The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville spring race

1. Does Brad get enough love?

Is it possible Brad Keselowski has been underrated all this time?

Keselowski is certainly a star driver and a regular contender, so it’s not like he gets ignored. But when people discuss the best of the best — the absolute top drivers in NASCAR — Keselowski feels overlooked.

For example: While it’s not a hot take to say “Brad Keselowski is a great driver,” it seems like you’d get more pushback if you said, “Brad Keselowski is the best driver in NASCAR.”

But why is that? People would probably say Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick were among the best, or even Kyle Larson when it comes to pure talent.

Keselowski isn’t always mentioned in the same breath. Penske teammate Joey Logano, the defending Cup Series champ, gets more recognition lately than Keselowski does.

Maybe it’s time to change how we view Keselowski after he led 446 laps (!!) on Sunday at Martinsville.

After all, this wasn’t a one-off performance. Keselowski has now won five of the last 18 Cup races dating back to the Southern 500 — more than anyone else during that time.

This is a 35-year-old who can win on superspeedways and intermediates and short tracks — and every size oval in between. His combination of smarts, talent and aggression seems to consistently allow him to run up front.

I’m not saying he’s the best — Kyle Busch has a pretty firm grip on that label at the moment — but I also don’t think Keselowski is that far behind.

2. Straight as the aero

This is getting to be an unpleasant topic, and I really don’t want to dwell on it much because it seems repetitive. But Martinsville was more evidence the new aero package may have had impacts beyond just the intermediate tracks — and in a negative way for short tracks.

Keselowski had a great day, but it seemed like Chase Elliott actually had a faster car when he passed Keselowski under green. Once Keselowski got the lead back in the pits, however, Elliott was never able to pass him again.

“I think the stats maybe look a little bit more dominant than I think it really was,” Keselowski said. “I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day today, and he passed me there with 150 or so to go. I thought that might be the end of our day.

“(My) pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack. … That was so, so key to being able to win today, because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Considering this is a short track we’re talking about, that is…not great! Of all places, you’d think Martinsville would be immune to aero issues. But as Denny Hamlin noted, the huge spoilers this year make traffic “just a little bit tougher” than before — and perhaps that’s all it took to put a damper on passing.

Again, I don’t want to harp on this because there’s clearly more to be determined this season. But if the short track package was enough to hurt the Phoenix race and perhaps even affect Martinsville, what’s it going to do to Bristol, Richmond and New Hampshire?

3. Call it maybe?

With David Hoots out of the control tower, NASCAR has new direction when it comes to calling races — including determining what is a caution and what isn’t.

But Martinsville showed the circumstances for throwing a yellow flag still aren’t clearly defined.

During a long, green-flag run, William Byron had contact with Ty Dillon that resulted in Byron doing a half spin. Byron saved it, gathered the car back up after momentarily slowing and kept rolling.

NASCAR called a caution, labeling it as “#13, 24 Incident Turn 4” on the official race report.

Shortly after the ensuing restart, Erik Jones got damage that ended up giving him a flat tire and a torn fender. He limped around the track, shedding potential debris, while unable to get down to pit road. He finally did — under green — and there was no caution called.

The difference between those two moments seemed slight. If either was caution-worthy, it might have been Jones over Byron. But the Jones incident didn’t really go with the flow of the race, while Byron’s half-spin came at a time when a caution was helpful to reset the field.

So when is a caution necessary and when is it not? Is it a 100-percent safety-related decision? Does the flow of the race help determine when a yellow comes out? I don’t know those answers.

It would be nice to hear NASCAR lay out why a flag is thrown in some instances and why it is not in others. Perhaps it could even spell out what the tower deems caution-worthy for future races, because fans and competitors alike would benefit from that kind of transparency.

4. Panic time?

Chase Elliott finished second and could have won the race on Sunday.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson, was 24th — two laps down.

What gives? While it’s true Johnson hasn’t been his former self at Martinsville for awhile — aside from his 2016 win, he hasn’t finished better than ninth since 2014 — you wouldn’t have expected him to be so far off.

Surely there’s an explanation for this and the team has more answers, but as an outsider, it’s baffling. Johnson is still in amazing physical shape — he’s training for the Boston Marathon! — and presumably still has great hand-eye coordination. What’s lacking is the proper feel he needs from the car.

It’s one thing for Hendrick to miss it as a team at intermediate tracks. But at Martinsville, which should be an equalizer? And on a day when Elliott was performing so well? Seeing Johnson struggle like that is just strange, and it raises far more questions than answers.

5. More short tracks

Even though the race was tame by Martinsville standards (Sunday was only the fourth time since 1997 there were less than eight caution flags), it was still a better race than at most intermediate tracks.

Keselowski, despite being dominant, never really drove away. And there was always some battle going on somewhere on the track — as opposed to the field getting strung out and single-file.

Expectations color everything in NASCAR these days, and Martinsville definitely has very high expectations based on its history (especially in the fall races). This may not have lived up to the hype, but it was still a fine race.

So yeah. Let’s keep beating the “More Short Tracks” drum. Because a short track race on a bad day is still pretty decent.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts after Saturday night’s race at Richmond Raceway…

1. How times have changed

Kyle Busch has a pretty good memory, but he couldn’t remember a time when he had ever climbed into the grandstands after win before.

So why did he think Saturday night at Richmond — Cup Win No. 46 — was the right time to try such a celebration?

“It was a 10‑year anniversary,” he said with the hint of a grin, referencing the infamous 2008 Richmond race where he spun Dale Earnhardt Jr. while racing for the lead.

Except if he’d gone into the stands 10 years ago, the fans might have left him bruised and battered instead of giving him high fives and pats on the back, as they did Saturday.

Busch might not be a crowd favorite, but he no longer needs a security escort just to leave the track. And the public sentiment has evolved to the point where he can go celebrate with fans if he feels like it.

“I was wondering if I’d come out alive,” he joked. “It certainly was different tonight.  I saw a lot of yellow (M&Ms colors) there at the front fence line.”

Team owner Joe Gibbs didn’t see the celebration and was borderline shocked to hear Busch had done it.

“Did you?” he asked Busch, incredulous.

“Yeah, buddy!” Busch said.

“Oh my gosh!” Gibbs replied. “You should not do that! That’s a risk.”

Gibbs said he wouldn’t encourage Busch to do it again, but then added: “I think that’s great though. He went up there and came back.”

Let’s be clear: Busch has a long way to go until he’s viewed positively by the majority of NASCAR fans. But is there starting to be a thaw in the longtime deep freeze between Busch and his detractors? That’s too early to say, but it will be worth watching as the season progresses.

2. Cautions Cut

Earth Day isn’t supposed to be until Sunday, but NASCAR drivers seemed to celebrate Saturday night by going green for much of the race.

After 354 of 400 laps, the only cautions had been for the two stage breaks.  That’s it. At a short track!

Richmond isn’t Martinsville, to be sure, but there are typically at least six cautions per race here (there had only been less than that number once in the past eight races).

So what gives? And why has this seemed like a season-long trend?

“The drivers are really, really good,” Joey Logano said with a laugh. “The drivers are amazing, really.”

OK, but for real. Is that the actual reason?

“I think the drivers are good, yes,” he said. “But there’s also not as many (mechanical) failures, so the teams are getting better. There’s not as many tires popping, there’s not as many motors blowing — a lot of cautions (used to come) from stuff like that.”

The crash damage vehicle policy likely has had an impact, too. Logano noted if there is a crash, the cars don’t then return to the track with damage and blow out a tire again.

In general, though, the durability of the cars plays a large role in the green-flag runs.

“These cars are fairly reliable now,” Denny Hamlin said. “The drivers take care of their cars more so than they used to. It’s just kind of a product of that.”

Plus, as Chase Elliott said, the two stage cautions are basically two planned debris cautions. Last June, drivers ripped NASCAR for all the perceived fake cautions, and NASCAR stopped calling the races that way.

“NASCAR has chosen to let these races play out fairly for the competitors,” Hamlin said. “Might not always be the best for TV, but it’s certainly fair for us.”

3. That said…

Despite the lack of yellows, it wasn’t a bad race. The Richmond race 10 years ago? That was a bad race until the end, in large part because Denny Hamlin led almost every lap.

But on Saturday, no one driver was dominant. There were 16 lead changes among seven drivers, which is pretty decent considering how much of the race was green before the four late cautions.

“Nobody dominated, really,” Busch crew chief Adam Stevens. “You saw four‑car races for the lead pretty much the entirety of the race.”

The various battles were indicative of position changes through the field, which happens when some drivers conserve tires better than others and some cars are set up better for the long run.

“The cars were coming and going and moving around the racetrack,” Logano said. “I’d get passed early in a run and get them all back and vice versa sometimes. And it came down to a late-race restart. It was really fun for me as a driver. I thought it was a good product today.”

Ultimately, as so many of these races do, it comes down to the track surface/tire combination. If the tire wears, it’s a good race; if not, well…

“If the car runs the same speed every lap, you can run 100 percent every lap,” Logano said. “But you can’t afford to do that here.”

4. Busch vs. Harvick, revisited

Earlier this weekend, I posted a story where drivers weighed in on who was the bigger championship threat right now: Busch or Harvick. The drivers who commented seemed to think Harvick was faster at this point in the season.

And despite Busch’s victory on Saturday, that probably won’t change. Even Busch noted he didn’t have as fast of a car as Harvick.

“I thought the 4 and the 14 (Clint Bowyer) were probably best on the long haul,” Busch said.

Harvick certainly has the raw speed, but his team seems to be having trouble putting a full race together at times. That happened again at Richmond, when he got a penalty for his crew throwing equipment — which happened when a crewman tossed a wrench over the pit wall.

Overall, though, Harvick was pleased to leave with a top-five finish.

“This race was really important just for the fact that we hadn’t run as well as we needed to run here,” he said. “Tonight we contended, and that is a much better building block than we had coming into the weekend.”

5. Golden opportunity

Remember the whole “What if there are more than 16 different winners?” storyline? Yeah, that’s definitely not a thing this year.

Busch and Harvick have combined to win six of the first nine races, meaning there have only been five different winners so far. While it’s certainly possible for others to win, this season is shaping up to be dominated by the familiar frontrunners.

That means for teams like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th in the standings), Elliott (20th) or even Jamie McMurray (24th), next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is almost a playoff race.

Yeah, it’s still only April — but there are not going to be many opportunities to move up in the points (particularly if stage points are hogged by the top drivers). Aside from fuel-mileage races or rain-shortened events, superspeedways are the best chance to steal an unexpected playoff spot.

Since there are only two of them left on the regular season schedule, there’s absolutely an urgency to make something happen.

But good luck to whoever goes into Talladega needing to win.

“I think it’s easier to win the Powerball than to win at Talladega,” Busch said.

The Top Five: Breaking down Monday’s Martinsville race

Five thoughts after the rescheduled NASCAR race at Martinsville Speedway…

1. Bowyer’s redemption

In 2012, Clint Bowyer’s first year at Michael Waltrip Racing, he won three races, finished second in the Chase and posted career highs in top-fives and top-10s.

At age 33, he seemed to have many victories — and perhaps even championships — ahead of him.

But suddenly, he stopped winning. Until Monday, Bowyer had not been to victory lane since Oct. 2012 — and much has happened since then.

He triggered the itchy arm scandal with his infamous Richmond spin in 2013. There was the demise of MWR and the agonizing season he suffered through at HScott Motorsports. Bowyer, once a key player in every NASCAR conversation, became a complete non-factor.

“It was pretty dark a few times,” he said.

Life wasn’t all bad for Bowyer over these last six years. He got engaged and married and had two children. He signed with Stewart-Haas Racing despite the lack of results. He weathered the sponsorship storm (losing 5-Hour Energy) and stuck around through this latest youth movement when others did not.

But on the track, Bowyer hasn’t been relevant. And when he’s not contending, he can’t be the exuberant driver everyone loves.

Finally, with his Richmond karma long repaid, everything is coming together for Bowyer again.

Monday seemed remarkably uneventful for a driver who constantly had challenge after challenge since his last win.

“I was wondering how we were going to lose this race,” he said.

Instead, the race broke his way. Just when it looked like he was going to have to pit under green as a result of a fuel mishap, Bowyer caught a timely yellow flag — the only caution of the day that was caused by an incident.

Bowyer’s hopes were salvaged, and from lap 285 onward, no one else led a lap under green.

It’s no wonder he texted team co-owner Tony Stewart: “This is good times.” Now 38, Bowyer is finally having fun again — and a happy Bowyer is a wonderful thing for NASCAR.

“Everybody that knows me knows that I have fun and run my mouth and I’m goofy and everything else,” he said. “But I do appreciate this opportunity and appreciate the army of people that makes this possible for all of us.”

2. That’s just weird

There were only four cautions on Monday. Four! And three of them were NASCAR cautions (two stages and one competition caution).

That’s quite unusual. The last time there were less than five cautions in a Martinsville race was Sept. 1978, in a race won by Cale Yarborough. And this at a place which once had 24 straight races with at least 10 cautions! Heck, there were 18 cautions in the fall race Jeff Gordon won a few years ago.

So what’s the deal? Well, Denny Hamlin has a theory. And it’s not necessarily good news.

Here’s his quote, courtesy of Toyota:

“All of our cars, whether it be data-sharing, setups that we’re sharing with each other and all that, everyone is getting their car to drive very, very similar,” he said. “Even when I would come up on lapped cars, they were running a similar speed to what I was, but I was able to get through traffic better than they were.

“We’ve gotten the cars to where they drive so similar, so when everyone runs the same speed, it’s hard to pass. And with less passing, there’s less chance for incidents.”

The data-sharing Hamlin refers to is NASCAR’s decision to distribute telemetry data to the teams this year after some complained certain organizations had an advantage by scraping it from NASCAR’s RaceView app.

The problem, Hamlin said, is now everyone can imitate how the top drivers get around Martinsville. There are no more secrets there.

“You can steal people’s information nowadays,” he said. “You can go right to a tablet and see how Brad’s driving or how I’m driving or Kyle or anyone. That can really change some things in the future and you’re starting to see now that the cars are running very, very similar.”

3. Another reason short tracks rule

We often focus so much on the action at short tracks (rightfully so) that we forget another reason why they’re so kick-ass: The races give an opportunity for new names at the top.

Once the car is less of a factor, the driver talent really shines. That’s why it was fun to see Ryan Blaney lead a big chunk of the race, AJ Allmendinger run in the top 10 all day and Alex Bowman make a late charge to seventh.

And that was on top of Bowyer’s unexpected but refreshing victory.

No offense to the drivers and teams who run up front every week, but there’s often a fatigue there when it happens again and again over the course of a season (or several seasons). When different drivers are mixing it up at the front of the field, it makes the race much more interesting and enjoyable to watch.

4. The wait is over

Earlier in the season, I kept asking the drivers when we’d be able to tell which ones are contenders for the title.

The most common answer: Wait until the Easter break, when there will be six races completed on a variety of different tracks.

Well, guess what? That point has now arrived! So let’s look at the point standings and see who is good.

No surprise here, but the two top Toyotas of the last few years are 1-2: Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Then it’s all three Team Penske cars in a row — Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, in that order — followed by another Toyota in Denny Hamlin.

Triple race winner Kevin Harvick is the next driver in the standings, then comes his Stewart-Haas teammate Bowyer and Kyle Larson — the only Chevrolet in the top 12.

Larson is followed by the other two SHR cars, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola, and another Joe Gibbs Racing car in Erik Jones.

So the 12 best drivers one-sixth through the season? It’s four of the five elite Toyotas, all three Penske cars, all four SHR cars and Larson.

That’s still a pretty big group, but I’m ready to jump to conclusions about their performance. So here’s betting those are 12 of the 16 playoff drivers — and the final four drivers are among them.

5. Take care of the customers

Thousands of fans planned on being at Martinsville and couldn’t attend after the race was postponed. Not a few hundred, but thousands.

Many of those people traveled from long distances, perhaps had to take time off work (using vacation or a sick day) and spent money on gas and lodging to get there.

They woke up Sunday morning to sunny skies and clear roads surrounding the racetrack, only to learn the race was postponed — a decision made seven hours before the scheduled green flag.

Why was it postponed? One of the official reasons was first responders had to be available for emergencies elsewhere in the aftermath of a snowstorm. While that may have been a reason, I’m skeptical that was the deciding factor. Given the roads were completely clear by the morning, there was no big outbreak of accidents that required area police and fire assistance.

However, it’s true the race could not have taken place Sunday. And that’s because the facility was not ready.

The parking lots — most of which are grassy hills — were covered with snow. Even as the snow quickly melted, the lots turned into mud.

There was snow in the grandstands, too, but fans could have easily cleared that off themselves (we’ve seen NFL fans do that in places like New England and Buffalo). Surely they would have rather done that than seen their money go to waste.

The bottom line is Martinsville Speedway was not ready to hold a race despite clear roads and a beautiful day. That’s frustrating.

Of course, the snowstorm itself wasn’t the track’s fault. But Sunday wouldn’t have been a postponement at many other NASCAR venues with better infrastructure. Martinsville, along with International Speedway Corp., needs to come up with a plan so this doesn’t happen in the future. 

If it’s not willing to invest in things like paved parking lots, the track should at least allow a ticket exchange for a future race. It’s maddening to think so many fans who were unable to use their tickets just had to eat the cost with no refund and no credit for future races.

I understand there’s ticket insurance (TicketGuardian) available for purchase, but why should the onus be on fans to pay extra for that? Especially when the race gets “snowed out” on a sunny day, something feels wrong about how NASCAR’s most loyal customers get treated after their investment melts away.