Turns out Mother Nature was the big winner last week at Fontana, with a rain-soaked track that shortened the race from 200 laps to merely 129. Many NASCAR fans and officials alike were concerned about any part of the race being run with the looming dark skies and a rain-filled forecast. However, considering the race was run with only one caution flag and zero wrecks, drivers managed to keep their cool and had a huge green-flag run to get to the midpoint. But the rain didn’t bother Tony Stewart, who had his car in the right place at the right time, earning his second win of the season with the Auto Club 400 when NASCAR officials called the race. Kyle Busch ran second, Dale Earnhardt Jr third, with Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr, Kurt Busch, and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top ten. On days like these crew chiefs have one basic goal in mind: be in the right place when the crossed flags are in the air (a signal to the drivers the halfway point is reached in a race). If NASCAR can get to the mid-point of the race, it’s considered an official race and can be discontinued should inclement weather roll in.
Fortunately bad weather is unlikely to hamper this weekend’s race, as we’re carried back in ol’ Virginny and Martinsville Speedway for the Goody’s Fast Relief 500. This .526-mile, paperclip-shaped track is always fun for many drivers, as one regularly sees a lot of “beatin’ and bangin’ ” during a race. So today’s sixth race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) season will bring lots of action, and with that action will come one of two things: Headaches (come on, with a sponsor like Goody’s, you have to plug the product) or Indigestion from the famous Martinsville Hot Dogs consumed during these race weekends (see Rumor Mill below).
Coverage for the race starts out early with NASCAR Raceday on @SPEED at 10:30pm EDT. FOX’s NASCAR SUNDAY is at 12:30pm EDT, with race coverage itself at 1pm EDT. The Green Flag drops at approximately 1:16 pm EDT following the National Anthem performed by the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets Marching Band. NASCAR legend Richard Petty will be the Grand Marshal for the race, as a last-minute add when actor Gary Sinise (“Forrest Gump”, CSI:NY, et al) was involved in an auto accident Friday and was unable to attend the race (we all hope Gary is recovering well and will be back in action soon). Sunday’s pre-race flyover will be from a flight of F-18 Hornets from Naval Air Station Oceana (Norfolk, VA).
Best Bets: Two drivers with multiple Martinsville wins for this week’s BB’s.
Jeff Gordon (#24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet)- Gordo has been caught up in some tough wrecks so far this season, after having fast cars in all of them. Jeff has finished no worse than third in three of the last four short track races, and placed in the top five in three of the last four races here at Martinsville. He’s got seven wins, twenty-five top fives, and thirty-one top tens, with an average finish of seventh. This could be a good week for him, as he’ll start ninth and was fastest in Happy Hour.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Freight Toyota)- Hamlin like’s the tracks in his home state of Virginia. Denny has finished no worse than fifth in three of the last four races at Martinsville (throw out the P12 in this race last year). He’s got four of his eighteen wins here, and has also put up nine top-fives and eleven top-tens. He’ll start third today, and was only twenty-eighth in final practice.
Probables: Two Chevys in this week’s probable performers.
Kevin Harvick (#29 Budweiser is Back Chevrolet)- Harvick finished fourth last week at Fontana, and therefore brings some momentum into this week’s race. Kevin has finished no worse than fourth in the last three races here, and has a win, three top-fives, and ten top-tens. Happy is out to prove that Budweiser is indeed back this week. He’ll start on the outside of the front row in second, and was fourteenth-fastest in final practice. Oh yeah, he won the Truck race here yesterday, too.
Ryan Newman (#39 Outback Steak House Chevy)- The Rocketman has a fast car this week, and after his top ten finish last week, fans were happy to get a free Bloomin’ Onion at Outback (if Ryan finishes in the top ten during these races, Outback will give fans a free Bloomin’ Onion with a meal on Monday). He’s out to do that again this week, starting fifth and running fourth-fastest in final practice. While Newman’s winless here, he’s put up six top-five and ten top-ten finishes. One of those top-tens was in last fall’s race. Watch for him to run up front.
Dark Horses- Couple of fan favorites for my Dark Horse picks this week, as something good will likely happen for one of these two.
Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevy)- Dale Jr and crew chief Steve Letarte made some great calls last week, giving Jr his second top-five and the third top-ten of the season’s first five races. He nearly won last year’s spring race here, just edged out by Kevin Harvick in the waning laps. Jr’s looking for his first win at Martinsville, and this could be the week. He’s had a top ten finish in six of the last eight races at Martinsville, with nine top-five and thirteen top-ten finishes. Dale only qualified fourteenth and was eighteenth-fastest in final practice, but he likes this track. Maybe he’ll even shave off the beard if he wins.
Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy)- It may seem odd that I have Smoke as a Dark Horse this week, especially after he won last week’s race and was the victor at Martinsville back in the Fall. Smoke does have three wins here, with nine top-fives and fourteen top-tens. He’s only starting fifteenth, and was twenty-second in final practice, but you know how he can put runs together.
A few other drivers to keep an eye out for are Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy) and Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer (#15 5-Hour Energy Toyota) & Brian Vickers (#55 RK Motors Toyota). Johnson has six wins here and finishes no worse than eleventh the last four races, Bowyer two top-tens in the last two spring M’ville races and a fourth-place finish at Bristol a couple weeks ago, and Vickers is running the second of his six races with MWR, having placed fifth with a tremendously strong run at Bristol as well. Short track racing isn’t for everyone, but these three could be the spoilers of the day.
Rumor Mill: Not sure what to make of one of these stories, whether it’s genuine or just April Fool’s Day jokes. But the other is a staple for the NASCAR fan.
Google-Plex?: OK, so I guess Google has decided to get into NASCAR. Autonomously. They’ve developed a racing team that features advanced technology and a vehicle that can drive itself. What that will do for the drivers, I’m not quite sure. At least Clint Bowyer can concentrate on his Karaoke a little more. http://www.nascar.com/video/none/none/120331/cup-mar-google/index.html
HOT DOG: The Jesse Jones wiener has been a staple at the Martinsville Speedway since its opening sixty-five years ago. Matter of fact, it’s the cause of many a case of indigestion, bringing up a question of why Goody’s Headache Powder is the sponsor of this race, rather than TUMS! And after all this time, the partnership has finally been solidified. The Famous Martinsville Speedway Hot Dog has now been made an official partner. Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway, closed the deal with “Our hot dog is the most iconic concession item in all of racing, and the key reason for that is the Jesse Jones wiener. We have our special, secret way of dressing it, but the dog is at the heart of it all.” So this dog, covered with sauerkraut and onions, typically sells so well on a typical race weekend, that if stretched end to end, they would lap the track at Martinsville over nine times. (Martinsville Speedway)
Final Thoughts: Today’s race will bring enough action, and enough wrecks, to give anyone the need for a Goody’s Headache Powder. But it should be quite a show for the NASCAR nut or novice alike. Tune in to FOX, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90) for the headaches, heartaches, and stomach aches. Just be ready for the comparisons and competition of which of the on-air personalities has consumed the most Hot Dogs over the course of the weekend.
Remember, the NSC will take next week off in honor of Easter, but as usual for this week, I’ll have my normal race updates, analysis, and occasional rant on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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