Gordon Wins Wild One at Martinsville

(*Editor’s note: I write game recap articles, or as those of us in the sportswriting business say, “gamers”, all the time in my work for the Anderson Independent-Mail.  However, that experience is currently limited to football, basketball, baseball, and softball, so I decided to, for the experience and practice of doing so, write an article on today’s NASCAR race at Martinsville.  Here is the result, and I felt it appropriate to publish here.)

 

As Jeff Gordon’s career races into the twilight, the four-time Sprint Cup champion won Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville by literally doing just that.

Gordon, in his final season of Sprint Cup competition, collected his 93rd career Sprint Cup Series victory by outracing the competition in near darkness.  With the win, Gordon earned a spot in the Championship Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, November 22 at Homestead, as he tries to win his fifth title, and first since 2001.

The win was the first of Gordon’s farewell season, ending a 39-race winless streak, and was a wildly popular victory among the fans at the Virginia short track.  This wasn’t the first time Martinsville fans have seen Gordon win, as he won the trophy’s signature grandfather clock trophy for a ninth time, the most among active drivers.

Gordon took the lead with 22 laps to go, passing A.J. Allmendinger.  Allmendinger had taken the lead from Denny Hamlin at lap 460 of the 500-lap race, after both had opted not to pit during a caution flag, just after Gordon had taken the lead at lap 454.

After the race’s 18th caution came out with six to go, Gordon restarted side-by-side with eventual runner-up Jamie McMurray, but never lost the lead and cleared McMurray with two to go, finishing off an emotional win, which was one of the biggest of his storied career.

“What an incredible battle that was,” Gordon said.  “We just stuck with it, all day long, just trying to protect those rear tires, and it all fell in our lap.”

Gordon inherited the lead with 46 laps to go, when Matt Kenseth, who was several laps down, wrecked race leader Joey Logano, who was going for his fourth straight win, heavily damaging both cars.

The incident appeared to be Kenseth’s retribution for being spun by Logano with five to go two weeks ago at Kansas while racing for the win.  Kenseth, who was eliminated from the Chase last week, said afterward the incident was due to a right-front tire problem, but was parked by NASCAR for the rest of the race, although that likely didn’t affect his finishing position of 38th.

“I think what happened at Kansas is a completely different deal,” Logano said.  “We were racing for the win and (Kenseth) blocks you a few times and then we raced hard and he blocked me the last time and we spun out.  Here it was just a complete coward move, especially for a championship race car driver and race team. Just a complete coward. I don’t have anything else to say.”

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell addressed the situation afterward, showing NASCAR’s displeasure at the incident.

“What was disappointing today would be the incident we’re referring to where (Kenseth) is not competing for a win, (and) in fact, is several laps down when that happened.  In our mind, that’s a little bit different that two drivers really going after it coming out of turn four for a win, versus what happened tonight.”

NASCAR didn’t immediately penalize Kenseth on Sunday night, as has often been the case in similar situations, as O’Donnell said NASCAR will continue to analyze what happened into the early part of this week.

“There’s still a lot to digest from what happened tonight,” O’Donnell said.  “We’ll have some additional conversations, and probably come out with something, if there is anything to discuss, on Tuesday.”

Logano led nine times for a race-high 207 laps, which is why Gordon saw the incident between Logano and Kenseth as a turning point.

“Yeah, we had a few things that fell in our favor,” Gordon said.  “But you’ve got to be there and be ready for that moment when it comes, and we were.”

Kenseth’s car was damaged from a previous crash at lap 436, when Brad Keselowski clipped Kenseth while racing for second position on a restart, and Kenseth’s Toyota spun, collecting Kurt Busch.  Keselowski had led 143 laps, and all three drivers were threats to win before the accident.

Gordon led 35 laps, the fourth-highest total in the race, but after running no lower than 10th all day was at the front when it counted most, and now won’t have to reach Homestead on points.

“People don’t give this team enough credit, and we seized an opportunity right there,” Gordon said.  “I don’t think this opportunity will present itself the next couple of weeks, but it sure is nice to have taking advantage of this one and not have to worry about that.”

After Gordon, the next highest-finishing Chase drivers were Kyle Busch in fifth and Martin Truex Jr. in sixth.  Kevin Harvick finished eighth, and Carl Edwards finished 14th, while the accident involving Keselowski and Kurt Busch relegated them to finishes of 32nd and 34th, respectively.  Logano finished 37th after the contact with Kenseth.

Hamlin finished third, while Allmendinger, after losing the lead to Gordon, fell back to 11th.

The race to join Gordon in the four-driver championship battle at Homestead has Kyle Busch and Truex both nine points above the cut-off, with Harvick seven points clear.  The first driver out would be Edwards, seven points behind fourth, with Keselowski 24 points back of Harvick, Kurt Busch 26 markers back, and Logano, who entered Martinsville the championship favorite, 28 points behind the cut-off.

There are two races left in the eight-driver Eliminator Round, with next week’s event at Texas, and the season’s penultimate race at Phoenix, before the season finale at Homestead.

After the win, Gordon showed his excitement in advancing to the final Chase race at Homestead, pointing to the possibility of a Hollywood ending to his illustrious career.

“This has turned into a fairy tale year,” Gordon said.  “I just can’t believe it.  Homestead is going to be an unbelievable weekend, and we’re so focused.”

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NASCAR Puts Gordon In Chase, Justice Done

NASCAR President Mike Helton and Chairman and CEO Brian France addressed the media on Friday to announce actions they were taking in regards to the situation between Joey Logano and David Gilliland in the closing laps last Saturday at Richmond.

I wanted to write about the Logano/Gilliland situation yesterday, as details emerged, but I was, frankly, tired of the Richmond issues, and ready to move on.  Logano, according to reports, was given a position in the closing laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 by David Gilliland, who slowed to let Logano by after radio communication between representatives of the two teams.  Logano ended up finishing in the top 10 in the standings by a single point, as a result of both this and the MWR manipulation (read earlier posts).

NASCAR announced today that Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports are both on probation until December 31, the penalty for, as we hear so often, “actions detrimental to stock car racing.”

The big news here, however, came when France announced that NASCAR was allowing Jeff Gordon and his #24 Drive To End Hunger team to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  This is an unprecedented decision, as no one has ever been allowed into the Chase after failing to mathematically qualify.  France said this was (I’m paraphrasing) a cumulative decision by the sanctioning body after multiple organizations manipulated the Richmond outcome and, as a whole, worked against Gordon and greatly damaged his chances of qualifying. He mentioned keeping the integrity of the sport, which is the number one goal, and that this is the only way to assure Gordon a level playing field.

As a fan, it feels like Jeff Gordon keeps getting bad breaks on the track.  Today he finally got a very, very good one, this time off the track.

NASCAR has made the right call here.  Gordon was robbed on Saturday night.  It wasn’t by just one organization, and it really wasn’t even that all the organizations in hot water now were specifically working against him on Saturday night.  It just so happened that when multiple organizations manipulated the outcome of the race to help themselves, they collectively worked to the disadvantage of Gordon.  It took six days from Saturday night to this afternoon, but the “integrity of the sport,” as France called it, is finally intact.

Of course, in a perfect world, Martin Truex Jr. would still be in because he as a driver and his #56 team did nothing wrong; it was the rest of Michael Waltrip Racing that has caused chaos in the NASCAR garage.  The 50-point penalty that was handed down, however, was part of an overall organizational penalty, and although I disagree with some aspects of the penalty, sanctions for MWR were certainly necessary.

NASCAR will meet on Saturday with all drivers, crew chiefs, and teams to discuss the “rules of the road” and provide clarity moving forward for what is right and what is over the line (and where the line might fall).

It’s a meeting Jeff Gordon, Alan Gustafson, and Rick Hendrick will be more than happy to attend.

Note: NASCAR Press Conference Transcript link:

http://www.jayski.com/news/pages/story/_/page/NASCAR-Richmond-penalty-press-conference-Sept-13-2013

Another Note:  Darrell Waltrip, as we know, loves numerology.  He’s at it again with this interesting tweet:  “In 2013 on September the 13th a 13th driver was added to the Chase, be easy to remember this day!”

Chase for the Sprint Cup Power Rankings

My overall rankings for the 10-race Chase.

1. Matt Kenseth.  He has 5 wins this year, with 4 coming on 1.5-mile tracks.  Half the chase races are at 1.5-mile tracks, with additional races at Talladega and Dover, good tracks for Matt.  He starts the Chase as the points leader based on those wins.  Much of the media has him as the favorite, and so do I, with Johnson’s recent struggles.

2, Carl Edwards.  Winner at Richmond, “Cousin Carl” has some momentum.  Like Kenseth, he is good at 1.5-mile tracks, Talladega, and Dover, as well as Pheonix.  If he is decent at Martinsville, expect the 99 to be in contention to win it all at Homestead.  Unlike Kenseth, and many others in this Chase, he has experienced racing at Homestead with the prospect of winning the title, finishing 2nd  twice.  That experience could put him over the top.

3. Jimmie Johnson.  A month ago it was unthinkable the 5-time champion would be this low in these rankings.  Since then, he has posted finishes of 40th, 36th, 28th, and 40th.  It should be difficult for anyone to suddenly flip a switch and be championship material again, but if anyone can do it, it’s Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.  They are very good in the Chase format, winning 5 of the 9 Chases run, with finishes of 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th in the other 4.

4. Kyle Busch.  Here’s the elephant in the room.  There are questions surrounding Kyle, as usual.  Can he be consistent enough to contend for a championship?  Is he mature enough?  Can he keep his composure in big-pressure spots if he’s in contention late in the Chase?  I have a feeling we’ll get some answers in the next 10 weeks.  Like Edwards, Busch is riding some momentum, and he’s good at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover, the first three tracks the Chase will visit.  After those races, we’ll know if he’s in it or not.

5. Kasey Kahne.  I was hesitant to put him this high, because he was 14th in points, reaching the Chase on a wild card berth.  Kahne, though, is another driver very good on those key 1.5-mile tracks, particularly Charlotte and Texas.  He’s also had moderate success at Phoenix, Dover, and New Hampshire.  Like Edwards, Martinsville is Kahne’s weakness among the Chase tracks.  Kahne may be the wild card in another way, as he will likely be consistent enough to contend for a title, like early in the season, or he will lack consistency and struggle down the stretch.

6. Ryan Newman.  The 39 team left Richmond thinking a late caution and a bad pit stop had cost them a wild card spot in the Chase.  Sunday, of course, they found out with the rest of us that there was more to it.  Newman could use his surprise Chase berth as a springboard to a title shot.  However, the “Achilles heel” of Stewart-Haas Racing this year has been 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.  The full resources of SHR will be needed to give Newman a shot, and he will have them due to Tony Stewart’s season-ending leg injury.  Another negative, though, is that this is a “lame duck” season, as Newman announced Monday he will drive for Richard Childress Racing in 2014.

7. Joey Logano.  Like Newman, Logano just barely got in.  In fact, there is now speculation that Penske Racing may have asked David Gilliland to intentionally let Logano around to help his points situation at Richmond.  (Great, this week’s been crazy enough.)  He has some momentum, if you ignore his finish at Richmond, he had a win, 3 top fives, and 5 top sevens in the previous 5 races.  Penske Racing won the Chase last year with Brad Keselowski.  The 2 car isn’t in the Chase, so all the resources of Penske will be with Logano, not a bad thing to have.

8. Kurt Busch.  The 2004 Champion may be a dark horse in this Chase.  No one gives the single car team out of Denver a chance.  They are the first single car team and the first team based outside of NC to qualify for the Chase.  This team, however, has some help.  They have a competitive alliance with Richard Childress Racing, and after winning at Darlington in 2011 with Regan Smith, they have been poised to win all year with Kurt Busch, with a 2nd at Richmond, three 3rds, and four additional top fives.  He is a “lame duck,” but his team has probably assumed that all year.  Expect him to win a race or races in the Chase; we shall see if the underdog team can contend at Homestead.

9. Kevin Harvick.  Some writers have him among their top 3, and a couple even have him winning the title.  I’ll be different, and coin a new term, as he may be the “lamest duck.”  Harvick has been at Richard Childress Racing since 2001 (2000 if you count Nationwide), and is leaving for Stewart-Haas Racing at season’s end.  In six previous Chase apperances, he has finishes of 3rd (twice), 4th (twice), 8th, and 10th.  He has shown some consistency, but he only has 6 top fives on the year.  I don’t see that as strong enough to contend for the title.

10. Clint Bowyer.  I just can’t see someone with as crazy a week as Bowyer has had going to Chicago and doing well.  There also must be some negative momentum, not just from the Richmond incident but also from a couple of poor finishes.  Also, after Jeff Gordon got the short end of the stick in the MWR penalties (he’s still not in the Chase), and considering the two have a history, there could be some fireworks (who knows).  On the bright side, Bowyer is good at the first three tracks In the Chase:  Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Junior has had a pretty good year, other than the fact he hasn’t found the winner’s circle.  He was, of course, leading big at Michigan when he blew an engine.  Consistency has been an issue this year, not just for Junior, but for all of Hendrick (never thought I’d say that).  In five previous Chase apperances, his best finish is 5th, but not since 2004 and 2006.  His best Chase finish in three appearances while at Hendrick is 7th.  I don’t see anything here to suggest he will be a contender for the title.

12. Greg Biffle.  Biffle struggled for much of the regular season, as did all of the Fords, but put together enough good finishes to make the Chase.  “The Biff” did finish 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 2008, but has never really been close enough to taste the champagne.   He won at Michigan in June, but his best finish since the win was 8th, and at a road course.  Out of the 8 races at tracks that are featured in the Chase, he had only one top ten finish, and that was a Martinsville, a track he traditionally struggles at.  The signs don’t look promising for the veteran to contend late into the Chase.

Chase Schedule: 9/15 Chicago, 9/22 New Hampshire, 9/29 Dover, 10/6 Kansas, 10/12 Charlotte, 10/20 Talladega, 10/27 Martinsville, 11/3 Texas, 11/10 Phoenix, 11/17 Homestead

NASCAR Penalties For MWR Debacle

Just a few opinion points on the issue surrounding the intentional spin by one car from Michael Waltrip Racing and the unnecessary pit stops by another all in an effort to get Martin Truex Jr. into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Keep in mind as you read my opinion that I am trying to stay relatively objective but I am also a lifelong Jeff Gordon fan.

For anyone unaware of the penalties I’m about to comment on, each MWR car (15, 55, 56) was penalized 50 driver points and 50 owner points in the standings after the Richmond race (not the reset Chase standings).  This penalty pushed Martin Truex Jr. from 12th in points (in position for the second wild card) to 17th, moving Ryan Newman, who was leading the race at the time of Bowyer’s spin, and in position “as they ran” to claim the wild card spot, into the chase.  The organization was also fined $300,000 and Executive VP/GM Ty Norris was suspended indefinitely (the pit stops issue was directed by him on the 55 radio).

1.  Clint Bowyer started this whole thing with the intentional spin.  Mike Helton said there was not conclusive evidence that the spin was intentional, but if you watch the in-car feed, listen to the audio, and watch the interviews with both Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who was directly behind the 15 car at the time of the spin), there’s plenty of evidence.  I won’t call it conclusive, but I’m pretty convinced something suspicious happened to that racecar.

Yet, Clint Bowyer is the driver among the MWR camp least penalized by these sanctions.  His spot in the chase was not in doubt all summer, and he had finished the regular season in 3rd.  The 50 points hurt his regular season standing, but that placement has absolutely no effect on the points reset that starts the Chase.  The seeding is determined by bonus points accumulated from wins, not from points position.  How is this fair to the field, to the sport, and its fans that the catalyst for one of the biggest scandals the sport has ever seen is still in a pretty good spot to potentially win the championship.

A few minutes ago, ESPN accidentally showed a graphic which had the 50-point penalty included in the Chase seeding, which put him 65 points behind Matt Kenseth.  Although the graphic was incorrect, I didn’t see it as such a bad idea.

2.  Martin Truex Jr. was totally innocent.  Did he benefit from the actions of his teammates?  Absolutely.  Was he involved in the manipulation by MWR? No.  After the race, he told multiple reporters he had no clue whether or not Bowyer’s spin was intentional.  And, at that time, no one had yet connected the dots on the Vickers pit stops during the final 3 laps.  He was simply the beneficiary of the actions of MWR.  I certainly understand handing down organizational punishment, but it’s not fair to penalize Truex (and NAPA) for the actions of others.  He should’ve been left in the Chase, and Newman should’ve been added in addition to Truex.  That would’ve made the most since to me.

Then again, Doug Rice said at one point during PRN’s coverage of the announcement that (I’m paraphrasing) there was no possible way for NASCAR to make everybody happy here.  True.

Jeff Gordon, who should be the most disappointed with the announcement (keep reading) tweeted “Feel bad for Truex.  He got in under controversy now out due to it.”  He goes on to say “But the guy who started all of this not effected at all??? Don’t agree!”  Well said, Jeff, referencing both Bowyer’s lack of penalty and Truex’s over-penalization.

3.  That being said, Jeff Gordon is still not in the Chase.  That one point he lost at, well, any of the 26 races cost him what would’ve been his ninth Chase berth in the ten years of the Chase era.  Actually, he really lost by two because in the event of a tie, Joey Logano would still be in because of his win at Michigan, whereas Gordon is winless this year.

When asked tonight about why Newman got in the Chase, but Gordon did not, Mike Helton said that (again, paraphrasing) NASCAR could react to what occurred, not to the ripple affect of what occurred.

Here’s what occurred: Brian Vickers pitted as the field took the green on the final restart with 3 laps to go, after being directed to do so by the aforementioned Ty Norris.  Vickers was surprised he was being called in to pit, even saying “Are you talking to me?” and “I don’t understand, pit right now?”  Norris responded, saying “You’ve got to pit this time, we need that one point.”  After the stop, Norris told Vickers “Brian, I owe you a kiss.”  Helton said that Vickers’ confusion (and Norris’ response) was the smoking gun.  (Not his words, credit to Jenna Fryer of the AP on Twitter).  Bowyer was also reported to have stopped after the final restart.

The direct result, not the ripple effect, was Joey Logano passing Vickers and Bowyer as they pitted, and gaining 2 positions on the racetrack and 2 corresponding points in the standings.  Two paragraphs ago, I referenced how Gordon needed 2 points at any point in the season.  There they are; those 2 points Logano gained got him in.

That was the direct result to what occurred, as Helton put it.  I don’t know what on earth the “ripple effect” was.  Jeff Gordon isn’t sure either, as he tweeted “Someone explain the “ripple effect” to me?”  Gordon’s wife, Ingrid, seemed more upset Ripple effect is when first guy causes something and gets no penalty.  Every driver effected by that first move gets screwed!”

I am in no way, form, or fashion upset with Joey Logano.  It wouldn’t be fair to penalize him for the actions of another team.  I’m frustrated, as a Jeff Gordon fan, and as a fan of the sport in general, that one of its greatest champions was cheated out of a chance at his 5th championship.

38% of readers of a Bleacher Report article I will reference momentarily said the best option was to have a 14-driver Chase, given the special circumstances, adding Gordon and Newman, as the best compromise.  Just a thought.  Another thought: did Mike Helton think that it would severely damage the integrity of the Chase to have 13 or 14 drivers?  I don’t know, but it certainly damages the integrity of the Chase to have this situation resolved like this.

NASCAR surely doesn’t want a black eye over its sport going into its championship run.  Unfortunately, due to the actions of an organization, I don’t think that’s possible.  As I mentioned earlier, nothing could have made everybody happy.

For complete details of the all-out manipulation of the Richmond race, here is an article published by Bleacher Report before the penalties came out that called my attention to how severe this manipulation was by MWR:

http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1766433-was-clint-bowyers-late-spinout-in-nascars-richmond-finale-fair-or-foul

As a fan, not as a blogger, I earlier tweeted the following:  “If NASCAR forgets about my driver (Gordon), maybe I’ll forget about them 4 a while.  Sorry ESPN 4 my NFL viewership this Sunday.”  I don’t know yet if I’ll take my displeasure with NASCAR to that extent yet; I’ll decide that on Sunday.  There’s some NFL games that my catch my attention, or perhaps the Braves will be in a position to clinch (the magic number is 8).

One final thought:  when I learned NASCAR was calling a news conference for 8:15 tonight, I knew it was something big.  NASCAR usually waits until Tuesdays to announce penalties but they were making their announcement right in the middle of a pretty big football game, 12 hours early.  In the end, however, I’m not sure it was big enough.

Stay tuned later in the week for my Chase prediction rankings, drivers 1-12.