Every year, NASCAR makes a moment that will be remembered by fans for a generation. In 2015, it was the Joey Logano vs. Matt Kenseth brouhaha. The year after it was the championship-ending wreck at Homestead for Carl Edwards (in what would become his last race in NASCAR).
Last year? It was all about Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. Elliott, nearly two years into his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, was primed to win last fall at Martinsville. He was leading with three laps remaining, Hamlin virtually superglued to his rear bumper. The two drivers went hard into turn 3... and then? A little bump by Hamlin’s No. 11 sent Elliott from victory to vicious contact with the outside retaining wall.
From there, the rivalry was on. The two exchanged post-race insults with one another, anger that boiled over two weeks later at Phoenix. Elliott enacted revenge in that event, making contact with the No. 11 that cut a tire and ended Hamlin’s chances at a championship.
Six months later, both drivers remain on icy terms with each another heading to the original scene of the crime. The rivalry between them, the type that can spark NASCAR’s sluggish 2018 viewership, remains as strong as ever. Both men are expected to run together, mashing fenders at the STP 500 at Martinsville this weekend.
There’s just one problem with their whole battle royale. It hasn’t reached the front of the pack since that fateful fall.
Both drivers not only failed to make the Championship 4 at Homestead – neither one has won since the incident. Hamlin, to his credit, has four top-5 finishes in his eight races since but hasn’t dominated an event the way Kevin Harvickhas multiple times in 2018. A Barstool Sportsappearance in February put Hamlin in the heart and minds of new fans but the results have left him sitting in the shadows.
And Elliott? High expectations at Hendrick Motorsports have grown into an even larger monkey on his back. The driver of the No. 9, considered the future at HMS, is still winless through 82 career MENCS starts. Earning just one top-5 finish this season, at Phoenix, even that run was negated by a 25-point penalty for rear suspension violations. Sitting a mediocre 21st in points, Chase is chasing the legend of his Hall of Fame father Bill as a growing number of critics wonder if the youngster can rise to the talent of the man he once replaced, Jeff Gordon.
In a perfect world, this duo would be trading paint and battling for wins every week. Maybe Sunday can be the start of a renaissance for both near the front of the pack, the public rekindling of a back-and-forth battle NASCAR needs in a season defined by blowouts.
69th STP 500
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, VA)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Kevin Harvickthrew the first punch of the 2018 season, courtesy three straight wins, but NASCAR’s reigning champ is punching back. Truex had a dominant run of his own in Sunday’s Auto Club 400, leading 125 circuits while cruising to a nearly 12-second victory over second-place runner Kyle Larson. In the process, Truex pulled off a clean sweep of the pole and each of the race’s three stages, seven playoff points that put the No. 78 in prime position to challenge Harvick.
In fact, Truex sits in the regular season point lead after Harvick wrecked into the outside wall early in Sunday’s event. Earning four top-5 finishes in the season’s first five races, Truex is actually running ahead of his 2017 championship-winning pace.
Who’s at the Back: Roush Fenway Racing
After a major step forward in 2017, earning multiple victories with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing expected to continue their growth in 2018.
Instead? It feels like a major step back. Stenhouse, whose offseason began via a public breakup with Danica Patrick,hasn’t really seemed like himself. His best run is just 14th at Las Vegas while manufacturer Ford has been forced to sponsor two of his five races. It’s a reminder that RFR remains behind the curve on finances.
Teammate Trevor Bayne, who wrecked at Fontana, is doing far worse. Two DNFs in five starts leave him 27th in points and perhaps on the hot seat as we look ahead at NASCAR’s Silly Season to come. Keep in mind they’re both driving a car, the Ford Fusion, that has set the series on fire during the year’s first five races. How is RFR not benefitting from that success?
The first driver change of the year came Sunday night when Jeffrey Earnhardt and StarCom Racing mutually agreed to dissolve their partnership. The grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr.had been struggling since Daytona, finishing 11 laps off the pace at Fontana in 36th. Journeyman Landon Cassill will now run the next two races, at Martinsville and Texas Motor Speedway in April, while StarCom figures out a long-term plan for their No. 00.
After an ugly week of sponsorship news at Hendrick Motorsports, Friday buoyed the team’s spirits when Axalta announced a multi-year extension with the organization. The company, which has been part of HMS since Jeff Gordonmoved to Cup in 1993, will back a combined 25 races per year as primary sponsor for Alex Bowman and William Byron through 2022.
Carl Edwards reiterated this week he’s done driving in NASCAR. During a SIRIUS XM interview with Claire B. Lang, Edwards indicated he’s actually more likely to run for office than get back behind the wheel of a stock car again. Edwards’ home state of Missouri has an embattled governor, Eric Greitens, embroiled in scandal following an extramarital affair. Edwards has been rumored to potentially run for that seat once Greitens’ term expires in 2020.
Daniel Hemric will make his MENCS debut at Richmond next month as part of a two-race deal. He’ll drive the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, his XFINITY Series employer, with sponsorship provided by Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnsonthrough the first five races of 2018.
Laps led by Kevin Harvickthrough those same five races, a series best.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Other names may be flashier at Martinsville but it’s hard to argue with the consistency of Brad Keselowski. The defending race winner of last spring’s event has four straight top-5 finishes here while leading 224 laps in the process. The past two years have taught the driver of the No. 2 Ford to stay out of trouble here and finish on what can be a treacherous short track. Pick him up.
Keselowski’s consistency may be bested only by the No. 18 of Kyle Busch. Five straight top-5 finishes, including two wins leave him near the top of everyone’s list. But I’m a little nervous about Busch’s frustration with his 2018 season entering into this event. It’s the type of temper that’ll get someone in trouble here and leave him exiting the race on a tow truck.
Looking for a dark horse? We don’t think of Martin Truex Jr. as a short track driver but he’s got four top-10 finishes in his past six Martinsville starts. A runner-up performance last fall was his career best.
In the past five Martinsville races, veteran Ryan Newman has run no lower than 16th. He’s also qualified inside the top 20 an astounding 15 straight races. That’s going to give you the track position needed to (mostly) keep your nose clean and your car in position for a top-10 effort. Expect the No. 31 team to run well.
It’s been a tough start for Trevor Bayne this season (see above) but Martinsville offers him an opportunity. Surviving for two top-15 runs here last season, Bayne knows he can be successful at this track. The No. 6 team just has to put a full 500-lap race together and avoid making a major mistake.
How about David Ragan as a reach pick? The short tracks are all about utilizing drivers you might not start at many other places on the circuit. Despite running an underfunded car at Front Row Motorsports, Ragan has run 10th with this team here as recently as the fall of 2014. A strong start by teammate Michael McDowell this season has given FRM a bit of momentum and they run the Fords that have exceeded expectations so far in 2018. Keep an eye on him.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has the edge with STP 500 odds right now at 15/4 over Brad Keselowski. Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott sit third and fourth on the list as Vegas eagerly hopes these two will go at it down the stretch.
What I Think
Hamlin and Elliott would be the storybook battle. But I’m going with momentum and Martin Truex Jr. The reigning champ has this track circled to knock off his winless list and the No. 78 may pull some shock and awe on what’s supposed to be a snowy weekend up in Virginia.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)