Five things learned at Martinsville
Tony Stewart challenged points leader Carl Edwards after winning Sunday
Edwards struggled once again at Martinsville, but still finished in the top ten
Jimmie Johnson might not win his sixth Chase, but he's staying competitive
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- It was a knock-down slugfest as NASCAR's Chase for the Championship made its only visit to a short track, and the only things shorter than the .542-mile Martinsville Speedway were the tempers of the drivers in Sunday's TUMS Fast Relief 500.
There were a whopping 18 caution periods for 108 laps in the 500-lap contest, but by the time the mangled heaps of race cars were loaded onto the transporters to head back to North Carolina, race winner Tony Stewart made a huge gain in the Chase. He advanced two positions to second place in the standings, only eight points behind Carl Edwards with three races to go.
It was Stewart's third victory in the Chase this season and his ninth career Chase win, moving him into second place in that category behind Jimmie Johnson's 20.
There is much to analyze from Sunday's race as the Chase enters the homestretch heading to Texas Motor Speedway this week, so let's get to the five things we learned at Martinsville:
1. It's game on for the championship. The smoke from Tony Stewart's victory burnout had not yet settled before Stewart issued a challenge to Carl Edwards that it's "game on" for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
"He better be worried -- that's all I have to say," Stewart said. "He's not going to be an easy three weeks."
Stewart is ready to turn up the heat both on and off the racetrack as he attempts to win his third NASCAR Cup title. And with the points race tightening he wants to turn up the pressure on Edwards, who is going for his first Cup championship. The 2002 and 2005 Cup champion entered Sunday's race fourth in the standings and 19 points behind Edwards. Stewart's victory combined with Edwards' ninth-place finish moved Stewart into second just eight points behind the points leader with three races to go.
When told of Stewart's comments, Edwards grinned.
"He's wound up; he won the race," Edwards said of Stewart. "We'll see what happens at Texas. This has not been a good track for me. Tony and those guys have won three Chase races and when I sat in here on Friday I told you guys he was one of the guys to beat for a championship and he has proven that. We'll have fun."
Stewart is one of NASCAR's true warriors much in the same mold as his racing hero, A.J. Foyt. Stewart can pretty much drive anything that has four wheels and a steering wheel. He was the first driver to win all three USAC titles in the same season in 1995 and moved up to the IndyCar Series, winning that title in 1997. He switched to NASCAR full-time in 1999 and has become one of the all-time greats.
Sunday's win was the 42nd of his career in 461 starts and his third this season with all three coming since The Chase started at Chicagoland Speedway on September 18.
Outside of the race car Stewart exemplifies the common man -- portly and unshaven -- he's the Fred Flintstone of NASCAR. Compare that to Edwards, who is NASCAR's most physically fit driver and there is a real contrast in style and appearance between the two main combatants for the title.
And while Edwards tried to play it cool after hearing Stewart's comments, the winning driver plans to tighten the pressure on the leader over the final three races in the Chase.
"I don't care what he said -- we're going after him for the next three weeks," Stewart said. "We're going after this championship. I'm excited about it. This is a great feeling."
2. Edwards' Martinsville struggles continue. When Edwards arrived at Martinsville on a rainy Friday that ultimately washed out practice and qualifications he knew this would be his most difficult challenge. After all, Edwards' record at this track was lackluster to say the least with no wins, just one top-five and four top-10 finishes in his 14 previous starts.
Edwards started on the pole only because qualifications were canceled because of inclement weather and the field was based on points. But once the green flag dropped, so did Edwards in the field. In fact, he fell one lap down during the race but was able to get back on the lead lap later because of the Lucky Dog which allows the first driver one lap down to get back on the lead lap.
With so many drivers getting involved in crashes throughout the race Edwards was able to persevere to finish in the top 10.
"I don't have much to say," Edwards said. "We did not deserve to finish ninth. That's just a gift to finish ninth and to have the day we had. "
Edwards received a major assist when he was penalized by NASCAR on a restart on lap 432 for passing before the flagstand. Edwards gave up the advantage he had gained with the move and NASCAR rescinded the penalty.
"I appreciate NASCAR looking at it and realizing they told me to do what they were black flagging me for," Edwards said. "It's not very often they rescind a black flag like that."
That was crucial in Johnson's ability to make the most out of a bad day with a top-10 finish.
"If we could just come out of here with a top-10, that's almost like a win," Edwards said. "We have to figure out exactly what causes us to struggle here."
3. Vickers was a dart without feathers. Brian Vickers was involved in five of the 18 caution periods, and many of his actions were blatant retaliations with drivers he had been involved with in incidents earlier in the race. With six laps to go he attempted to ram-rod Matt Kenseth as payback for a crash when Kenseth punted him on lap 459. The final incident created a caution period that probably cost Johnson the victory.
"You can thank Vickers for that caution," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, radioed to his driver afterward. "He's a jackass."
Knaus wasn't the only competitor that shared that opinion of the driver of the No. 83 Toyota.
"I certainly understand that if you're unfairly wrecked regardless of who that person is there is a chance retaliation is going to happen," Johnson said. "After a fourth or fifth time with the same car in the crash you start thinking maybe you're the problem.
"Something is going on. You're having a bad day. You need to stop crashing for whatever reason. When you're on the racetrack and something is wrong you have some decisions to make how you want to handle that. I don't agree with the way things were handled at the end."
Attempts to quiz Vickers after the race were fruitless as the driver fled into the darkness of night without commenting on his actions. In fact, that was the fastest Vickers ran all day but it goes to show that fear can be a tremendous motivator, especially with a posse of NASCAR drivers that wanted a piece of him, including Kenseth.
"With Brian he just kept hitting me in the door," Kenseth said. "I mean we're at Martinsville and I gave him the bottom (lane). Obviously I'm not going to roll over and let him go with 40 laps to go or whatever and he just kept driving in harder and harder and harder and he slammed me in the door at least five times and just ran me up in the marbles. I was just tired of it so I spun him out.
"I don't know how you can't pass somebody here without running into him every single time when he gives you the bottom and the fastest lane but obviously he couldn't and I was trying to get every position I could at the end of the race."
Kenseth's chances at the Cup title were likely ruined because of the incidents with Vickers. He was second in the standings and 14 points out of first place but will leave Martinsville fifth in the Chase and 36 behind the leader.
4. Johnson won't win his sixth straight title, but he's going down swinging. Entering the race 50 points out of the lead Jimmie Johnson realized his run of Sprint Cup titles would end at five straight. But the driver vowed on Friday that he was going to fight for the title until he is mathematically eliminated. He went out and proved that on Sunday by leading twice for 61 laps before a late race caution period after Vickers' final incident allowed Stewart to line up side-by-side with the leader for the final restart with three laps to go.
Stewart was able to pass Johnson on the outside and went on to win the race, but Johnson's second-place finish proved that he is going to race hard even if he doesn't win the championship.
"It's going to be a great run all the way to the end," said Johnson, who moved up to sixth in the standings and 43 points out. "At the end all the cautions were not what we needed. We saw Tony in victory lane. He found something on the outside lane drooling at the opportunity to start out there and he certainly made it work."
Johnson's record run may be coming to an end, but his greatness will continue.
5. Short tracks add something to the Chase that will be missing the final three weeks. Martinsville is the only true short track in the Chase and the season will wind up with two of the final three races of the "cookie cutter" 1.5-mile tracks at Texas and Homestead. Phoenix has also been reconfigured with additional banking and many of the drivers expect it to drive much differently than in the past.
Short track racing is truly unique and some drivers wish there were more of those on the schedule rather than the 1.5-mile ovals.
"I'll admit when we went through this big building process of all these mile-and-a-halves, nobody considered building something more like a Bristol or a Richmond or something like that," said third-place finisher Jeff Gordon. "I think we need one or two more (short) tracks like that on the circuit. Martinsville is a little extreme. This place is tough on brakes and tempers flare but it's very entertaining.
"You got to like that."