NASCAR's Certainty Factor: Martinsville Shows Drivers' Best (or Worst)

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IMarch 30, 2010

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 29:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford slides up the track as Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, race for the lead during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2010 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

Regardless of whom your colors and allegiance are with, what's certain in auto racing, particularly with NASCAR, is that a short track like Martinsville Speedway brings out the best of a driver (or the worst).

Sheer determination, fearlessness, and tenacity are some of the qualities separating the winner from his combatants on the field of play, especially at a cereal bowl-like facility like this charter track of stock car racing.

Monday's Goody Fast Pain Relief 500 was nothing short on the excitement factor, with two former Sprint Cup champions tangling near the race's finish, opening the door for aggressive and title favorite Denny Hamlin to grab his first victory this season.

How it all unfolded was probably as memorable as the finish itself. Kyle Busch, who pitted with his teammate Hamlin down the stretch, got loose and spun out near the outside retaining wall on lap 498. Busch's incident incited some controversy, mainly with the NASCAR officials throwing the caution flag within the window for "Overtime," shootout-style restart.

Jeff Gordon, whose last victory was on April 5 of last year, was merely within striking distance of crossing the start/finish line, which would have certainly resulted in the race finishing in a yellow flag condition.

Leading the race and certainly in need of a victory to make some noise for his Chase for the Sprint Cup bid, the late-race pause and restart did not sit well with the seven-time Martinsville winner.

"It was pretty obvious to me that NASCAR wanted to do a green-white checkered finish," said Gordon in AP Sports Writer Hanz Kurz Jr's article . "There were cars blowing tires, hitting the wall and they weren't throwing the caution. One spins out, and they throw the caution in the blink of an eye."

Instead of celebrating his 83rd career victory and his first win of the year, he ended up placing third, tangling with Matt Kenseth while defending his lead position. Gordon's paint trading with Kenseth opened the door for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing ally Joey Logano to bring home the top-two spots with the checkered flag in the air.

Before anyone brings up the Jeff Gordon-Matt Kenseth incidents of 2006 and 2008 need to consider this: Put anyone in their position with victory in sight and it's almost certain that any driver would have duked it out and meshed in fenders similarly like those two championship-winning racers.

Both veterans were in desperate need of a win, enduring winless streaks that date back to last season. While Gordon and Kenseth are considered as one of the best in the sport, their results have hardly backed up such sentiments and thoughts.

Kenseth has been in a rut for a trophy, last pulling into the winner's circle in the 2009 Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif., or a crew chief change ago. His No. 17 Crown Royal team has made steady gains thus far in 2010, with the emotionally-charged Todd Parrott calling the shots as crew chief for the 11th year driver.

Despite Monday's 18th place result, the pride of Cambridge, Wisc., has nothing to be ashamed of, sitting third in the points race, just 16 markers from the points lead. Still, he and Gordon will certainly be wondering "what if," at least until Phoenix race weekend in two weeks.

As for Gordon, it was another winning opportunity that essentially went down the drain, unable to capitalize at his chance to get into Victory Lane again. If Las Vegas was painful, his collapse at Martinsville has got to sting him twice as much, knowing that he was oh-so close at a win.

"We had the thing wrapped up," Gordon said in short. "All I can tell you is you know it's gonna get wild and crazy."

Not one to steal the title of a popular Nickelodeon show from the early 1990s, the "FireStorm Warrior" has certainly been on both ends of the NASCAR "certainty factor."

When it's been to his advantage, Gordon does a better job as the hunter than Elmer Fudd. In 1997, Gordon bumped race leader Rusty Wallace during the final lap of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, pulling a "bump and run" pass in the final corners, grabbing his third consecutive spring victory at "The World's Fastest Half-Mile."

At first, it looked like the DuPont team was resigned to a runner-up finish behind the Miller Ford of Wallace and Penske Racing South. Despite the No. 24 car's faltering performance down the stretch of the race, it was a three-man race for the win, as Wallace, Gordon, and Terry Labonte duked it out for checkered flag supremacy down the stretch.

With the white flag waving, the trio raced around the first corners cleanly, although they caught up with race traffic with Jimmy Spencer impeding the progress of Wallace and company. That's when Gordon decided to play the role of devil's advocate, tapping the rear clip of the No. 2 Ford in turn three, grabbing his third win of the '97 season.

However, like Fudd, he's been known for some gaffes in the late-going of the race. Four years later at what was then called New Hampshire International Speedway, the recently crowned, four-time champ had the lead under 20 laps to go in that season's final race, within sight of his seventh victory of a banner year.

Dominating the 300-lap event, it was shaping up as a patented-Jeff Gordon day. Robby Gordon, piloting the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, had other ideas for a pre-Thanksgiving send-off to the Cup titlist.

That season was turbulent for the Orange, Calif., native, having been released from the No. 4 Kodak Chevy owned by Morgan-McClure Racing to playing substitute racer for Mattei Motorsports' No. 7 Nations Rent Ford and Childress' Lowe's machine. Looking to justify his seat with the No. 31 team, Robby Gordon pulled off one of the most boldest (or lamest, depending on your perspective) moves of his career.

Heading into the third corner of "The Magic Mile," Robby gave Jeff a significant bump, washing the No. 24 DuPont Chevy into Mike Wallace's No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford and into the marbles, propelling the No. 31 car into the lead, en route to an upset, memorable first career win for the beleaguered open wheel star.

NASCAR threw the caution flag out as the 12 and 24 cars realigned themselves in the field. Agitated, what did Four-Time do? Only what any other racer probably would have done in his shoes.

JG, as we'll call him here to avoid confusion, drives up to the lead car of Robby Gordon, pulling behind the Lowe's machine before giving a parting shot to the back of the No. 31 Chevy. As usual with NASCAR before this season's "have at it, boys" stance, the officials summoned JG down to his pit box for a late-race penalty that ultimately shuffled him down the running order.

Gordon's no stranger to the paint trading games of short track racing, having his share of wins and defeats like any other driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Martinsville Speedway often brings out the best in the 38-year-old sensation, having his fair share of laps led and grandfather clocks to boot.

Just on Monday, the cards handed to Gordon were good, but not enough for a win. Denny Hamlin was at the right place at the right time, playing the game of short tracks excellently.

How many times have we seen this particular episode before in NASCAR racing?

Countless times, that's how many.

Names like Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, and Ricky Rudd are some that come to mind with last-lap fracuses at a short track.

Applying the chrome horn and showing the determination factor to turn his so-far subpar season, that was the difference between the black and orange/yellow flames car placing third and a delivery machine sending Joe Gibbs Racing some props in Victory Lane.

For all the talk that Jeff Gordon wants to give for a late-race caution flag hurting his chances at sealing the deal, it's about playing the hand of cards dealt that truly determine the outcome of a race.

There'll be another time for the certain NASCAR Hall of Famer—but make no mistake: This one's going to seethe and haunt the No. 24 team for some time with the Easter holiday break ahead.

So what's the bottom line: Pit two drivers, whether it's short track racers from Midwest America or the dirt ovals of the Carolinas, in a position for victory. It's certain that the Gordon-Kenseth show will be on display, only with more fireworks and tempers boiling than your cup of Ramen noodles in hand while reading this article.