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.