For years, Martinsville proved to be a Virginia mountain Kyle Busch just couldn’t climb over. Since the start of the 2011 season, Busch had qualified no worse than 11th in any Sprint Cup race at NASCAR’s shortest track but never could launch from there into Victory Lane. Instead, the rolling hills of rural Virginia became an unsightly reminder of how Busch could never seem to put it all together. Runs like 27th (2011) and 15th (2013) help nail shut the coffin on championship bids that never seemed to get off the ground. Bristol and Richmond, the sport’s other short tracks are cake for Busch by comparison; he’s won a total of nine times at those facilities combined.
But last fall, in the midst of a championship run toward maturity, it was Martinsville that left Busch firmly on the ground. A fifth-place finish there in the midst of chaos surrounding him (Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano, anyone?) paved a road that led straight to being one of the last four drivers in the Chase. For once, it was Busch managing Martinsville instead of Martinsville managing him; a better knowledge of how the car was behaving matched with the mental fortitude to not let a little short track contact get to his head.
It’s no surprise then that the reigning Sprint Cup champion, now armed with the relief and respect earned by snatching the sport’s biggest trophy, finally figured Martinsville out this weekend. It started in the Truck Series, NASCAR’s lower division where Busch ran to get a few more laps in and continued straight through the checkered flag of the Cup race. Leading 352 of 500 laps, he was never seriously challenged in an event that featured just 11 lead changes – the fewest we’ve seen at Martinsville in over a decade.
“I think we got him dialed in a little bit better than he has been able to in the past,” said Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens. “Because he could really identify what he was looking for.“
Of course, the rough edges of Busch’s personality will never be fully ironed out; that’s what makes Kyle, well, Kyle. (He radioed to his crew after taking the victory: “Time for all the haters to shut up!”) But the sign of a looser, relaxed, more mature driver is when he takes one of his biggest weaknesses and figures it out. Martinsville, for all intents and purposes was one of them.
FIRST GEAR: Busch Showcases A New Strength In 2016 – Versatility
Busch’s win was not only his first of the season, all but assuring the defending champ of a Chase bid, it also showcased an increasing ability for him to excel anywhere. Since his return from injury in 2015 three of Busch’s six Cup wins have been “first-timers” – maiden Cup victories on the oval tracks of Indianapolis, Homestead and Martinsville. Those three places could not be more different as muscles were flexed on a superspeedway, a 1.5-mile intermediate and NASCAR’s shortest track on the circuit.
“We've certainly put some emphasis on [tracks we haven’t won] over the past few years,” Busch said Sunday. “I'm pumped when I'm able to do that. I don't know that many guys have ever been able to accomplish being able to win at every single active track that they've made starts at, and I look forward to trying to complete that feat.”
It’s a record Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin nor Tony Stewart have ever accomplished. But for Busch, the odds look good as the three “goose eggs” remaining on his Cup Series resume are at Kansas, Pocono and Charlotte. The series races both tracks twice a year so there’s plenty of chances left to knock them off the list.
More importantly, Busch made a statement Sunday that it’s not going to be easy to knock him off his throne. Johnson and Kevin Harvick have arguably had better years thus far in 2016 but Busch remains right at their level.
SECOND GEAR: AJ Allmendinger’s Near Miss
They always say in racing “second place is the first loser” but that feeling seemed especially appropriate for Allmendinger. Don’t get me wrong; the 35-year-old Californian was pumped about a runner-up result that nearly got one spot better after a strong final restart. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet did everything possible to run Busch down and came up .663 seconds short. But while Busch, who will likely win multiple times this year, was a playoff contender regardless of what happened Sunday it felt like the ‘Dinger missed out on a chance to steal an early postseason spot.
“We had such a good long run car I was hoping we would stay green for the last 120 laps,” he said. “I thought we might really have a shot at them. I had to get aggressive. I thought heck, with 12 to go we might have a new clock in the shop.”
The ‘Dinger, despite a weakness on short runs, got an opening when Busch decided not to let teammate Matt Kenseth get in line on the final restart. After a race full of “playing nice” team orders didn’t come into play and that gave ‘Dinger an opportunity to muscle the No. 20 car out of line and go after Busch.
In this case, the underdog came up short and if ‘Dinger suffers a playoff miss in September he’ll look back on this missed opportunity. But the No. 47 team has come out of the box flying despite remaining a single-car effort; six months of change that resulted in Randall Burnett assuming the crew chief role have paid major dividends. Currently 12th in the standings, there’s still a solid chance this team could make it into the Chase by points. If single-car effort Martin Truex Jr. could do it….
THIRD GEAR: Other Surprising Names Near the Front
Allmendinger wasn’t the only surprise name near the top of the list Sunday. Short tracks typically offer an opportunity for greater parity and it was good for the sport to see Kyle Larson third, Austin Dillon fourth, Brian Vickers seventh and Paul Menard eighth. For all of them, it was their best finish of the season and in the case of Dillon a career best.
Among the highlights: Menard led a race at Martinsville for the first time in his career. Larson rebounded into the top 5 just one week after slamming the inside wall at Fontana, a hit that left him sore enough to heal up and miss a rare Sprint car appearance. And for Vickers, seventh was bittersweet as his time behind the wheel of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing car remains uncertain. Subbing for an injured Tony Stewart it’s uncertain how many starts he’ll make going forward if any as Ty Dillon will take over the controls at Texas.
“We were so fast,” he said. “This is a bittersweet special track for me. I lost my best friend here [Ricky Hendrick in the infamous Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004]. I really wanted to win for him. But it was still a good day. The team is getting stronger every week, really.”
They’ll soon need to maintain that strength without him. But Vickers’ audition of sorts here might put him back in position for a full-time Cup opportunity down the road.
FOURTH GEAR: Denny Hamlin’s Major Whiff
The big surprise from Martinsville weekend was defending champ Hamlin failing to finish. It would be one thing if mechanical failure felled the No. 11 Toyota but a wreck? Self-induced? Simply wheel-hopping the car entering turn 1? It’s the type of “I just lost it” you don’t often see, especially from a Daytona 500 winner and a guy who’s been in Victory Lane at his hometown track a career-best five times.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” said Hamlin, who wound up 39th. “We were the fastest car those last 30 laps and we got back to the top 5 and I was making up a lot of my speed on entry. As the tires wear, the rears get hotter, less grip, you can’t brake at the same amount and I just – it was really out of the blue. I didn’t ever have a hint of it up until that moment, so a bit of a rookie move on my part – been around here too much to do something like that.”
Clint Bowyer’s frustrating season continued Sunday. His No. 15 Chevrolet, part of the underdog HScott Motorsports operation felt like a moving roadblock as he suffered to a 25th-place finish. Outside the top 30 in the season standings, Bowyer has yet to score a top-10 result with this underdog operation and was so frustrated he had jetted to his personal car and left the track before Busch ever entered Victory Lane. Next season and taking over Tony Stewart’s No. 14 car can’t come soon enough… Pit road problems cost Harvick Sunday and you can tell on the radio he’s getting frustrated. In a race that was all about track position he lost ground on virtually every stop… Teammate Danica Patrick, by comparison showed some fight en route to a 16th-place finish. It was by far her best effort of the season… On the way out Busch had his own encounter with a fan that his wife captured on Twitter. The drive by was funny enough to make ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights among other major outlets.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)