Race Capsule: Earnhardt Jr. takes the Martinsville clock, several Chase drivers on borrowed time
Flag to Flag: The Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway provided much of the fender-banging, close quarters, tempers flaring, gut punching racing action and drama predicted for NASCAR's opening Eliminator Round short track race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. can strap a grandfather clock on the back of the No. 88 National Guard Chevy, as the recently-eliminated former Chase driver took his 4th win of the season and and first at NASCAR's oldest track. The race started with Jamie McMurray (16th) on the pole and dominant early. But the dominator of the day was last year's winner Jeff Gordon (2nd), who squeaked into the Eliminator Round but drove to the lead for 130 circuits total. During a pit sequence before the race's midpoint, Gordon and fellow Chaser Ryan Newman (3rd) both got caught for speeding on pit road. Gordon regained the lead on lap 335 and was leading as soon as eight to go, but couldn't catch his teammate Earnhardt Jr. Denny Hamlin (8th) had the 2nd-best car in the field, but made contact with Gordon on pit road late and faded on the final restart. Earnhardt Jr. may not have had the best car, but his win wasn't a fluke. He led 79 laps and strong-armed his way to the win past Tony Stewart (4th), who tied his best finish of the season with only his third top 5. Stewart stayed out on the final set of pit stops to gain track position, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (15th) and David Ragan (10th). While five of the eight Chase drivers finished in the top 8, others got the sharp end of the stick. Carl Edwards (20th) struggled all day, but benefited from late yellows. Brad Keselowski (31st) broke a transmission and caused a big wreck that actually collected Edwards. Keselowski needed his Hail Mary win a week ago at Talladega to even advance in NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoffs and now is in a deep points hole heading to Texas next weekend. Kevin Harvick (33rd) got the worst draw of the Chase drivers, as Matt Kenseth (6th) wheel hopped and lost the nose of his car just after a restart on lap 229 and spun both out. Harvick hit the wall and went to the garage. He, too, is in a must-win situation these next two weeks and brake-checked Kenseth late in the race as payback. Harvick also said afterward that no matter what, he would make sure Kenseth didn't advance to the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, even though Kenseth's wreck was an accident. The rest of the Chase drivers did what they needed to do, though Hamlin's effort leaves him two points behind Kenseth, who sits in the 4th spot. Retaliation also came in to play Sunday. Kasey Kahne (40th) spun Brian Vickers (27th) on lap 161. Vickers retaliated, spinning Kahne into the wall (and to the garage) on lap 222. When Kahne returned to the track, he hooked Vickers on lap 278. That was the biggest conflict in what was a tough contest. The top 10 were Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Newman, Stewart (caught up in the Kenseth-Harvick melee, but finished well), Joey Logano (strong all day, but never strongest), Kenseth, Clint Bowyer (solid, but should have finished better), Hamlin, A.J. Allmendinger (in the thick of things all day), and David Ragan (benefited from late race pit strategy). Earnhardt Jr.'s win was mighty popular and also the first for a non-Chaser in the 2014 Chase. NASCAR's short tracks rarely disappoint.
RaceTweet: Junior Nation gets redemption at Martinsville, while Keselowski and Harvick Nation hope for miracles next two weeks.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Should have been Jeff Gordon, but instead is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who consistently kept himself in position to win all race long. He led the third-most laps in the race and made the tough pass of Tony Stewart to take the win.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - He pitted under green and lost a lap early, then got big time damage in an accordion pileup on a restart. The damage to the radiator sent the No. 48 to the garage and officially out of contention. His 32nd-place effort is another scar in a painful 2014 campaign. Johnson's average finish (15.2) is over 1.5 places worse than any full-time season in his Cup career. He's lead 800 laps less than last year. And he's won eight times at Martinsville. Tough stuff.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Tony Stewart - His No. 14 Chevy got dinged up in the second Vickers-Kahne crash, but Stewart drove back through the field to score his first top 5 finish since Bristol and Fontana - in March. That's like a victory after all this bunch has been through the last two years. Stewart needs a win in these next three races to continue his streak of having won in every full-time season of his Cup career (since 1999). Newman also gets a nod for driving up to 3rd after getting a speeding penalty at the same time as Gordon.
Ghost Driver: Carl Edwards - Dude, you're still in the Chase. The Eliminator Round, in fact. Wasn't the No. 99 supposed to be good on short tracks this year? Not Sunday. Edwards struggled to barely stay in the top 25, got damaged in the Keselowski pile-up, and somehow managed 20th, thanks to late restarts and the high attrition rate.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: David Ragan - Front Row Motorsports must have paid NASCAR to put Talladega and Martinsville back-to-back. These two tracks are FRM's biggest chances to win. Ragan got the free pass on the third caution of the race (brought out by fellow Georgia driver Kyle Fowler) and benefited from the day's 15 yellow flags and the late call to stay out on old tires gained him enough track position to only fall to 10th at the end. Good run.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kurt Busch - the spring Martinsville winner had a top 5 ride Sunday and even spent some time up front. But much like any other potentially successful effort he's had in 2014, Busch's No. 41 suddenly started burning under one caution period and he went to the garage to finish 36th. But yes, the No. 41 crew did fix the thing and get him back on track. That is a fitting end to the Busch-crew chief Daniel Knost pairing.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Why does someone always have to ask that question about teammates letting teammates win? Dale Earnhardt Jr. got it yesterday - "Jeff Gordon is your teammate and needs a win to advance in the Chase? Was there talk about letting him win?" He was emphatic with a no, Gordon was clear - no. NASCAR threw the whole bookshelf at Michael Waltrip Racing last year for affecting the race to try and get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase. Teammates are expected to cut each other breaks and, yes, Logano was in "push Keselowski mode" at Talladega last week. But to imply that Earnhardt Jr. was told to or should have just pulled over to give Gordon a needed win is ludicrous. Remember that Gordon raced teammate Kahne like crazy at the Brickyard this summer, even trying to run him out of gas under caution, to ensure his win. Kahne needed one badly to make the Chase. But Gordon wanted another Indy trophy and got it. Props to Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports for winning Martinsville on the 10-year anniversary of the tragic HMS plane crash nearby and for not playing open wheel-like team orders and ruining a glorious short track race.
Georgia On My Mind: This was a big weekend for the Georgia Gang at Martinsville Speedway. Smyrna's Kyle Fowler was a last minute addition to the GoFAS Racing No. 32 Ford and made his Sprint Cup debut - at a place he'd never raced. Except for the flat tire and spin that caused him to bring out the yellow on lap 76, Fowler had a clean race, but got lapped early and often, finishing nine laps down. His effort gleaned him 28th-place, 14 spots better than he started and ahead of some big time race teams. Ragan finished 10th in the No. 34 Wendell Scott NASCAR Hall of Fame-themed Ford. Its is his first top 10 since placing 6th at Talladega last October. Reed Sorenson had multiple problems on the track and finished many laps down in 35th. Six Georgia drivers started Saturday's Camping World Truck Series 200-lapper, which Darrell Wallace Jr. won (also in a Wendell Scott-themed ride). Max Gresham, driving the No. 23 Chevy for GMS Racing, made only his fourth start of the year and came from mid-pack to run inside the top 10 late. But he spun and finished 22nd. Winston's Austin Hill, a NASCAR Next driver and multi-time winner the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, stayed out during a pit sequence and led 21 laps. But No. 92 Ford had to pit under green flag late and finished 26th in his NASCAR national series debut. Wendell Chavous is a dirt racer and took a stab at the big time and kept the No. 74 Mike Harmon-owned ride out of trouble, finishing 27th in his debut in the NCWTS. They lost an engine and spun in practice, so that really wasn't a bad run. Brandon Jones had a good run going and ran inside the top 5, but his No. 33 Chevy, which is now housed in the GMS Racing stable, got collected lap 150 crash and finished 32nd. Townley in the No. 05 Toyota had a decent day going, but dropped down to block polesitter Tyler Reddick, got turned hard into the inside wall, and then up into the path of Jones' truck. He was 33rd. Finally, Jody Knowles, who ran the Eldora race, had transmission issues and finished a distant 34th of the 36 entries. Six Georgia drivers and none in the top 20 - that's a tough Truck race for the Peach State.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Wallace Jr. wins in Wendell Scott truck ahead of fireworks between runner-up Peters and the oft-angered Sauter. Just another day at the short track.
Next: NASCAR's series get synced up for the final three week push to championship weekend. They all roll at Texas Motor Speedway, for a pivotal showdown. The Sprint Cup teams go for it Sunday at 2:00 p.m. on PRN. The Nationwide Series races returns from a two-week break on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. on PRN.