn’t offer him the kind of comfort and speed needed to challenge those at the front of the field in the closing laps of the race.

    Rogers added that, had the team been able to practice on Saturday (practice was cancelled due to rain), many of the ideas that proved fruitless on Sunday might have been discovered earlier.

    This team already has a win in their pocket, so they can afford to have an off weekend or two. This one started with so much potential; it has to be difficult for everyone on the team not to have walked away with at least a top 10 or better.

    C'est la vie. There's always next week in Texas.

Winner: Marcos Ambrose and the Petty Motorsports Team

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Marcos Ambrose made the best of a difficult week for the Petty Motorsports organization with a strong showing in Sunday’s STP 500, finishing fifth. 

    Longtime Petty and Martinsville Speedway race sponsor STP had planned a celebration of its involvement with the Petty organization and "The King" Richard Petty on race day, but everything was cancelled after the death earlier in the week of family matriarch Lynda Petty.

    Instead, Ambrose felt it necessary to show the world that the Petty organization stood strong, despite losing it’s most beloved member.

    “We’ve had a really tough week,” said Ambrose in a post-race interview. “We lost Miss Lynda. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Petty family right now. We really wanted to win for them bad out there, but we’ll take a top five.”

    The No. 9 team has been a genuine player over the past four races, with road-course specialist (and race winner) Ambrose inching ever so close to his first oval win, a long-held goal since joining NASCAR in 2007.

    “We’re just starting to hit our stride,” he added. “We spent a lot of money and a lot of effort in getting Richard Petty Motorsports back on the map and I think you’re seeing the results. We’re gonna win one of these soon and lock ourselves in the Chase and feel good about our chances.” 

    And that will happen. And they’ll be celebrating on the other side of the world when it does.

    Adding to the joy at Petty Motorsports on Sunday was Aric Almirola's eighth-place finish. It was a welcome return to form for a frustrated No. 43 team that bowed out of last weekend's Auto Club 400 after only 68 laps and was scored with a 43rd-place finish.

Loser: Jimmie Johnson

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    It’s hard to call Jimmie Johnson a loser. But, second place in NASCAR is the first loser, right?

    What can you say about the driver who led the most laps on Sunday, had the best car until the last dozen laps and was supposed to win?

    Is Johnson supposed to win every weekend? That’s almost a no-brainer question. The answer is: Yes, of course. He’s won nearly everywhere on the Sprint Cup circuit and with eight wins at Martinsville (tied with Jeff Gordon), he was the odds-on favorite to win on Sunday.

    What happened then?

    Someone beat him at his own game. That driver used the same car, the same engine and a different setup and took it to the six-time champion where it hurt the most, in a door-to-door final-lap battle.

    The champ came away battered and bruised, but in typical Jimmie Johnson fashion, he didn’t hide the fact that he was in control of his team’s destiny when it came up just a bit short.

    “Man that is all I had, that is all I could do,” said Johnson in the post-race press conference. “I got back by him and then he got back to me and I was really, really loose in the closing stages of the race. Once he got back to me and put the pressure to me, I couldn’t keep the back under me. I put all the front brake in it that I could and was just hoping I could hold him off, but just wasn’t able to.”

    There’s no doubt that Johnson will be remembered as one of the sport’s all-time greatest. But, once in a while, another driver will have his number, and there’s nothing the six-time champ can do about it. 

    Sunday was just one of those times.

Winner: AJ Allmendinger

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    In a sport where three- and four-car NASCAR Sprint Cup organizations are the norm, being a single-car team is remarkably difficult. Going it alone is not only difficult, it is also nearly impossible with a technical alliance with one of the sport’s bigger organizations.

    JTG Daugherty (JTGD), a single-car team, has its alliance with Richard Childress Racing (RCR), which supplies JTGD with cars, engines and technical-engineering help. 

    Even with the kind of help RCR provides, having one car and one driver is like playing out David vs. Goliath every race weekend. Some weekends, the stone misses its mark. On others, like this past weekend, it hits the giants right square in the middle of their eye(s).

    AJ Allmendinger spent last season driving for several teams in NASCAR while he was also driving for Team Penske in IndyCars. He finished seventh in last year’s Indy 500.

    Often overlooked as a journeyman driver when others talk about the versatility of a Kasey Kahne or Tony Stewart, Allmendinger left open-wheel racing seven years ago for a promise of fame, fortune and (maybe even) riches in NASCAR. 

    His recent history is just that. We all know how he got to where he is today. 

    Yet, when he delivers a top-15 performance like on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, he’s overlooked yet again. And while the statistics only show him leading one lap (yes, it came during a caution), he put his No. 47 up in the front of the field for much of the race, running lap after lap in the rarified atmosphere of the Johnsons, Gordons and Earnhardt Jr.’s of the world.

    And wait for it…he finished better than RCR drivers Ryan Newman (20th), Austin Dillon (15th) and Martin Truex Jr. (21st) who also drives an RCR combination Chevrolet SS. Only Paul Menard finished better than the JTGD driver and even that was one place better (10th).

    Allmendinger has a runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway to his credit (2012 with Team Penske), so it's no surprise to see him running up front.

    Let’s not forget that he’s now doing it as David in a world full of very dangerous Goliaths. This driver has lofty goals this season, including making the Chase (which this writer also believes will happen).

    Isn't it great when you can cheer for the little guy?

Loser: Brad Keselowski

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    Mike McCarn

    This photo (above) shows Brad Keselowski making a fool of himself, harassing eventual race winner Kurt Busch. 

    The two drivers were involved in an early-race incident on pit road. Only when the two returned to the track, did it begin to get ugly. No, ugly doesn’t describe it. Things spiraled out of control.

    Keselowski harassed Busch for several laps, putting on quite a show of frustration with his race car being transformed into a late-model stocker, courtesy of Mr. Busch.

    At one point, Busch told his spotter over the team radio that he wanted to rearrange Keselowski’s face.

    “The replay shows it.” said Keselowski after the race. “We jumbled up on pit road and he just drove right through me and ruined our day. We probably had a race-winning car and it doesn’t matter. That’s the way it goes.”

    And it didn’t end there. Keselowski continued:

    “He does awesome things for charity and he’s probably the most talented race car driver, but he’s also one of the dumbest, so put those three together.” 

    After the race, Busch showed all the humility of a race winner.

    “…Once we were back out running, he targeted us, he was aiming for us. He tried to flatten all four of my tires. That's a no‑fly zone. That's a punk‑ass move and he will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”

    Boys will be boys. Keselowski does win the prize for “punk-ass move” of the race, however.

    Normally a genuine winner in this space, this week, Brad's a Loser.

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Yes, Junior is a winner this week. Third place looks very good compared to the past two weekends for.

    Everyone had gotten used to Junior scoring top fives and then along came Bristol and Fontana, arguably two of his worst tracks, and Junior Nation and the rest of the world comes back to reality. Was this to be what the rest of the season was going to be?

    Martinsville came along at the right time.

    Arguably one of his better race tracks, with 15 top 10s in 28 attempts, Earnhardt is still winless after Sunday. 

    His winless streak at Martinsville did lend to one of the more memorable quotes of the weekend. When asked on Friday, before qualifying, how he felt about not being able to bring home one of the more sought-after winner’s trophies in all of sports—a grandfather clock, Earnhardt Jr. replied:

    “Yeah, this is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time. I grew up in a house full of clocks so it’s been pretty elusive.”

    The reference to the house full of clocks was to growing up with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. having won at Martinsville six times.

    Earnhardt Jr. had a few anxious moments early in the race and then dealt with tire issues, a result of the team’s aggressive setup that made the left rear tire wear out prematurely.

    “We just had to save tires, keep the tires on the car and keep the left-rear on the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the post-race press conference. “We didn’t have enough to win the race. (I) just thought when we got to third (late in the race) maybe we could get up there (in the lead).”

    And did I mention, Earnhardt Jr. is back on top of the driver standings. 

Loser: Parker Kligerman

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Not a very flattering portrait of rookie Parker Kligerman’s Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville Speedway (above).

    Kligerman’s previous experience on the half-mile track was four races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, where he posted three top-20 finishes—not impressive by any standards.

    Kligerman has had a difficult transition into Sprint Cup racing, and he may have come up into the big leagues a little too early. But circumstances being what they are, he is making the best of things—if finishing 29th or worse can make anyone feel good about themselves.

    Kligerman is a good kid, who is trying his best at making a career in Sprint Cup. But, embarrassing finishes like Sunday aren’t helping him.

Winner: NASCAR Fans

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    Mike McCarn

    Six races into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and it's shaping up to be a hell of a year. Six winners in six races to start the season is not only remarkable, it's also proof that NASCAR has evened the playing field (at least for the big teams) and is providing its fans with great entertainment every weekend.

    The weather was an issue once again at Martinsville this weekend, but even the rain doesn’t seem to be much of an issue any more now that we have Air Titan 2.0, probably the coolest thing thing to come to NASCAR since fans discovered they could bring radios to the track and listen in on what the drivers were saying (or cussing!).

    I’ve seen the television viewership numbers, and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why they’re down this year. The racing is better than ever. The cars are almost scary fast at every track. Joey Logano set a track record during qualifying at over 100 miles per hour around Martinsville. That’s insanely fast!

    That means the races seem to zip by fairly quickly. Yes, there are still those boring moments, but how about those NFL games where there’s endless three-and-outs, and don’t get me started about Major League Baseball.

    I said scary fast. I’ve been around fast cars for decades, and these new Gen 6 cars are really something. And the smarter crew chiefs are just scratching the surface.

    So, what’s wrong with this picture? Or better yet, what’s wrong with how the picture of NASCAR is being portrayed to the world? The television broadcasts are about as satisfying as eating a photo of a piece of cake instead of the real thing.

    There’s a lot that’s right, but there's a lot more that’s wrong. The solution? There's not enough space here. However, there is one easy solution for fans: Go see a NASCAR race in person.

    There is nothing like it—and take a friend with you who has never been to a race. I promise you, your friend will suddenly understand why you’re so hooked and will never stop thanking you for being invited.

    Look, I have not drank the NASCAR Kool-Aid, so don’t send me all those emails, OK. I love racing and everything that goes into it. NASCAR right now is better than ever. 

    Someone had better start making sure more people know it.


    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.