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What Happened to All the NASCAR Rivalries?


Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.

Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.

Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.

Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.

Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.

Let’s go through the gears…

ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.

For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.

“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”

No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.

“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”

The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.

SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.

Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.

Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.