The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Texas
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday didn’t just break his winless streak at the .526-mile track nestled in the mountains of Virginia. It also marked the first race of the 2014 Chase that was won by someone other than a Chase driver.
Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick’s bad afternoon just might mean that Matt Kenseth has one coming at a future race. Brad Keselowski had a tough day as well. But Ryan Newman left the track with a big smile on his face. And Jimmie Johnson...well, the eight-time Martinsville winner went quietly into the good night.
Up next in the Eliminator Round is the ultra-fast 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway and the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday.
What will everyone be talking about this week?
First up, people will still be talking about the winner at Martinsville. He just happens to be the sport's most popular driver.
Earnhardt Jr. Win Makes Headlines
After years of trying, Junior finally got his own grandfather clock.
Growing up with one of the clocks that his late father had won decades ago was one of those childhood memories that he would carry with him into adulthood.
"Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks," Earnhardt recalled in the post-race press conference. "I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I'd run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network. That clock would ring on the hour."
He had to get one of those clocks for his own.
Years of frustration at Martinsville, a track where he was good, but never good enough, finally came to an end Sunday. Pit work that was perfect all day, a great car and one final restart were the keys to victory.
“I wish I could have done it sooner, but I finally got with a great combination of guys and we work well together and we are having a great season,” Earnhardt Jr. said in the post-race press conference. “It was the pit stops man, the pit stops were right on today and the car was there when we needed it. When we needed to run hard, we could run hard and when we needed to save we could save.”
Junior’s win was big news for NASCAR, which is struggling to make headlines with its new Chase format.
With some of the sport’s biggest names out of contention for the title, including Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson, getting headlines for a win that meant nothing for the championship was better than no headline at all.
Hard Times Ahead for Kevin Harvick
A mistake by fellow Chase driver Matt Kenseth put Kevin Harvick into the wall early Sunday. The damage forced Harvick to park his Chevrolet in the garage for repairs. He went several laps down from the race leaders and finished 33rd.
It was his worst finish in the Chase and the first race in which he didn't lead any laps.
“The good thing about this format is you have two more weeks and two race tracks that we can win on,” Harvick said in a post-race interview with his manufacturer representative. “Everybody was so worried about us starting in the back and we wrecked at the front. Unfortunate.”
Needless to say, Harvick was quite unhappy with Kenseth and afterward had just a few words for him.
And they weren’t pretty ones, either.
“Yeah, he won’t win this championship,” Harvick said after the race. “If we don’t, he won’t.”
Might there be future retaliation? Unlikely, given that Harvick has one task on his mind—winning one of the next two races.
But if he can do that and still wreck Kenseth in the process, then things might get interesting.
Jeff Gordon Takes Points Lead, Becomes the Man to Beat
At Martinsville on Sunday, Jeff Gordon did everything right—except be the first one to the checkered flag.
His No. 24 Chevrolet was the class of the field, strong enough to bring him from the back of the field to the front after a pit road speeding penalty and agile enough to maneuver successfully in the tight confines that is Martinsville.
“The good news is that a Chase driver did not win the race today,” Gordon said during a live television interview following the race. “Finishing second isn’t as big of a deal today, it’s actually really a good finish and good points day compared to if a Chase driver would have won. I wanted to get that win to get ourselves locked in, but we have two more great tracks coming up and yeah, today was a great overall effort by the whole team.”
Of course, a win in one of the next two races will automatically make Gordon one of the final four drivers who get to race for the 2014 title at Homestead. But he’ll happily take two more races like this one.
A Champion Without a Win? It Could Happen!
When NASCAR executives finalized the new Chase format—a format that eliminates drivers at each round—someone had to have suggested that the new format makes it possible for the champion to be winless.
For sure, the fans have talked about it. And so have the talking heads on television and the sports radio talk show hosts.
The reality of the situation is this: Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, both winless this season, sit poised to move into the final round of the Chase based on their standings in the points. Newman is second, while Kenseth is fourth. With only two races left before the season finale, it's likely that two of the four finalists in that race will be there based upon their points.
Luke Lambert, crew chief for Ryan Newman, talked about it to the Charlotte Observer’s Jim Utter.
“NASCAR writes the rules out at the beginning of the year. There is no predetermined road map to get there, and I can assure you most of these teams haven’t really written their road map, us included,” he said. “We would have wanted to have won more races by now and our plan all along was to get to this point having won a race.”
A champion without winning a race? It could happen, but it’s unlikely. The odds are against it, given that only two of the eight remaining drivers are winless.
Plus, I can remember earlier in the season when there was a different winner every weekend and the pundits and writers acted like their hair was on fire because there could be more than 16 different winners in the Chase.
There wasn’t. There were 13 winners.
And the 2014 NASCAR champion won’t be a driver who is winless, either.
It's Become Harder for a Chase Driver to Win
Now that I’ve said that the champion won’t be winless, it’s also important to point out how difficult it has become for the remaining eight drivers in the Chase to win. When there were 16 drivers, it was close to half the field vying for the victory. When the number of drivers dropped to 12 for the next round, well, then it was slightly under a third of the field.
Now, in the very aptly named Eliminator Round, only eight drivers fight against the overwhelming odds of racing with 35 other drivers.
These remaining eight drivers are supposed to be the best of the Chase, since they were good enough to move on to the semi-final round, even if two of them, Kenseth and Newman, haven’t won a race this year.
I’m not saying that makes those two any less of a driver than the other six. I’ll leave that judgment up to you.
But even with the best of the best fighting it out for the win, it is quite possible that the remaining races—at Texas and Phoenix—will be won by non-Chase drivers, just because there are so many of them in the field.
And there are some pretty good ones too. Johnson, Junior and Tony Stewart are just a few who come to mind.
Will Johnson Ride Under the Radar for the Rest of the Season?
Even fans of the 48 team weren’t quite sure where the six-time champion finished at Martinsville.
The team's performance Sunday started out as classic under-the-radar stuff. Johnson, who has eight wins at Martinsville, ended up quietly staying out of the way of the eight Chase drivers fighting for the win.
He unfortunately ran into Casey Mears during a restart, an incident that didn’t bring out the caution but that forced Johnson to the garage for lengthy repairs.
Sunday’s race was supposed to be one in which the team began to work on its 2015 game plan.
“We want to do well. We want to win races,” Johnson said during his pre-race media availability at Martinsville. “At the same time, this does open up an opportunity for us to work on ’15 from a personnel standpoint and even from a 2015 test plan. Obviously testing is gone next year, so anything we can do to work on the 2015 package will suit us well. We’re not slowing down any. These last four weeks are going to be about as busy as any as we’re getting geared up for 2015.”
So much for all the buzz, as mentioned here by The Associated Press (h/t FoxNews.com), about the Chad Knaus-Jimmie Johnson “breakup” from just a few weeks ago. You remember, when the No. 48 team was struggling to move forward in the Chase and Johnson and Knaus had a rather public discussion on the team radio.
Now that the pressure is off, it is time to look forward. And championship No. 7.
And by the way, Johnson finished 41 laps down from the race leaders in 32nd position.
Brad Keselowski Running out of Mulligans
The one thing that changed with the new Chase format this season is that a driver gets more than one free pass, one “off” weekend, one “mulligan race,” if you’d like.
Since the advent of the Chase more than a decade ago, it's been somewhat of an unwritten rule that you only get one bad race in the Chase. You could have one bad race during a 10-race stretch and still recover to win the championship (unless it’s the final race).
Now, you can have more than one. Brad Keselowski had one at Kansas, where he finished 36th. He came back the following week to finish 16th at Charlotte, and then, as we know, he won at Talladega to get his ticket to the Eliminator Round.
On Sunday, Keselowski had another “mulligan race.” Remarkably, that makes two in this Chase.
The Team Penske driver had been running a smart, conservative race until the restart on Lap 438. Then, disaster struck, along with more than half a dozen race cars into one another, after Keselowski slowed dramatically on a restart due to a mechanical problem with his Ford Fusion.
At that moment, Keselowski’s Chase hopes went from “we need to finish top-five or better in this race” to “we need to win one of the remaining races” in order for him to be one of the four drivers vying for the championship in Homestead.
It happens just that fast.
Has his luck run out?
The Return of Smoke and a Smile
He didn’t win the race, but from the smile during his live television interview, you could tell that Stewart was definitely enjoying the moment.
His crew chief, Chad Johnston, made the call for Stewart to stay out for what turned out to be the final caution flag. It was a gutsy move that didn’t pan out with a race win for the veteran driver.
“I don’t think it was a gamble by any means,” Stewart told a live national television audience. “I think if we were in that position 100 times over, that is same call we would do. It felt like it was the right thing for this team. I thought we gave ourselves the best shot to race for the win.”
On old tires, Stewart was a sitting duck to the drivers who took tires. He ended up finishing fourth.
No, he didn’t win Sunday, but it sure was nice to see Smoke smiling and talking about racing again.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis