Refreshed from an off-weekend and ready to go short track racing, here is what was surprising and not surprising when the Cup drivers returned to racing in the STP Gas Booster 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Surprising: With all the talk of paybacks from feuding drivers, it was surprising just how uneventful the last restart and final laps of the race were, especially since the trio competing at the end included Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, all of whom have history together.
In fact, at last year’s Martinsville race, the three drivers tangled in the final laps, with Bowyer on new tires and the Hendrick teammates on old tires, sending them all spinning and handing the race win to Ryan Newman.
Gordon and Bowyer also have history and unsettled scores from last season that even carried over through the end-of-year banquet in Las Vegas. Yet, in spite of a few nudges here and there, they raced each other cleanly and respectfully, which was more than surprising given the rhetoric and hostility between the two.
“Well, we just didn’t need those cautions there at the end,” Gordon, who finished third in the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, said. “We just needed more laps there at the end.”
“Well, last year I had the upper hand with tires and it just didn’t work out,” Bowyer, driver of the No. 15 RK Motors Toyota and race runner up, said. “It’s just disappointing.”
“Just wish I’d had that clock.”
Not Surprising: With Jimmie Johnson’s stats at Martinsville, including multiple wins and the best driver rating of 122.3, it was not surprising at all to see him in Victory Lane, collecting his eighth grandfather’s clock.
And while Johnson winning at Martinsville was not surprising in the least, the depth of bittersweet emotion in victory lane was also not surprising, given the history of loss for team owner Rick Hendrick and his family at that rack.
With caps turned backwards in memory of Ricky Hendrick and the other members of the HMS team lost in the plane crash at Martinsville nine years ago, Rick Hendrick shared that the track holds so many mixed emotions for him, including the joy of winning and the agony of loss.
Yet in spite of the bittersweet memories, Hendrick was also incredibly proud of the accomplishment of winning 20 races at that track, the most of any organization in the sport.
“I was looking at that scoreboard over there, the first time I ever came to a Cup race was here with my dad,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been fortunate to have some great drivers and this track has been awful good to us.
Surprising: While it was surprising enough that Danica Patrick, behind the wheel of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, finished 12th, it was even more surprising that she beat out her Stewart Haas Racing teammates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, who finished 17th and 31st respectively.
This was Patrick’s first time at Martinsville Speedway in a Cup car and, in spite of an early spin, she rallied back to the checkered flag as the highest finishing rookie in the race.
“Yeah, well never being at Martinsville, I didn’t know what to expect,” Patrick said. “I felt like I made a lot of passes.”
“I’m most proud about coming back from two laps down and being on the lead lap,” Patrick continued. “Then grabbing a 12th place finish in the end was good.”
Not Surprising: One of the biggest complaints after Martinsville was, not surprisingly, the lack of a second groove in the track and how much track position was lost because of it.
Although finishing top-ten, Marcos Ambrose, driver of the No. 9 Stanley Ford, had quite a bit to say about the battle for the preferred inside line.
“You had to fight like a dog to try to get to the inside,” Ambrose said. “If you got hung out there, there’s just nothing you could do – you’re just along for the ride.”
Surprising: With all the attention on and rhetoric about Joey Logano, it was a bit surprising that he was pretty much a non-factor at Martinsville.
In fact, going into the short track race weekend, Logano said that he would not seek conflict but he also vowed not to lay down for anyone.
“There’s a fine line of how you’re going to earn that respect,” Logano said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to look for trouble, but I’m also the guy that’s not going to get walked on.”
Logano experience neither being in trouble or getting walked on at Martinsville, finishing 23rd in his No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford. And with that non-stellar finish, he fell two spots in the point standings to 11th.
Not Surprising: Any racer out of the car would find it difficult being at the track. So, it was not surprising just how tough Denny Hamlin took sitting out and watching another driver behind the wheel of his race machine.
“The start of the race was nothing like I thought it was,” Hamlin said. “The start of the race absolutely killed me.”
“That was very, very tough to watch,” Hamlin continued. “I didn’t’ realize the physical toll that coming out here was going to take on me.”
Surprising: With Roush Fenway Racing traditionally struggling at Martinsville, it was surprising to see one of their drivers finish top ten. Greg Biffle, behind the wheel of the No. 16 3M Ford, brought his car to the checkered flag in the ninth position.
“It was a hard fought day,” Biffle said. “Our car was way too tight and I had to keep working on it.”
“There was no outside groove whatsoever and everyone really wanted the bottom,” Biffle continued. “But we still finished in the top-10 so I’m pretty happy about that.”
Not Surprising: There were several bounce back finishes amongst drivers who struggled and then came back strong at the finish of the race. One of the most notable was Brad Keselowski, who overcame a questionable pit road penalty to finish sixth in his Blue Deuce.
“That was a hard-fought finish,” Keselowski said. “We wanted to be able to win here and just haven’t been strong enough to do it.”
“But I’m proud of where we are right here today.”
Another amazing performance was given by Iron Man Mark Martin, who was involved in a multi-car crash on lap 180 and then rallied to finish tenth. To boot, this stellar finish was in an unfamiliar car in which he was subbing for the injured Denny Hamlin.
Yet not surprisingly, Martin once again downplayed his accomplishment.
“It wasn’t that great of a result; we were capable of a little bit better,” Martin said in his usual humble style. “I did not fill Denny Hamlin’s shoes, I can tell you that much.”
“He is the master.”
Surprising: Another pleasant surprise for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing was the good finish for once of one of its drivers. Jamie McMurray, behind the wheel of the No. 1 Novo Nordisk Chevrolet for EGR, finished seventh.
“We had a really good car,” McMurray said. “Made a good pit call at the end and got a couple of extra spots.”
“That was a really good day for us.”
Not Surprising: Although working with a relatively new team in Furniture Row Racing, it was not surprising that veteran driver Kurt Busch had the presence of mind to not only angle the car before hitting the wall after his brakes failed, but also had the wherewithal to utilize his fire suppression system when his car went up in flames.
“Something let go in the brakes,” Busch said. “I had to turn the car to the right otherwise I was going to hit harder than what we did.”
“It was a bummer day.”
Unfortunately, that bummer day resulted in Busch falling from 13th to 19th in the driver point standings. The driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row/Serta Chevrolet, along with all of his Cup competitors, will have a chance at redemption as the elite series heads into Texas Motor Speedway.