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.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…

1. The Game Done Changed

Brad Keselowski sounded the alarm bells last year when he said NASCAR hadn’t let one manufacturer get so far ahead of the others since the 1970s.

He was talking about Toyota, of course. And with only minor rules changes coming into this year and Chevrolet rolling out its slick new Camaro, Keselowski was worried the Fords might “take a drubbing,” as he put it last November.

But after seeing Fords finish sweep the podium at Atlanta and then take six of the top 10 spots Sunday at Las Vegas — including another dominating win by Kevin Harvick — Keselowski said he is feeling differently.

“My initial reaction is — without a full data set — it seems to imply the field has been evened out a little bit,” Keselowski told me as he walked down pit road. “Or at least the balance has been shifted.”

Keselowski believed Harvick’s strong performance at the end of last year was in spite of the Fords not being on an equal playing field (his words) as the Toyotas. But now, he said, “We got to an equal playing field, and he showed to be as strong as he probably should have been last year.”

So what changed? Well, many people have been pointing the finger at the new inspection system (which was initially called “Hawk-Eye” and then “The OSS” and now the “Optical Scanning Station,” but for our purposes we’ll call the “black tent”).

Does most of the credit go to the black tent? Keselowski gave an initial yes, but he cautioned it’s still too early to know for sure.

“We felt all along if the cars were held to the gold standard — which is the submittal (of the car’s specifications that get approved by NASCAR) — then the playing field would be level,” he said. “And we didn’t feel like that was the case last year, which is why we pushed really hard for this system so everyone was racing what they were supposed to be racing.”

2. Big OSS

Along those lines, Harvick noted the rules might not have changed, but the enforcement has. The black tent — “Big OSS,” as SiriusXM host Jim Noble called it — has made for “a totally different interpretation of the rules,” Harvick said.

“There was a lot of things with the splitters last year that some people were doing and people weren’t doing,” he said. “There’s not rules changes per se, the rules were really different and how teams interpret them.”

There’s a common splitter now, which teams all purchase from the same supplier. So that can’t be manipulated in the same way.

Aside from that, the rules haven’t changed much. So it’s sort of fascinating to see how teams approach the big black tent.

As you recall, Martin Truex Jr.’s team failed three times before qualifying at Atlanta. But then the 78 car was one of the first teams to make it through before the Atlanta race inspection.

Similarly, Jimmie Johnson’s team got through pre-qualifying inspection at Las Vegas easily, but then failed three times Sunday morning before the race (which forced them to start in the back and resulted in the ejection of the car chief).

It was quite common in the last couple years for teams to loudly whisper about NASCAR’s laser inspection station being inconsistent. To this day, many swear the LIS would occasionally spit out bogus numbers.

“Last year, there were so many (times) that you’d go through tech and you’d go through with the same car that you didn’t change — and the numbers were different,” team owner Tony Stewart said. “We didn’t change anything on the race cars, and numbers were drastically different.”

But that’s not the case with this new system so far. Teams are getting through easily, and when they don’t, it’s because they’re pushing the limits — not because NASCAR’s equipment is inconsistent.

Just look at Johnson’s team on Sunday. You can’t fault Chad Knaus for trying everything he could to get Johnson some more speed, but you definitely can’t fault NASCAR for enforcing the limits, either.

Rules are rules. As long as officials apply them fairly to everyone, no one should complain.

3. Johnson’s comeback

As the laps wound down in the first stage, Johnson was in serious danger of going two laps down under green — the continuation of a nightmarish streak for his team dating back to last fall.

As it turned out, Johnson and Knaus pulled out some of the magic that made them so special over the years, salvaging a 12th-place finish on a day that initially looked ugly.

Johnson acknowledged he had to change his approach on Sunday and get back to basics.

“At the end of last year and even in Atlanta, I was trying too hard,” he said. “Just giving 100 percent and driving the car where it’s at and bringing it home is what I need to start doing.

“I have been trying to carry it, and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six-month stretch or whole year stretch. (I was) just trying to drive it 100 percent and not step over that line.”

It worked, although Johnson indicated Hendrick Motorsports is still behind — and it’s not all just because the new Camaro is in its infancy.

“There is a piece of performance that is familiar from last year, so I think we have some work to do ourselves underneath the body with the chassis and the setup of the car,” he said, referring to an area where Hendrick fell behind in 2017. “… I think the body is definitely helping the car, we’ve just got some other stuff to sort out to go along with it and kind of find the sweet spot for the car, too.”


4. Fords Real, Tho

Part of the Ford boost so far this year has resulted in improved performance for drivers like Paul Menard (ninth at Las Vegas) and Aric Almirola (10th).

Fords are 1-2-3 in the point standings (Harvick-Joey Logano-Ryan Blaney) and eight of the top 13 after the first three races.

“The strength of the Fords has been nice,” Logano said. “Heck yeah. I am excited about it.”

So…are they for real? Though Las Vegas was a good indicator the answer is yes, drivers cautioned to hold off for a few more weeks before making any firm conclusions.

“You take all six races before the (Easter) break to realize (what kind of speed a team has),” Ryan Blaney said. “You come here and it is different than Atlanta. You kind of show your strength here. You kind of see where your short track stuff adds up at Phoenix and then we go to a big two-mile (at Fontana) and you really get an idea there.

“I think when the break comes and that off-weekend comes, you really know where you stack up.”

Kyle Busch said Vegas is indicative of who will run well in the future — but only the immediate future, not the whole year. He pointed to how his team started last season as a top-10 car but eventually improved to a frontrunner by the summer.

“I don’t think it’s a huge telltale, but it’ll obviously give you an idea of who’s going to be tough up through May,” he said.

Keselowski said each race is a data point, and there are only two real data points so far.

“One data point doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Two data points doesn’t mean everything — but it does mean something.”

5. Stinking up the show?

It didn’t seem like Sunday’s race was the greatest display of NASCAR racing that has ever existed. Clean air was a factor (it even plagued Harvick when he was in traffic) and a single car led 321 of the 400 miles in the race.

But honestly, I’m not sure what NASCAR can do about that. Sometimes a car will just hit on something and kick everyone’s butts — which seems to be the case the last two weeks.

It’s not going to last forever, though. Sure, Harvick might go out and do this again at Phoenix — no one would be surprised if that happened — but it’s not going to be like this all season.

In fact, I don’t even think Harvick is going to pull a Truex and rack up an unfathomable amount of playoff points. One or two gains in speed, and everyone else will be right there with Harvick.

Now, if Harvick is still doing this by the time Texas rolls around? Then yeah, it’s going to be a lonnnnng year for everyone else.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Pocono race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway…

1. Blaney breaks through

When young Cup drivers face numerous challenges in a single race, they often fail to win. That’s because a lack of experience or poise typically trips them up at some point; even if they overcome one problem, the next does them in.

But at Pocono, Ryan Blaney had to survive three tough moments to score his first career Cup victory.

First of all, Blaney couldn’t talk to his team on the radio all day because his helmet microphone wasn’t working. The team worked out a series of hand signals as a substitute, and it made communication about changes to the car very difficult.

Jon Wood, through the Wood Brothers Racing Twitter account, tweeted late in the race: “If you could listen in for just like 20 seconds, you’d agree it’s just flat-out amazing that we are even on the lead lap at this point.”

After enduring that stress, Blaney found himself starting fourth on the final restart — and the first driver on four new tires. But although he was faster at that point, Blaney had to deal with extremely aggressive blocking from Kyle Busch, which could have easily ended in a wreck for one or both of the drivers. Blaney stayed patient, raced Busch cleanly and made the pass.

After that, he had Kevin Harvick approaching quickly. Harvick stayed on his back bumper in the final laps, waiting to pounce if Blaney made the slightest mistake.

“The way I passed people all day was waiting for him to slip up off the bottom, and he never slipped off the bottom,” Harvick said. “Ryan did a good job of not slipping a wheel with the amount of laps that he had left.”

Blaney drove flawlessly at the end — and throughout the race. He truly earned the win.

2. Silver lining for Dale Jr.?

Pocono was the low point of the season so far for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his fans. Earnhardt missed a pair of shifts this weekend that resulted in blown engines — and offered no excuses for the mistakes.

Though fans were eager for a reason to blame crew chief Greg Ives or the team (surely the shifter must be set up differently!), Earnhardt acknowledged nothing in the car has changed.

This was simply driver error.

“I wish I could blame it on something else, because this feels awful,” he told FOX Sports 1. “It’s just my fault. … I wish I could say the shifter is different.”

There isn’t much good to say about the day — or the season so far. Earnhardt clearly isn’t confident in his cars right now and isn’t having the fun he had been the past few years.

But there might be one positive. As noted by Justin Bukoski, an Earnhardt fan from Portland, Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne appeared to have brake failures (as did Jamie McMurray). And Earnhardt had earlier been complaining of brake problems.

So if Earnhardt had not blown an engine, was it only a matter of time before his brakes led to a Johnson-like hit into the wall? If so, that might have been the end of Earnhardt’s career — or worse — given his concussion history.

3. Another scary moment

Maybe it’s just a heightened sense of awareness since the Aric Almirola crash, but it feels like there have been a lot of hard hits lately, doesn’t it? And there were two more on Sunday.

With four laps left in Stage 2, Johnson and McMurray suffered simultaneous brake failures going into Turn 1 — and both crashed hard.

They were each frightening in their own right. Johnson’s hit was violent — and he initially seemed headed straight for the wall, nose-first — while McMurray’s was fiery.

Johnson seemed shaken and said, “We got away with one there.” He knew it could have been a lot worse.

The burning car was the most worrisome part about McMurray’s wreck. Though it was nice to see the automatic extinguisher put out the fire in the front of the car, the back end was still in flames for quite awhile.

It appeared there were approximately 20 seconds between the time McMurray’s car stopped and when the safety crew put the first bit of extinguisher on the flames. Could the response time have been faster? Before you answer, consider what would have happened if McMurray had not been able to get out of the car (what if he had an Almirola-like injury?). That would have been ugly.

Either way, it’s just another reminder of how dangerous this sport is. And I think we’re all good on reminders for awhile.

4. New blood on TV

I was moving cross-country this weekend and missed the drivers-only Xfinity Series broadcast. That really bummed me out, because I wanted to know how it went.

Fortunately, many Twitter followers were able to fill me in. I received 115 replies to a tweet asking whether people enjoyed it or not.

The consensus: An overwhelmingly positive response to the broadcast, with many comments urging FOX Sports to try it again sometime. I’d say 95 percent of the responses were raving about it; people really seemed to enjoy seeing different faces on the broadcast.

Hopefully, that emotion from the fans was noticed by FOX executives. There appear to be many capable drivers who could fill on-air roles at the moment, some who will be retiring within the next few years. A career full of TV interviews and commercials and appearances has helped drivers become very polished on camera.

If that’s the case, why not stock the on-air booths with the most relevant analysts possible? FOX should do everything it can to keep its talent fresh.

5. Another race, another new winner

That’s now 10 different winners in the first 14 races — which is quite impressive considering drivers like Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have yet to go to victory lane.

But it’s also a whopping eight different teams that have won races, thanks to new faces like Wood Brothers Racing (first win since 2011), Richard Childress Racing (first win since 2013) and Roush Fenway Racing (first win since 2014).

Joe Gibbs Racing has not won yet and certainly will before the regular season ends, so that will be nine.

How does that compare to last year? Well, only seven different teams won a race in all of 2016.

Though it’s still tough to say whether this is a sign of real parity or just unique circumstances producing different winners, it’s always good when no single entity — driver or team — is dominating the season.