April 19, 2004 | 8:33 A.M. EST
Martinsville was the perfect venue for Wallace to end his long streak of futility. With seven victories at the tiny track in Virginia, Wallace leads all active drivers. On Sunday his cause was aided abetted by two unexpected events. The track surface tore up and a large chunk of concrete came loose and hit the front of Jeff Gordon’s dominant car forcing Gordon to pit multiple times after the resultant red flag period which dropped him back to 21st in the running order. Jimmie Johnson had an equally strong car, but he and his team chose not to pit when all the other lead lap cars did during the ninth period, a move crew chief Chad Knaus later admitted was a mistake. That’s not to say Wallace couldn’t have won if Johnson and Gordon hadn’t had their problems. As hungry as he’s been during this long winless streak, doubtless Wallace would have driven through them if he couldn’t drive around him at the end of the race.
Bobby Labonte, who’d maintained a low profile for much of the race, emerged as Wallace’s chief rival on the final restart. To get a chance at Wallace, Labonte had to pass Johnson and Newman (who took just two fresh tires on his final pit stop) and by the time he emerged in second, Wallace was gone. Still it was a good day for Labonte in the grand scheme of things. His second place finish allowed him to move up three spots to twelfth in the standings just 32 points out of one of those coveted top 10 positions from which this year’s champion will emerge.
Dale Earnhardt’s third place finish was his fifth consecutive top 5 at Martinsville and his fourth straight finish of eleventh or better this year. Based on that strength, Earnhardt has reassumed the top spot in the points standings. What’s more, the circuit now heads off to Talladega, where Junior is the prohibitive favorite as of late in Cup races. And all those nice female NASCAR fans took advantage of the red flag period to show Junior he doesn’t have to fly all the way to Panama City to see a little flesh. One can only imagine the reaction among his legion of fans if Earnhardt is still leading the points after Richmond but lose the title due to the new points system. Daytona Beach will look like Baghdad within hours.
The decision Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus made not to stop for tires during the ninth caution flag was highly questionable, but then Kurt Busch did the same thing at Bristol and won so the call wasn’t completely out in left field. As it turned out, Johnson managed to hold onto a respectable fourth place finish and advanced two spots in the points to fourth in the standings, 79 points behind Earnhardt. While discussing Johnson, in the interest of accuracy despite some hyperbole being thrown around in broadcast elements of the media Johnson would have been last year’s champion under the new points system, despite a DNF at Talladega during the final ten races.
Ryan Newman’s decision to gain track position by taking two tires on his final stop also cost him a shot at the win. But he too was able to hang onto a top 5 finish despite some frantic and physical racing in the waning laps which whether intended or not, helped seal the win for his teammate.
As has been the norm as of late at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon seemed to have the measure of the entire field throughout much of the race. In one of the odder occurrences in an admittedly odd season of NASCAR racing this year, a large chunk of the race track tore free of the track surface. Gordon, who was shadowing Earnhardt for the lead at the time, didn’t see the debris in time and it dealt a solid blow to the right front corner of his car. While the damage was more cosmetic than mechanical, Gordon was forced to pit several times under the caution flag that followed the red flag period for track repairs and fell back to 21st position for the restart. Had he been able to charge his way back for the win it would have gone down as one of the epic achievements of the modern era of Cup racing, but as it, a sixth place result despite the misfortune was an honest day’s work by a talented driver who refused to give up.
Jamie McMurray ended up seventh after running in the top 5 for most of the day. In brighter news, his pit crew was simply stellar all afternoon gaining McMurray several positions on almost every pit stop. That sort of performance has to give the driver an optimistic view of the rest of the season. It’s a lot easier to pass other cars in the pits than it is on the race track this season. Despite an uneven start to the season McMurray is currently thirteenth in points only 39 markers out of the top 10.
Matt Kenseth ran out of the limelight most of the day, mired in the teens and making little forward progress except on pit road. But when it came down the money laps Kenseth emerged from the pack and scored yet another top 10, his sixth of the season. In doing so he irritated Kevin Harvick, so his spotter needs to keep a close eye on the 29 anytime that car and the 17 are in close proximity in the future.
In a sport where the media focus is increasingly on the younger drivers, Sterling Marlin and Dale Jarrett, both of whom, like the race winner, have seen their fortieth birthdays, finished ninth and tenth on Sunday. Almost certainly Mark Martin would have had a top 10 as well were it not for an odd fuel line failure.
Former points leader Kurt Busch had a so-so day finishing eleventh. Elliott Sadler came off his win at Texas prior to last week’s holiday with a respectable twelfth place finish.
While it’s been a less than stellar season to date, most stock car racing fans have stuck with the sport and Sunday’s race is a prime example why. Even if Martinsville isn’t in a major media market there are few places as pretty in the spring and there are few spring days any more perfect than Sunday’s. There was plenty of side by side action all day, with tires smoking, fenders flailing, and tempers heating up, along with a few curve balls right of the Ripley’s folks playbook. While there will always be controversy in the sport, the best races are the ones fans, this writer included, can just sit back and enjoy with unbridled enthusiasm and have one hell of a good time doing so. And we all knew that there’d be some truly great races this season. Eventually.