Harvick trumps Junior at Martinsville
Oh, so close.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the end of his long winless streak in his grasp, then could only watch as Kevin Harvick took it away from him.
After posting his first win of the season last week at Fontana, Harvick repeated his Happy Dance again Sunday, taking the Goody's Fast Relief 500 checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. finished second and Kyle Busch third.
For Earnhardt, the drought is still on. Earnhardt led most of the last 10 laps and momentarily gave his fans cause for celebration and reason to think Junior's futility streak would end at 98. Instead, Harvick crushed Junior's fans.
"I was thinking at the end that I was meant to win that damn race," said Earnhardt, whose winless streak instead grew to 99. "Hell, I'm not sitting there leading that thing by seven car lengths thinking I'm about to lose.
"I don't know what I could have done different. We didn't have that great of a car. We weren't that fast all day."
Harvick knew he broke some some hearts in Virginia and all across the country.
"I hate to be the bad guy," Harvick said. "But I'm in it to win it."
It was the second Sprint Cup win of the season for Harvick, who now also has victories in all three series at Martinsville.
"Just an awesome day," Harvick said. "I didn't think we had the car to do that and just came back up through there.
"Well, I think it just shows what we are made of again today."
Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top five. Gordon held the lead at a couple of points during the day, but he couldn't stay there.
"I don't know, it just seemed like the track changed on us there at the end and that caution did not help us any either so that got us behind," Gordon said.
With 21 laps to go, the crowd at Martinsville went nuts as Earnhardt edged Busch and took the lead. And instead of just playing cat and mouse with Busch, Earnhardt pulled away. With 10 laps to go, Earnhardt had almost a one-second lead on Busch.
"Yeah, I was holding him up. I sucked," Busch said. "I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul."
NASCAR's shortest and oldest track provided plenty of action with some spectacular wrecks. It also gave drivers a new concern — specifically their tires — in addition to the tight pack-racing Martinsville is known for. The accumulation of marbles — balls of rubber shed from the tires — on the high side of the track had Earnhardt describing the tires as "crappy."
Earnhardt said that no driver wants to get caught up in the second groove because the marbles don’t come off the tires easily.
With 150 laps to go, five drivers appeared to be the ones consistently challenging for the lead — Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Of those five, only Bowyer isn't among the top six leaders in short-track wins.
Also at about the 150-lap mark, Ryan Newman cut a left tire and spun, causing the 10th caution of the race. All lead drivers pitted, and most took four tires.
Meanwhile, Jeff Burton's car limped into pit road after the front half of his car folded like an accordion during the restart. His pit crew pulled out hammers and, in Whack-a-Mole-like fashion, proceeded to hammer out the hood.
Busch's Toyota was running hard the entire race, impressing even Gordon, who voiced his amazement on the radio: "That 18 is driving so hard . . . I don't know how the hell he's getting away with it."
At the midpoint of the race, Gordon finally took the lead for the first time of the day — and Tony Stewart's struggles continued at this famed short track.
Stewart was levied a drive-through penalty after changing lanes before the start/finish line, becoming the third driver in the race to receive that penalty.
Johnson also received a penalty for speeding on pit road, which didn't sit well with the five-time defending champion.
"I wasn't speeding. They didn't like how it looked, Johnson said. "People will say whatever, but with the math and the way we know our timing lines, there is just no way."
With 191 laps to go, Hamlin passed Stewart, whose No. 14 Chevrolet fell two laps down. AJ Allmendinger, who started the race in the sixth spot, finally had the lead position at Lap 326 after Newman had pitted.
Allmendinger was the first Ford driver to lead the race.
A ninth caution was called when Trevor Bayne cut his left rear tire, which left debris on the track. Busch won the race off pit road, with Hamlin second and Gordon third.
The fifth caution was out when Hermie Sadler slowed down after appearing to have cut a tire. On the restart, Bowyer was in the lead position, followed by Earnhardt and Montoya. Earnhardt's brief appearance near the lead didn't last long at that point, though, as Kyle Busch powered past him to take the second spot.
A huge crash involving Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. caused a 25-minute red-flag caution on Lap 221 because of damage to a wall. The wreck was the result of Truex's throttle getting stuck. He got into Kahne's Red Bull Toyota going into the turn, and Truex's car slammed hard into the wall and burst into flames.
After emerging from the infield care center, Truex recalled that, right before his car hit the wall, he was thinking, "Oh, man, this is going to hurt." But, as it turns out, “it didn't hurt at all," Truex said, praising the SAFER safety barriers. "Ten years ago, I wouldn't be standing here."
Once the restart had been signaled, there had been eight leaders and 14 lead changes, with Bowyer keeping the No. 1 spot and leading 60 of 222 laps.
Two laps later, Kurt Busch cut down low in Turn 3, trimmed some grass and wrecked Bobby Labonte. Labonte's car hit the wall and sustained heavy damage, while Joey Logano and Robby Gordon were caught up by the wreck and spun around.
Bowyer won the restart, but three laps later, an eighth caution was called after Brad Keselowski got into Paul Menard and caused a three-car wreck. Menard, Casey Mears and Michael McDowell were all caught up in that accident.
Earlier in the race, a second caution was called on Lap 106 after Dave Blaney went high on the track and ended up in a marble-filled area. On the restart, Jimmie Johnson beat out Kyle Busch and took the lead on Lap 115.
Ten laps later, McDowell started pushing Marcus Ambrose around. And pushing. And pushing. Ambrose spun, hit the wall and limped away with some damage to the rear of his car. McDowell was overheard on his radio saying, "I'm not going to take it."
Bayne, the Daytona 500 winner, hit the garages early Sunday: A radiator issue put him 35 laps down when he finally got back on the track.
Johnson won the restart and was the leader for one lap before home-state favorite Hamlin passed him on Lap 133, but like JJ's lead, it didn't last long. Bowyer took the inside groove and became the 11th leader of the race on Lap 134.
Blaney's car caused another caution on Lap 174 — and for the same reason, a flat right front tire. He appeared to have stopped on the track, drawing the ire of NASCAR, which then penalized him two laps. During Blaney's pit stop, one removed tire sitting near the wall was smoking heavily. On the restart, Johnson took the lead after beating everyone out of the pits for the third straight time.
Bowyer performed a brilliant bump-and-run on Kyle Busch and overtook him for second place while Mark Martin was penalized for changing lanes before hitting the start/finish line.
Matt Kenseth was put in a foul mood early on. He changed lanes before reaching the start/finish line at the start of the race and had to serve a drive-through penalty on pit road. Kenseth's spotter, Mike Calinoff, tried to reassure him by saying he would get the lucky dog pass, but Kenseth replied, "Shut up, spotter."
Pole winner Jaime McMurray held the lead for the first 31 laps. Kahne, Ryan Newman and Hamlin all exchanged the top spot until the first caution was called on Lap 50 for David Gilliland's cut front tire.
After the restart, Johnson took the lead out of pit road and held it until Kyle Busch took over on Lap 78. While Johnson and Busch were racing each other hard, other veteran drivers were struggling early. Stewart was in danger of getting lapped and Kurt Busch was already down one by Lap 56.