Halfway through Sunday’s Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, you couldn’t blame Mark Martin for thinking, “Here we go again.”
On Lap 226 of 500, Martin smacked the frontstretch wall after a tap from AJ Allmendinger and lost a lap for repairs.
Then his fortunes turned. Martin finally regained the lost lap on the next caution as the first car one lap down on Lap 393. In the final 98 laps, he drove from 18th to second in a No. 5 Chevrolet that was the fastest car on the track during the closing green-flag run.
It has been a frustrating year for Martin, who missed the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this season after finishing second to Jimmie Johnson last year.
“Lap 30, I started overheating my brakes, started having to baby them,” Martin said. “I thought there was no possible way we were going to run 500 laps. At Lap 150, 175, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s going to be a long, long day.’
“Then we had all the stuff tear up (in the Lap 226 wreck). I never really have much enjoyed this place, to be real honest with you. But that last hundred laps was fun. I’ve had guys pass me (in previous races), and I wondered how in the world they did that. Now I see how. What an incredible racecar that (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and everyone gave me.
“I feel darn lucky to have been in that seat today. … I ain’t mad we didn’t win. I’m glad we ran second, to be honest with you.”
For Earnhardt, still room to improve
Based on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance Sunday, one might think the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet would be elated.
After all, Earnhardt led 90 laps, 19 more than he had led combined in his 31 previous races this year. As he passed teammate Jeff Gordon for the lead on Lap 285, there was more than just a glimmer of hope that Earnhardt would break an 88-race victory drought.
Ultimately, Earnhardt’s car tightened up, and NASCAR’s perennial most popular driver finished seventh—just another decent performance at Martinsville, as far as Earnhardt was concerned.
“Well, this isn’t quite good enough,” Earnhardt said. “We have to run way better than this. … I can come here and get a top 10 unless we have a major, major issue in the setup. I feel confident. That’s how I feel—I’m not saying that’s reality.
“We got toward the front on some pit strategy that worked out real good, and then we had a good enough car at the time to pass the guys that were around us. They had a little less tire than we had. A lot of things worked in our favor to get us the lead.”
Earnhardt shouldn’t be too hard on himself. Aside from three laps at Fontana two weeks ago, he hadn’t led a lap since the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.
Kurt Busch, Gordon feud simmers
Gordon admitted he was late with a move that allowed him to pass Kurt Busch’s No. 2 Dodge.
Busch responded by knocking Gordon into the wall on Lap 385—all but ending Gordon’s chances for a fifth championship. The way Busch sees it, however, they’re still not even.
“I didn’t mean to get into him that hard, but over the years with Gordon here, back in the 97 car (which Busch drove for Roush Racing), wrecking the 2 car—whether you’re a Kurt fan or an ex-Rusty (Wallace) fan—he’s wrecked the 2 car a lot here.”
Given the history, Gordon knew payback was coming.
“I said it here, more than once, that I probably made the move a little late. I was going to get into him. It wasn’t much. But I gave him enough of a reason that, whatever things he has from past history or whatever thoughts he has in there, it sparked it, you know?
“At that point, he was determined to wreck us.”