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Tiregate Defines NASCAR Season Following Denny Hamlin’s Victory at Martinsville

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Denny Hamlin 2015 STP 500 Martinsville Speedway

Denny Hamlin 2015 STP 500 Martinsville Speedway

As NASCAR prepares for its Easter break, the mood around the garage had turned optimistic. Martinsville, long one of the circuit’s best tracks produced an excellent finish between Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski. After weeks of dominance by Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota flexed some muscle as some new faces made their way to the front. It seemed like the biggest news item this week would simply be following Kyle Larson doctor visits after the young driver fainted and was taken to a Charlotte hospital.

Then, out of the blue NASCAR dropped an anvil straight on an unsuspecting sport. Ryan Newman was docked 75 points Tuesday night when his team was found to make improper adjustments to his tires during the race. According to officials, holes were being poked in his Goodyears to slowly “bleed air pressure” during a run, increasing grip and allowing the handling of his car to stay more consistent. The advantage was costly, as crew chief Luke Lambert was fined $125,000 and suspended for six races. Tire technician James Bender and team engineer Philip Surgen have been suspended for the next six races as well.

Officials had been sniffing around with tires the last few weeks, confiscating them from several top teams following races but had not found anything out of the ordinary, until now. The Newman penalty, while affecting the No. 31 team directly, serves as a stern warning for everyone else. NASCAR has done a lot of work the last few years trying to carve out any type of “gray area” in what was a rulebook that once appeared to be written in invisible ink. The sport is preaching parity and any modifications to major pieces, like tires and engines will be dealt with swiftly and effectively.

At the same time, for Newman the penalty could have been far worse. Early in the season, a six-week suspension gives them plenty of time to recover and regain rhythm before the Chase. While dropping to 27th in the standings, a win will be all it takes for Newman to still gain entrance into the postseason field (he was last year’s championship runner-up). Richard Childress Racing has shown plenty of speed, with its single-car alliances of JTG-Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing posting top-5 and top-10 performances, too. Opportunities will be there for Newman to cash in over the spring and summer, making tiregate a distant memory.

It was the easiest way for NASCAR to fire a warning shot, with Newman the example they’re trotting out in front of the masses. In a year where passing is difficult, teams are trying every which way to get the slightest advantage that will push them through traffic during a long, green-flag run. But playing with fire will come with a steep price, one they won’t want to risk during the postseason. That message was the sport’s Easter egg gift to America.

Let’s take a look back at what else we should focus on heading into NASCAR’s off week.

FIRST GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing back on track

Hamlin’s Martinsville victory, his fifth at the track, led a strong effort by the sport’s top Toyota outfit. Teammates Matt Kenseth and David Ragan also wound up inside the top 5, the first time that’s happened all season. It was a strong response to the news that team President J.D. Gibbs is undergoing treatment for issues impacting brain function.

“It was about 12, 13 years ago when J.D. happened to just show up at a Hickory test where we were running some late models,” Hamlin explained. “He made a phone call to his dad and thought maybe he had something there that was special. [JGR] signed me up, and J.D. was the key to making that happen.”

As the team has rallied together, prepared to support Gibbs through the illness there’s also signs of recovery from Kyle Busch’s devastating leg injury at Daytona. While Busch keeps pushing through rehab, Ragan seems to have finally gotten comfortable with the No. 18 team in his absence. His first top-5 finish makes it more likely he’ll be in the car for a longer period rather than handing off the reins to youngster Erik Jones.

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SECOND GEAR: Hendrick’s horrible day

This year, Hendrick Motorsports cars have flashed the most speed to compete with defending champion Kevin Harvick. But Martinsville, traditionally a strength with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, turned out to be a huge bump in the road. Johnson was never a factor, getting involved in wrecks and failing to lead a lap en route to 35th. Gordon, on the other hand was in position until a late penalty for speeding sent him to the back of the lead lap during the race’s final caution. He fought his way to ninth but that was small consolation for a car that was one of the fastest in the field.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won at Martinsville last fall, was a mess all day. Suffering from multiple broken shifters, he wound up plowing into a wreck and finished one spot behind Johnson in 36th. Young Chase Elliott, making his Sprint Cup debut had a similar problem, a chain-reaction incident leaving him a whopping 73 laps down in 38th. Only Kasey Kahne, who ran 11th avoided significant problems on the day.

“You can’t do anything about bad finishes like this,” explained Earnhardt. “You just have to learn from everything that happened to us and come back here a little stronger next time.”

THIRD GEAR: 1, 2, 3, Contact

After a series of questionable debris cautions, the yellow flag waved 16 times Sunday for (mostly) legitimate reasons. Martinsville lived up to its short track reputation, with three wrecks involving five or more cars dwindling the number of lead-lap finishers to 21. Among the big names involved included Earnhardt, Elliott, Newman and Justin Allgaier.

It was a carnage-filled event but one that harkened back to the old-school days of NASCAR, when you could bump each other and not worry about losing speed or the dreaded “aero push.” During a season where there’s been so little contact, drivers creating their own personal space shortly after a restart the bumping and grinding was nice to see.

FOURTH GEAR: Danica hanging in there

A seventh-place finish, for some would be a drop in the bucket toward building a Chase-contending resume. But for a driver like Danica Patrick, simply looking to survive in the Sprint Cup Series it’s a huge confidence boost for her and crew chief Daniel Knost.

“It’s a disaster to be off and struggling with the car and it’s really fun to have a good car,” she explained, claiming her top-10 finish was a dogfight. “We had both of them today. I don’t think I’ve really been in that situation before.”

Patrick, in the final year of her contract desperately needs to put some finishes together and show she can succeed in Cup over the long-term. Stewart-Haas Racing, pairing her with the inexperienced Knost hadn’t done her any favors but suddenly, their little group is making a bit of noise. If the season ended today, Patrick would be tied for the final Chase spot and she’s done a better job of making the most of her situation each week. In theory, the speed is there to get the job done, especially with teammate Harvick dominating nearly every week. Her position in points, however tenuous, makes her a story to keep an eye on.

OVERDRIVE

Harvick, who led a race-high 154 laps Sunday saw his streak of eight top-2 finishes end. He wound up eighth, shrinking his lead in the points over Joey Logano to just 24… The 31 lead changes we saw at Martinsville, a season high, were more than the last two races combined… Martin Truex Jr. now has six top-10 finishes to start the season with Furniture Row Racing. That’s a career high for him and more than he scored with FRR all of last season… Carl Edwards, 17th on Sunday, still has yet to register a top-10 finish with his new team over at Joe Gibbs Racing.

— 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 tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.