NASCAR Sprint Cup at Martinsville: STP 500 Race Rewind

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 30, 2014 

Give NASCAR credit for offseason changes

• There likely are a myriad of reasons that go into the final product, but clearly NASCAR has done something right in its offseason decisions regarding changes to its championship format in the Sprint Cup Series, aerodynamics and removing some restrictions on the set-ups of cars. Sunday’s race produced a track-record 33 lead changes at Martinsville Speedway and a much larger number under green-flag conditions than during seasons past. The final duel for the victory between Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson was an excellent battle that produced excitement simply from the quality of the racing.

• It seems clear the more success Kurt Busch finds at his new home at Stewart-Haas Racing, the more he recognizes how much the past two seasons away from top-level organizations potentially impacted his career. Thanks to NASCAR’s new championship system, Busch has virtually guaranteed himself a chance to compete for the series championship with a top-quality team, something he has not done since his days at Penske Racing.

• I thought Sunday would provide Danica Patrick her best opportunity yet for a strong finish in the Cup series. She repeatedly has said her racing struggles could be traced in part to her qualifying. She started 10th Sunday – only the second time during her 52-race Cup career she has started among the top 10. However, she finished 32nd, six laps down from the leader and was not involved in an on-track incident.

Notebook

Haas pleased with Busch’s win

Gene Haas, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing who elected on his own to start a fourth team this season for Kurt Busch, was not present for Sunday’s victory.

Haas, who was in California, said he was surprised when Busch was able to pass Jimmie Johnson late in the race to earn the first win for the No. 41 team.

“Kurt kept his cool. He did what he had to do and no matter how he finished I thought that was going to be great,” Haas said. “Then when he went back and forth with Jimmie and he stayed out in front. I was impressed with that.

“I think Jimmie was a real gentleman about racing him cleanly and not trying to push him out of the way. I think Kurt and Jimmie both did that.”

Hamlin has an off day

Denny Hamlin, who missed last week’s race in Fontana, Calif., with vision problems, was hoping to bounce back at a track where he owns four victories.

He got off to a good start as he was fast in practice Friday and qualified second-fastest, but he struggled much of the race and finished 19th.

“Just slow – that’s the only thing that was wrong with us today,” he said. “Just a frustrating day, especially when you know that this is a race track that I feel like I can make up a difference here and there. We were a football field and then some away from the right set-up today.”

Earnhardt retakes points lead

It doesn’t mean as much as it once did, especially since he has a win this season, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third-place finish moved him back into the series points lead.

Earnhardt led three times for 25 laps, taking the lead for the first time on Lap 222 when he remained on the track instead of pitting with most of the lead-lap cars.

“I was real patient all day in saving the left rear (tire), saving the left rear (tire), saving the left rear and just waiting until the end, see where we’d be,” he said.

“We had good track position. Inside of 38 laps to go I thought everybody was going to go like (heck), and we all did and ended up running third.”

Bad start for Keselowski

Brad Keselowski had one of the fastest cars all weekend but received severe damage to his No. 2 Ford when he was struck by Kurt Busch during a pit stop on Lap 43 in an incident that also collected Kasey Kahne.

Keselowski was forced to the garage for repairs. Once he returned to the track, he bumped Busch’s Chevrolet several times in retaliation.

“I started to check up and I just barely got in the back of him and Kurt just accelerated and drove through us, absolutely drove through us,” Keselowski said. “I tell you what, I’m about tired of his recklessness.”

Next Race

Duck Commander 500

Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

TV: Fox

Radio: Performance Racing Network

Last year’s winner: Kyle Busch

5 key moments

1. Jimmie Johnson took the lead for the first time on Lap 21 and dominated, leading 296 of the 500 laps.

2. During pit stops on Lap 43, Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch collide on pit road, which sends Keselowski to the garage for extensive repairs.

3. Keselowski returned to the track with just more than 400 laps remaining and proceeded to bump Busch several times in retaliation.

4. Clint Bowyer moved into the lead on Lap 450 and appeared to have the race in hand until his team struggled with its pit stop during the final caution.

5. Johnson held the lead on the final restart on Lap 466, and he and Busch traded the lead three times over the final 34 laps before Busch emerged the winner.

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