Parity at Martinsville?
What an alien concept!
And what a dichotomy we saw in Sunday’s STP 500. The sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event of the season produced a track-record 33 lead changes, even though Jimmie Johnson, the current master of Martinsville, led 296 of the 500 laps.
Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin had combined to win 17 of the previous 22 races at the .526-mile short track. But there was no sense on Sunday that Johnson was head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field, even though he led almost 60 percent of the race.
Winner Kurt Busch passed Johnson in the closing laps — twice. Busch grabbed the top spot on Lap 473, lost it to Johnson on Lap 483 and made what turned out to be the winning pass on Lap 490.
It was a case of parry and thrust, rather than Johnson simply skewering the rest of the competition, as he had done eight times in the past. And in the end, Busch won the race because he had a slightly superior car when it counted, along with the talent to drive it.
But, as 33 lead changes might suggest, it was a race of ebb and flow. Pole winner Kyle Busch paced the first 17 laps, but after another brief stint at the front, from Laps 59-64, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota all but disappeared for the rest of the afternoon.
Matt Kenseth was strong early, lost a lap when he stayed out on old tires and subsequently rallied to finish sixth. Joey Logano was solid all day, capable of passing cars and moving forward when he was shuffled back in traffic. Logano started third and finished fourth in the No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gained ground throughout the event, starting 26th and finishing third. And Greg Biffle drove from seventh to the lead in the space of 35 laps after a restart on Lap 120.
That’s the same Greg Biffle who has a career-best finish of seventh at Martinsville, the same Greg Biffle whose career-average finish at the historic short track is 20.1.
But on Sunday, Biffle found the rhythm at the track that, more than any other, has been his Kryptonite. Ultimately, Biffle’s car tightened up, he wore the “new” off his tires, and a succession of outside-lane restarts relegated him to 18th at the finish.
None of that, however, diminished the achievement of running down and passing Jimmie Johnson for the lead and staying there for 18 laps.
We won’t know whether a sea change occurred in the nature of racing at Martinsville until the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns during the Chase in October. We’ll know then how well teams have adapted to the new no-ride-height platform they’re still learning at this stage of the season, and which teams have made the most progress with the new configuration.
Nevertheless, what happened Sunday suggests that the track may be ready to escape the stranglehold of Martinsville’s Big Three.
Why is that the case?
With a number of variables interlocking to produce one of the most competitive Martinsville races in recent memory, tire management was the foremost factor.
If you were a “rabbit,” you could charge to the front and lead, only to be overtaken late in the run by drivers who had been more judicious with their equipment. Talk of saving tires dominated conversations between crew chiefs and drivers throughout the race.
To the company’s credit, Goodyear provided a tire at Martinsville that fell off considerably during the course of a fuel run, with the degree of fall-off proportional to the aggressiveness of the driver. That’s precisely what the Sprint Cup stars have been requesting for a number of years.
Almost as significant was the rain that washed out both scheduled practice sessions on Saturday, forcing crew chiefs to make educated guesses at setups for Sunday’s race. Those who missed it made wild swings at adjustments during the course of the afternoon.
That’s one of the reasons you saw cars that had been floundering for the first 200 laps suddenly come to life. That’s why you saw cars that had run well in the early stages falter later on, as track conditions changed.
It’s obviously a facetious notion, but it makes you wonder what might happen if NASCAR did away with post-qualifying practices entirely and forced teams to adjust during the races themselves.
If a show like Sunday’s event at Martinsville is an indication, it might not be a bad idea.