Something Old Something Blew

When it comes to old there’s no racetrack on the circuit older than tiny little action-packed Martinsville. When it comes to something new, Bobby Labonte winning on a short track and the Gentleman’s agreement not to race back to the caution flag going by the wayside both count. Kenny Wallace started the race in something borrowed, Kevin Harvick’s car, after NASCAR finally cracked down on overly aggressive driving following an incident in Saturday’s truck race. And pole-winner Jeff Gordon looked like he was in position to end his winless drought until something in his power-steering system blew.

The general manager of Texas Motor Speedway made some ill considered comments last week concerning his track being more deserving of a second date than Martinsville was of either of the short track’s two dates. Martinsville president Clay Campbell lashed out against those remarks with unusual anger this week. Advantage, Mr. Campbell. There was more action at Martinsville today than the delighted fans in the grandstands could keep track of. I guess it’s just a symptom of the new hostile atmosphere in Winston Cup racing that has drivers going after one another on and off the track, drivers racing back to the caution, the media pitted against NASCAR and now track head honchos squaring off, but after today’s race no one is going to be able to make a case Martinsville doesn’t deserve it’s two annual race dates.

On one level today’s race was stock car competition in its most elemental form, a lot of fenders bending, tires smoking and fists shaking. It was just like a Saturday night bull ring race with first a 20 lap, then a seven lap shootout to settle it all. On another level the race was incredibly complex as crew chiefs tried to decide on pit strategy; four tires, two tires, fuel only or stay out. With the uncertain amount and spacing of cautions, an unpredictable amount of other teams going to pit, and varying setups it’s a high stakes chess match, and the casual couch potato fan was unlikely to be able to keep up with it all without taking notes. But the nice part was, even if they didn’t understand the strategies, those couch potatoes could choose to just lean back, enjoy the race and wait to see the end result.

I will say that Dale Jarrett’s decision to pass first Dale Earnhardt Junior and then Matt Kenseth racing to the caution flag has troubling implications for the sport that are going to make racing more dangerous. Nothing DJ did was illegal, but now that he’s violated the so-called gentleman’s agreement drivers will not advance positions racing back to a caution flag, the other drivers will surely follow suit. For a driver in a wrecked race car sideways to traffic seeing a pack of cars bearing down on him fighting furiously for position that’s got to be a scary proposition. Look at what happened to Frank Kimmel and Robby Gordon today as they tried to race the leader back to the stripe to make up a lap and got caught in the oil slick laid down by John Andretti’s blown engine. Now imagine if when Kimmel and Gordon got sideways there was still a pack of cars coming up on them wide open also unaware the track was oiled down. If the gentleman won’t stick to their agreement perhaps NASCAR ought to legislate the former agreement into a rule as most race series do. And preferably they’ll do so during the drivers’ meeting prior to next Sunday’s Winston Cup race.

For Bobby Labonte the short tracks had always been his Achilles’ heel. He scored his first top 5 finish at Martinsville only last year. After a substandard qualifying effort it looked like Labonte was in for another long Sunday afternoon at Martinsville, but brilliant pit strategy and heads up driving (Labonte’s car showed nary a scratch after the race) allowed Bobby to score the surprise win. There’s a lot to be said for Joe Gibbs’ management style here as well. A lot of teams would have panicked early last year when things didn’t go well for the defending champion and sacked the crew chief. By keeping Labonte and Jimmy Makar together Gibbs showed the quick solution isn’t always the best solution.

Unlike some of his contemporaries in the sport (including one who sat out today’s race) Matt Kenseth doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. You’ll rarely hear him say a cross word in public at least. But clearly Dale Jarrett’s decision to pass him racing back to the caution got Kenseth a little hot under the collar. The two of them got into a shoving match after the final restart that eliminated both their chances at a win, but was fun to watch. When a young driver in his first serious title chase forgets about points and just drives his heart out to gain a position, it is my opinion that can only be good for the sport. And after the race Kenseth conducted himself admirably despite the entire side of his car being caved in by that point. Perhaps Kevin Harvick could have learned something if watched the post-race show at home.

Tony Stewart and Greg Zippadelli’s decision to pit for four tires during the 11th caution period was a high-risk gamble with most of the other lead lap cars choosing to stay out. But the decision had precedent. Dale Jarrett used four fresh tires to win this same race last year. In the end Stewart came up a little short of winning a race he had dominated for awhile but those who play follow the leader never take the point.

Perhaps it’s the frustration of how his season has gone to date that made Dale Jarrett decide the old time gentleman’s agreement no longer applied. Maybe he’s just tired of running behind drivers decades younger than he is. Whatever the reason Jarrett has for passing on the way back to the caution flag, he’s opened a Pandora’s Box I think he’ll regret having messed with in the near future. But then I don’t have a high profile-high pressure sponsor hollering at me every week asking why I haven’t even scored a top 5 finish much less a win.

While he led the race late and slid back to 5th in the final rundown, Dale Earnhardt Junior did score his first ever career top 10 at Martinsville Sunday afternoon. I’ll admit I was very impressed watching him as well. No unbiased fan can doubt that Junior knows how to charge to the front and drive at the very limits of control, but Sunday he drove a heads-up race using his brain as much as his right foot. He took care of the car, timed his passes carefully and stayed out of trouble. That sort of strategy will pay dividends in the long run.

For Terry Labonte a sixth place finish after having actually led a race for the first time in over a year must feel like a victory. In all of 2001 Labonte had only two races where he equaled or bettered Sunday’s result and both of those races were early in the season. (5th place in the first Atlanta race and sixth place at the first Bristol race in 2001.) It’s too early to call this a turnaround for a team that’s hit hard times, but Labonte’s long suffering fans were dancing in the streets Sunday night.

Ricky Rudd’s season is off to an uneven start at best, but the 28 bunch is quietly getting their stuff back together even while their 88 sister team suffered meltdown. Rudd is in the top 10 in points while Jarrett languishes back in 21st spot, probably already realistically eliminated from title contention for this season.

If Rudd’s season if off to a slow start, Mark Martin’s fortunes just keep getting better. He finished in the top 10 for the fifth time this season in only eight races. In all of 2001 Mark scored only 15 top 10s in 36 races with most of those finishes in the latter half of the season. Martin is currently third in points only 129 markers behind Sterling Marlin as the series heads to the unpredictable Talladega circuit where anything can happen.

Sunday didn’t look like it was going to be a good day for Jeff Burton after he got into Elliott Sadler early in the race and bent the 99 cars nose up pretty well. Good pit strategy moved Burton up into the top 5 for awhile and he even led the race before falling back to ninth. That’s what’s known as making lemonade when life serves you lemons.

It wasn’t pretty but Kurt Busch finished 10th despite numerous on track skirmishes which surely have eliminated him from any shot at being the most popular driver in next week’s drivers’ meeting. But then racing at Martinsville is often not particularly pretty.

A couple established teams had horrid weekends at Martinsville. Not only did Kevin Harvick manage to get himself suspended, Robby Gordon bent up yet another car and finished 34th, Kenny Wallace could do better than 32nd in his cameo appearance in the 29, and Jeff Green’s 22nd place car looked like a blue and yellow Baby Ruth bar after the race.

Things weren’t much better for Petty Engineering. John Andretti blew an engine and finished 42nd and Buckshot Jones wrote off another car and finished 33rd. Watching Kyle Petty today you might have thought he’d found a way to sneak Kevin Harvick behind the wheel with all the incidents he was involved in.

Rookie Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson both suffered their worst finishes of the 2002 season Sunday. For Newman it was the second straight race he suffered a mechanical DNF after an amazing start to his season.

So the Winston Cup drivers pack up and head home, some elated, some despondent, and one a day early after another classic short track battle. Looming ahead next weekend is the uncertainty, danger, and anxiety of Talladega. With all due respect to that track manager down in Texas, a goodly number of drivers would probably much rather race a couple more times at Martinsville each year or even hold a second event at Texas rather than head to Talladega.

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2002

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