NASCAR at Martinsville 2016: Winners and Losers from the STP 500

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2016

NASCAR at Martinsville 2016: Winners and Losers from the STP 500

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Kyle Busch landed his first win of the season and his first win in 33 tries at Martinsville, this time in the STP 500.

    "This is going to be one of the most meaningful wins for him up to this point," Fox analyst Jeff Gordon said after the race.

    Tick, tock, tick, tock, goes Busch's new grandfather clock.

    It was a race that saw some drivers fall like rocks and others rise and grind, baby.

    Everything from wheel hops to a selfless act, from hard sinks on the outside lane to a nearly victorious run by an unlikely driver, Martinsville had it all.

    Read on for a short-track version of the winners and losers.

Loser: Wheel Hops

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Denny Hamlin won the STP 500 a year ago, and he did just about everything possible to ensure he failed at a repeat on Sunday.

    Early in the race Hamlin incurred a speeding penalty on pit road that sent him to the back of the field.

    He labored up to P5 before suffering a right-front wheel hop that sent him into the fence and then into the garage.

    Hamlin said during the Fox broadcast:

    That's my first time [with a wheel hop] here. It's embarrassing. We were the fastest car the last 30 laps. We were picking up speed on entry. That was out of the blue. There was no hint of it until that moment. I've been around here too much for that to happen. I really felt like we had a car that could win.

    Hamlin needn't worry, not yet anyway. He's Chase-bound already, but he missed out on filling his notebook for this track. This invites the question: Does he even need more notes from Martinsville?

    He's a five-time winner, so maybe not. Martinsville is the Eliminator Round's first race, and if Hamlin can make it that far, he'll be gunning for clock No. 6 and yet another bid at the Sprint Cup at Homestead.

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Selfless Act

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    It didn't matter that Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 14th in the STP 500. It wasn't what you'd call a "win," in the most literal sense.

    No, Junior is a winner for what he's got between the ears. He made the choice to donate his brain to science when he passes away. Earnhardt wants his brain studied for the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, better known as CTE.

    "I was a donor already for many years...and so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do for me," Earnhardt said in Bob Pockrass' ESPN.com story. "Anything I can do to help others. Hopefully the science has advanced far beyond what it is today, and they don't need it. It was something I didn't have to ask myself whether I wanted to do it or not."

    A number of Oakland Raider players and even former soccer star Brandi Chastain are on board. Head injuries linked to chronic impact have been found in football and soccer players. Race car drivers face bone-crunching impacts in the cockpit. Maybe more subtle are the micro-vibrations of those monstrous cars jostling the brain within the skull.

    What Earnhardt chose to do won't reap benefits for 30 or 40 years, but hopefully other athletes of his profile follow suit so that future generations may benefit from this selfless act.

    "I didn't expect it to turn into the story it did, but if by all means, if it raises more awareness and inspires people to donate their brains and pledge their brains—hey don't need just athletes. They need everybody," Junior said.

Loser: The Pole-Sitter's Hood

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Joey Logano started on the pole for the third straight time at Martinsville and quickly had little to show for it.

    Early in the race he, like so many others over the course of the STP 500, hit that outside line where they were boxed out from any forward momentum.

    What happened?

    "Right rear tire, that's what that was," Logano told Fox's Jamie Little after the race. "Such a different race. It played out so much differently than what we thought. The way the tires wore was completely opposite of what it's been in the past. We've got some homework to understand why that happened."

    The No. 22 was all the way up and down the leaderboard, so to finish 11th was a testament to his ability to grind, another theme we saw throughout the race.

    "We figured out ways to crutch our car and get better, so we know where we missed it, but we didn't have the right tools to fix it," said Logano.

    Adding insult to injury, his hood flipped up on him and cost him a top-10 finish.

    "I am pretty much blindfolded on that one," said Logano. "I relied on my spotter Tab [Boyd], so I didn't run over someone. I just stared at the curb. Maybe we could have finished a couple [of] spots better if we could see, but that wouldn't have made the difference."

    Logano is still after his first win of the year, and in fits and starts he has proved to be a car capable of so much more. It'll only be a matter of time, and Saturday at Texas could spring him loose.

Winner: Austin Dillon's Fire

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    Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

    Austin Dillon is on the verge of something.

    Maybe it's a win, then again maybe it's something far more volatile.

    The third-year driver has a way of berating people over the radio. Even his teammate Paul Menard, whom Dillon wrestled with all afternoon, couldn't shake free of Dillon's fire.

    "Paul just said we had fast race cars; that was the end of it," Dillon said after the race. "I gotta learn to keep my mouth shut on the radio. It's part of racing. I'm a pretty fiery guy, and it was fun today. It's nice to see the front of a short track like that. Sometimes you gotta grow up a little bit."

    "Dillon the Driver" has grown up a whole lot. Finishing in fourth place moved him up to eighth on the Chase Grid, and it's only a matter of time before he wins that elusive first race.

    "You gotta tip your hat to Austin," Fox's Michael Waltrip said during the broadcast. "He dealt with a lot emotionally and fought back to finish in the top five."

Loser: Kevin Harvick

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick led the second-most laps of the day (72) but had nothing to show for it besides a 17th-place finish.

    He finally cooled off.

    The No. 4 car started the season with five races all within the top seven, including the win in Phoenix.

    Sunday's trip around Martinsville revealed a possible weakness for the team, but then again it was probably a matter of timing and tire wear.

    His only concern should be Martinsville in the fall, but if you're on the No. 4 team, there isn't much of a concern. You're a top-four team, and Homestead is well within reach.

Winner: Kyle Busch

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    After going 0-of-32 at Martinsville, Busch at long last notched that first grandfather clock.

    "I finally get to take a clock home," Busch said on the broadcast after the race.

    He led 352 of 500 laps and was the car to beat all day. It all threw back to the truck race on Saturday where he "took notes" and applied that knowledge to Sunday.

    And at the end of the race, all niceties between teammates went out the window netting. Busch selected the inside, thus putting Kenseth on the inferior upper lane. All bets were off.

    "That was the key to the race...being able to start on the bottom," Busch said after the race. "We all talked as a group earlier this morning how we were going to do that. We all said with 10 to go, it's pretty much off- limits, no more. It was 12 to go, so it was pretty much right on the brink. So, I'm sorry, Matt."

    Busch's average finish is 6.7 in 2016, so earning this win was basically a foregone conclusion.

    "Now he knows he can defend his championship," Michael Waltrip said after the race. "This team has so much momentum."

    And the key is to sustain it, not flame out.

Loser: The Long Fall of Matt Kenseth

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    With 12 laps to go, Matt Kenseth restarted on the front row to the outside of Busch.

    That proved to be Kenseth's death knell as Busch—rightfully so—showed no mercy and blew the paint off the No. 20 car.

    What we couldn't envision was how far Kenseth would drop. He got hung wide and went from second place all the way down to 15th.

    It's been that kind of season for Kenseth. He has a way of getting within striking distance of the front late in races, and then it falls apart in crushing ways (see Daytona 500 when another teammate, Hamlin, showed equal amounts of mercy).

    Are we willing to say—six races into the season—this is a trend that will continue? Or will he shake off this bad luck and get to Victory Lane?

    We can only wait and see.

Winner: AJ Allmendinger's Runnerup Performance

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    Usually the final slide of one of these jobs is the race-winner and with good reason.

    Rare is the chance to give the headlining slide to a driver who didn't win the race, so while Busch did in fact win the race, it was AJ Allmendinger taking second place that made him the big winner of the day.

    "I passed Jimmie Johnson like five times at Martinsville," Allmendinger said during the broadcast. "That's pretty cool. I had a shot at Kyle Busch."

    The drivers who win or finish in the top 10 and thus are interviewed with a high degree of regularity have that polish that feels so recycled. Allmendinger practically read off every sponsor on his car pointing to it all like an introductory college lecture. It was, in a word, charming.

    And, it bears mentioning, his candor after the race was refreshing. So I'll paste in his entire quote. It's long, but in this case it deserves the air time. He said:

    Just keep getting better every week. I'm trying my butt off. I didn't like myself last year. I didn't like who I was for the team. I was frustrated. I want to be better for these guys—guys, that when they step up, they make me better. I'm trying to be different but I'm not trying different stuff. They're just building me better race cars. Everybody back at the shop putting in 80-hour weeks, I hope you understand how important it is because you're making it happen. God, I wish we had one more spot but that was pretty darn cool.

    The hope is he'll keep up this momentum and maybe win at the two road courses, securing his spot in the Chase.