You can’t ‘rule’ out the danger at Talladega

What are we trying to accomplish here?

NASCAR officials announced a change in the size of the restrictor plate at Talladega Superspeedway Friday after Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 Chevrolet barrel-rolled down the backstretch.

McMurray wasn’t injured. Neither was Ryan Newman, whose No. 31 Chevrolet struck McMurray’s car when it turned sideways in front of the Richard Childress driver.

Ty Dillon (No. 13 Chevrolet) and Daniel Suarez (No. 19 Toyota) were also unhurt. Their two cars made contact during the same incident with Dillon getting into the outside wall.

McMurray’s car “got airborne.” NASCAR reacted, announcing a reduction in the size of the plate, which restricts airflow into the engine, from 7/8ths of an inch to 55/64ths of an inch. The move will be in place for qualifying, scheduled for Saturday, as well as Sunday’s GEICO 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

Speeds during the second practice had reached 204 mph.

The change in the size of the plate will slow the cars by as little as two mph or as much as five, depending on who you ask.

Here’s a news flash: they’ve crashed at much slower speeds here. Got up in the fence, too.

In 2009, the winning pole speed for the spring race was 188 mph and change. The race included two multi-car incidents that featured 10 or more cars in each. And a last-lap crash that saw Carl Edwards’ car get up in the fence, parts fly into the grandstands and fans injured.

Friday’s move will slow the cars but there is no guarantee that it will keep them on the track if they make contact under certain circumstances.

Those circumstances occurred Friday. Again.

They’re just as likely to occur again.

You can’t remove the chance of that taking place until you slow the cars to the point that it becomes physically impossible for it to occur.

At that point, vehicles will be running faster out on I-20, the interstate that fronts the 2.66-mile track.

Is the answer then to do nothing? Don’t change the size of the plates, just turn everyone loose and hope for the best?

Obviously, that’s not the answer either.

Fans enjoy racing at Talladega and Daytona because of the speed and the close, tight-quarters racing that unfolds out on the track. You don’t get that anywhere else in the series. Some places have the speed but not the close packs of cars. Others have the cars a bit closer, but not the speed.

At Talladega, it comes with a bit of danger. It comes with risk. It always has and always will.

How much danger are you comfortable with, how much risk is OK?

Maybe there is no answer.

Talladega and when speed used to matter

TALLADEGA, Ala. – It used to be a huge deal to qualify on the pole at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR’s longest and at one time fastest track. I don’t know if that’s still the case. Maybe …

I’m sure it’s important because of the pit stall selection and all that but it used to be about speed, pure and raw, and I don’t think that’s the case today.

Pit road was where you got gas and tires after somebody else wrecked and where you started and stopped there didn’t really matter all that much.

(You also came down pit road at a ridiculously fast speed but that’s a whole other story)

It was about building the sleekest, smoothest, fastest car and wringing the most horsepower out of your engine and seeing those big, eye-popping numbers flash up on the scoreboard and hearing the collective reaction/roar of the crowd. Goosebumps.

Bragging rights in the garage. That sort of thing. The folks that built the motors and those who massaged the cars walked around with their chests stuck out just a bit and for good reason.

Bill Elliott went 212.809 mph here in 1987 and that was the fastest anyone ever got from point A to point B on this 2.66-mile monstrosity. By the end of the first day’s qualifying, 37 of 41 drivers had posted laps in excess of 200 mph. Thirty-five had run their fastest laps ever.

Elliott, Georgia born and bred and a local favorite, had gone faster in testing, 214.206 mph under cooler conditions but that was “unofficial” and the 212.809 mark remains the record.

They used to trick the cars up and we’re not just talking about bending a rule or two. Spoiler rules weren’t rigid – seven years or so before Elliott’s run, Dave Marcis shot to the top spot in part by running without a spoiler on the rear of his Harry Hyde-tuned Dodge. His pole winning speed was 189.197 mph.

Imagine what that must have felt like.

They’d paint the car in silicone to help it slip through the air, that sort of thing.

It’s a bit different today – qualifying (scheduled for Saturday) is still about having a fast car but come Sunday single-car speed isn’t nearly as important. Hook up with the right fellow driver, choose the right line, make the smarter moves and you don’t have to have the fastest car to wind up in victory lane.

It used to be about speed here and nothing else really mattered.

Kenseth, sponsor news for Roush-Fenway

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The re-hiring of Matt Kenseth by Roush-Fenway Racing wasn’t dependent upon obtaining sponsorship from Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, according to one RFR official.

The two announcements were made jointly, however, Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Kenseth, the 2003 NASCAR premier series champion who was released at the end of 2017 by Joe Gibbs Racing is returning to RFR, where he began his NASCAR career nearly two decades ago.

Wyndham comes aboard to push its Wyndham Rewards program on the race track.

With work on 2019 budgets likely already under way for most folks, where did RFR get the money to hire the 39-race winner for much of the ’18 season?

“Jack does not do this for the money,” Steve Newmark said of team founder and co-owner Jack Roush. “Jack’s assessment is ‘What do we need to do win? What do we need to do to get better?’ The Red Sox and John Henry share that mentality.”

John Henry being owner of the Boston Red Sox and head of Fenway Sports Group.

Newmark, president of Roush-Fenway, said management within the NASCAR organization “constantly sitting down, trying to figure out how to get better.

“Budget obviously matters; it probably matters a lot to me as you’re running the business and trying to take care of a lot of the people who work for us.

“That was not a key consideration although it is wonderful to also bring on a new sponsor to this sport …. to us that’s a really big part of this whole deal, bringing Wyndham into the sport.”

Kenseth’s return to the organization was going to happen, Newmark said, with or without the Wyndham sponsorship. And Wyndham’s sponsorship wasn’t tied to Kenseth being in the car.

“They were not contingent upon each other,” he said. “It’s hard to predict but we would have brought Matt in regardless and it’s our hope that we would have brought Wyndham on regardless.”

Primary sponsor AdvoCare was on the No. 6 for 18 races last season and six of this season’s nine races. The company has been the primary since Bayne joined RFR in ‘15

Newmark said there has been no restructuring of Trevor Bayne’s contract. Bayne, the former Daytona 500 winner, is the current driver of the No. 6 Ford for RFR.

Kenseth, 46, left RFR at the end of 2012 with a championship and 24 victories; he joined JGR, won 15 more races and finished second in the points battle in ’13. He won once, at Phoenix, last season before his release.

Bayne is 27 and has been with Roush-Fenway since 2015; he has four top-five finishes in 117 starts with the group. His Daytona 500 win came with Wood Brothers Racing in 2011.

Putting Richmond to rest on a Monday

Kyle Busch joined Kevin Harvick as a winner of three consecutive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races this season with his victory Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) Raceway, now having won at Texas (1.5-mile), Bristol (.533-mile) and Richmond (.75-mile).

Five different winners in nine races isn’t bad, but when two of the five have won six of the nine, well …

Someone asked me Sunday who won the Richmond race and when I told them Kyle Busch their response was, “I bet folks are getting tired of him winning all the races.”

No more so than when Harvick won three straight earlier this year, I said. Imagine when Richard Petty won 10 in a row (in ’67) …

It didn’t hurt that while Busch had to start 32nd, the first half of the season’s ninth race ran caution free, stopped only briefly for the end of the first two stages at laps 100 and 200. Then, of course, all hell seemed to break loose in the second half with four yellow flags inside the final 50 laps. …

A two-lap shootout at the end between Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) would have been interesting. Had it not been for that problem with the jack during the No. 78’s pit stop …

Busch now has 46 career Cup wins, the same as NASCAR Hall of Fame member Buck Baker. Every driver in front of Busch in career victories is in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Jeff Gordon, who is on this year’s ballot for ’19 inductees, Jimmie Johnson (still active) and Tony Stewart (eligible for 2020 class).

The voting and announcement for the 2019 class is scheduled for May 23, by the way …

Chase Elliott finished second and now has been a runner-up eight times in his Cup career without a victory, the same number posted by his father before Bill Elliott scored his first win. The elder Elliott’s breakthrough came at Riverside (Calif.) Raceway in 1983 …

Joey Logano (fourth) earned his first two stage wins of 2018 at Richmond; all three Team Penske drivers now have at least one stage win, and the points bonus that comes with it. Busch and Denny Hamlin (JGR), Harvick and Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Truex also have picked up stage wins this year. Logano was one of a few drivers who appeared to have excellent long-run cars at Richmond. Toss Aric Almirola (SHR) into that group as well …

• Surprising that not a single lap at Richmond was led by a Chevrolet driver. Even more surprising? It’s the third time this season that’s happened.

There are five Chevrolet drivers in the top 16 in points after Richmond, led by Kyle Larson in 10th …

• Looking ahead: Goodyear’s rescheduled tire test for Michigan International Speedway is set for Tuesday and Wednesday (April 24-25). Scheduled to participate in the test are Truex, Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Keselowski (Penske) and Almirola.

Mustang to replace Fusion in Cup for ‘19

The Ford Mustang will replace the Fusion in NASCAR’s Cup series beginning next season, a move that’s been expected but unofficial. Until Tuesday.

The automaker announced the move via press release Tuesday morning; by mid-afternoon Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, was answering media inquiries by phone while in Europe.

“We’re excited about going to that nameplate specifically because it’s very much Ford,” Rushbrook said. “When people hear Mustang they automatically think of Ford. It’s a big nameplate for us.”

It’s the fourth model change in NASCAR’s premier series for the company since 1998 when the move was made from the Thunderbird to the Taurus. The Fusion debuted in ’06, replacing the Taurus and last went through an upgrade in ’16.

Ford teams currently compete with the Mustang body style in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series.

According to Rushbrook, NASCAR organizations Roush Fenway Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing are working with Ford officials on the development of the Mustang race entry.

“They’re anxious to get the best car that they can on track in 2019, so they’ve been very active with us from the beginning of this program,” he said.

Ford teams have won four of this year’s first eight races; a year ago they matched Chevrolet with 10 wins each by season’s end.

Toyota, the most recent addition to the automaker battle, has led with 16 wins in 2016 and ’17. That company utilizes the Camry for its NASCAR efforts.

On the championship front, the last time a Ford team won the NASCAR Cup title was in 2004.

Rushbrook said the submission of the new car will be made to NASCAR, as required, in June.

“Then depending on how things go with that initial test, that will lay out the rest of our timeline in terms of the tools to build the 2019 bodies and when we’re going to do our official unveiling of the final product and everything like that,” he said.

Chevrolet teams unveiled a new model this season when the automaker replaced the phased-out SS with the Chevrolet Camaro.

Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, but on the whole, Chevy teams have struggled to dial in the new entry.

“We know where the current Fusion is strong and we’re going to maintain those strengths,” Rushbrook said. “We know where its weak and we want to address those weaknesses, so it’s really having the trust in our people and in our tools that we can do that.”

A Busch win or Larson loss?

BRISTOL, Tenn. – It’s never easy to beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, but was Monday’s rain-delayed Food City 500 a Busch victory or a Kyle Larson loss?

Taking nothing away from Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing here. He scored his 45th career victory and seventh at Bristol Motor Speedway, passing Larson just six laps from the finish.

It wasn’t a win that was handed to him in any manner. Busch was fast, and fortunate, and ended up in victory lane.

A bit of a nudge and a lead change in the closing laps for Larson, and the next thing you know the Chip Ganassi driver exits still with five wins and now with 16 runner-up finishes.

For someone who led twice as many laps as the next guy, that’s probably a tough one to swallow. Larson seemed to be the only driver able to pull away from the field Monday.

“I was just checked out on that long run” he said afterward.

But at the end …

“Not sure if the track changed a lot there or what,” he said, “but I lost the balance on the car.”

On Friday he was asked about previous races at Bristol and his inability to close the deal. It’s been, he said, his fault here at the fast, high-banked half-mile track.

“As the track changes I think I have to get a little bit smarter in how I communicate on what changes I think need to be done to the car to keep turned the corner good and having good grip,” he explained. “So, yeah, I would say it’s more on me … I don’t know why I have seemed to struggle, but it seems like everybody else just becomes a little bit better than I do the second half of the race, so maybe this weekend will be different.”

No one was better than Larson over the long run on Monday.

But in a race that took two days to complete due to rain and included 13 caution periods, long runs were about as scarce as blue skies and sunshine.

Jimmie Johnson finished third for his first top-five finish of the season and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman was fifth and that’s a step in the right direction for the four-team organization (William Byron was 18th and Chase Elliott 29th) that hasn’t had anything to brag about this year.

Likewise, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who finished fourth, ran strong much of the day Monday and that’s a boost for the Roush Fenway Racing camp. BMS has been one of his better tracks but it’s still a chore to run well here even when that’s the case so perhaps that bodes well for the No. 17 team going forward.

The problem with NASCAR-issued pit guns persists and it sounds as if that’s a situation that will be addressed when owners and officials meet later this week.

“NASCAR has been very good about working with us, and when we come up against a problem, we’ve been good about working hard to solve it,” Joe Gibbs, owner of the four-team Joe Gibbs Racing organization, said during his team’s post-race winner’s interview.

“I think we have a number of meetings this week with NASCAR, and I think we’ll be working on this and hopefully working towards a solution.”

Issues with the guns cost JGR driver Denny Hamlin the lead – the driver of the No. 11 Toyota was forced to pit road shortly after a restart to correct a loose wheel.

This is the first season NASCAR has required teams use pit guns supplied by an outside vendor and issued by the sanctioning body prior to each race. The move was made as a cost-cutting measure and at the behest of the ownership council.

Darrell Wallace finished 16th and if that’s all you know about the Richard Petty Motorsports driver’s day Monday at Bristol, you’re missing quite a bit.

Wallace ran in the top 10 for a good portion of the race. More impressively, he drove his way from sixth for first after a restart on lap 366.

It was the first time the No. 43 had been out front since the 2017 Daytona 500 with Aric Almirola.

“I was as surprised as anybody,” Wallace said. “… We were really good and that last caution came out and we were struggling with left front problems there late in runs, locking up easily, but still was able to make decent ground. Then all of a sudden it went away there and man, just blindsided there by that.”

Busch to backup and fleet Front Row

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kurt Busch will join Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick at the rear of the field Sunday when the Food City 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is scheduled to begin.

Busch, a five-time winner at Bristol Motor Speedway and second-fastest during Friday’s qualifying, spun and damaged his No. 14 Ford with less than five minutes remaining in Saturday’s final practice.

The damage was severe enough to warrant bringing out the team’s backup entry, thus forcing Busch to give up his front-row starting spot and move to the rear of the 39-car field.

“I had 45 laps on the tires and was trying to get to 50,” Busch said. “The setup changes dramatically with air-pressure builds and the VHT changing, so I was just trying to do as much research as I could.

“The lap times were really good in the car and then, boom, there’s just no forgiveness right now with how many variables there are.”

Busch had posted the fourth-best time in the session and had completed 69 laps.

Harvick hit the wall Friday during practice and the team chose to roll out the backup No. 4 Ford and prep it for Saturday practice instead of attempting to rush it into action for qualifying. He was 16th and 24th, respectively, in Saturday’s two practices at the 0.533-mile track.

Front Row Motorsports drivers Michael McDowell and David Ragan continued to log impressive laps Saturday at BMS. Ragan led the final practice while McDowell was fifth.

McDowell qualified ninth Friday, Ragan 23rd.

“Everybody knew coming in here that Bristol has been a really good track in the past for (Front Row),” McDowell said. “… They’ve had good speed in race trim and qualifying trim, so it’s been a really solid weekend.”

McDowell is the newcomer at FRR, joining the organization after being released by Leavine Family Racing at the end of 2017.

“He works really hard off the race track studying and really understanding what the cars and the track are going to do so he can make better educated decisions,” Ragan said of his teammate. “That only pushes me to be better and I think on the race track he’s real aggressive.

“We have a little different driving style, so it is unique to look at his information and look at ours, and then along with the Roush Fenway team, we can critique ourselves.”

Front Row has a technical alliance with the two-team Roush Fenway Racing organization.

NASCAR officials announced the start of Sunday’s race would begin at approximately 1 p.m. due to the likelihood of rain in the region (NOAA.org lists chance of precip at 100 percent for race day).

The race was originally scheduled to begin shortly after 2 p.m.

Ryan Preece won Saturday’s Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at BMS and the $100,000 bonus as the opening race of the four-race Dash 4 Cash program.

Preece, driving the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota is chasing points in the XFINITY Series but isn’t running the entire schedule. His next start is scheduled for Daytona in July.

Bristol qualifying notebook

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Kyle and Kurt Busch sped to the top two starting spots in Friday’s qualifying for Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

It’s the third time the brothers have started a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race side-by-side.

While they’ve enjoyed their share of success on the high-banked .533-mile track (Kyle Busch six BMS wins; Kurt Busch five BMS wins), they haven’t dominated qualifying here. It was Kyle’s second career MENCS pole; Kurt has one Bristol pole.

The No 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota posted a final-round lap of 128.822 mph; Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford) checked in at 128.804 mph.

The track qualifying record, for the record, is 131.668 mph set by Denny Hamlin (Aug. 19, 2016).

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske Ford), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske Ford) rounded out the top five.

Waiting game: Drivers waited as late as possible before hitting the track in all three rounds of qualifying, most sitting on pit road until barely enough time remained to get in a single two-lap run.

Frustrating? Not at all, said Kurt Busch, who called it “a game that everybody plays.

But why the wait?

“You want the other cars to go to heat up that VHT just a little bit for you,” he said.

Spraying the lower groove in the turns at BMS with the tacky adhesive compound has become the default move at Bristol. It’s done to enhance grip. Seems the hotter it gets, the tackier it gets and the more grip it provides and waiting for others to race across it and generate heat can be … well, perhaps worth a thousandth of a second or so.

Some drivers like it, some don’t care for it but most just deal with it.

Mighty Michael McDowell? Before Friday, the best starting spot for Michael McDowell at Bristol had been 19th in 2015. Sunday, he’ll line up ninth in his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford.

It’s only his second career top-10 qualifying result (he started sixth at Talladega in 2014).

McDowell said he looked at data from teammate David Ragan “and tried to figure out what he does that makes him go fast here.”

Maybe Ragan should be the one eavesdropping. The No. 38 driver will start 23rd.

Kevin Harvick, winner of three consecutive races earlier this season, did not make a qualifying attempt in his Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford. A crash during opening practice (the result of a part breaking according to the team) did enough damage to force the group to unload the backup car.

Rather than rush to get the backup ready, and risk another incident, crew chief Rodney Childers and his crew decided to prep the car for Saturday’s two practice sessions instead.

Officially, Harvick is listed as 39th in the 39-car lineup for Sunday.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson could muster only the 17th fastest time in qualifying but folks have won from further back at Bristol so it could have been worse.

And then it was.

Johnson tweeted that the team discovered a cut in the left-front tire of his No. 48 Chevrolet. Because of the tire change, Johnson will forfeit his starting spot and drop to the rear for the start of Sunday’s race.

Monster musings and more on a Tuesday

Monster Energy will return as NASCAR Cup series entitlement sponsor for the 2019 season but it appears next year will be the final one that sees the sanctioning body’s premier program branded as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

NASCAR made the announcement of the contract extension via press release Tuesday. It is a one-year agreement (the current arrangement was set to end this year) and according to reports, officials don’t anticipate an extension of the extension.

The pullout after ’19 doesn’t bode well for activation next year – companies typically tend to pull back rather than increase participation when heading for the exit.

NASCAR’s top series has carried sponsorship since 1971 when RJ Reynolds first came on board.

Both Monster and NASCAR have indicated at one time or another that the sponsorship arrangement has been a plus – NASCAR covets the younger audience Monster Energy currently enjoys while the energy drink company seeks the constant national exposure provided by the sanctioning body.

From the beginning of the relationship, Monster’s pitch has been that it is more than a sponsor, it’s a lifestyle (a variation of its earlier ‘lifestyle in a can’ pitch.). Perhaps that lifestyle no longer aligns with NASCAR. Or not to the extent some had hoped.

If NASCAR chooses to go a different route, which appears to be the case, then there could be no series entitlement sponsor after ’19. Much like other professional sports leagues such as the NFL and Major League Baseball.

In addition to series sponsorship, Monster also sponsors the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing team with driver Kurt Busch.

The issue of those problematic pit guns resurfaced last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and we have reached the point where the only way to correct the problem is to issue lug wrenches before every race.

Hey, if it was good enough for Red and Buck and Lee and the rest of the boys …

NASCAR erred when officials failed to penalize the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team for an errant tire at TMS and while it is extremely difficult to officiate a race, admitting the miscue afterward won’t do a lot to make some folks feel better.

Everyone realizes that the occasional mistake will occur. But it isn’t supposed to – that’s why there are officials in the tower and in the PRO trailer and on pit road.

The perception, right or wrong, is that officials cut the team a break. And that’s a hard thing to overcome.

Ford and Chevrolet teams have each had 10 drivers lead at least one lap through the first seven Cup races. The difference? Ford drivers have combined to lead 1,236 laps to just 137 for Chevrolet.

Meanwhile four Toyota drivers have spent time out front – leading 772 laps.

Tuesday musings, on a Monday

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Clint Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak and Stewart-Haas Racing has now won four of this season’s first six races.

Most guesses would have the four coming courtesy of Kevin Harvick but the 2014 champ is still a three-race winner in ’18.

Instead, it was Bowyer that ran away and led 215 of the final 216 laps of Monday’s snow-delayed STP 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

It was a very atypical event for a short track, not necessarily lacking in action but lacking in … something. Maybe it was the weekend snowstorm that pushed the race from Sunday to Monday.

I saw more contact on the drive up to Martinsville Speedway Monday morning than I witnessed in the STP 500 and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an observation. Morning traffic can be a bit dicey around Winston-Salem, it seems. Dunkin wasn’t the only place to view donuts.

Martinsville is a tight half-mile track; most folks say “paperclip” when describing its’ shape, and there’s a minimum of banking in the turns. It doesn’t look like a particularly fast track and maybe it isn’t but rocket down the straightaway at more than 100 mph and then come to a near standstill as you tip-toe through the corners and do it again and again and again and it’ll get your attention.

The track was on the original schedule way back in 1949 when NASCAR was still an unknown and eight races made up that first season’s schedule. It was dirt until the summer of ’55.

Contact takes place almost as soon as you drive onto the grounds of the legendary facility. Cars that aren’t dented and dinged and smashed and crashed aren’t often found at Martinsville. Some you might run across in the parking lots. Others are found on the track.

Drivers push and shove to gain track position and if it takes you more than two laps to set up and complete a pass you’re wasting time and the leader is probably long gone.

Drivers lean on fellow competitors. Not gingerly, either. It’s how it’s always been done.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t contact Monday – Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick pushed one another around briefly and there were a few other instances here and there.

But it’s worth noting that the 500-lap race was nearly into its final 100 circuits before a caution flag appeared for an actual “incident.”

That particular slowdown was the result of contact between Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray and some said it was contact with the inside curbing that shot Dillon into the path of McMurray, who then spun and backed briefly into the outside wall and that was about as wild and crazy as it got right there.

It was still an entertaining race, in my opinion. Just an unexpectedly tame one for a change.

I admit I failed to give A.J. Allmendinger his due heading into Monday’s race when asked on a radio show about the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver.

It completely escaped me that Allmendinger had two career runner-up finishes at Martinsville, and that before Monday’s race, four of his last five finishes were 11th or better.

Toss in another top 10 after Monday – AJ finished eighth and ran top-five for a generous portion of the race.

Lesson learned.

It was an impressive showing for Ryan Blaney as well with the Team Penske driver leading 145 laps and “winning” the second stage of the race. He finished third in the opening stage and third overall and that’s four top-10 runs in six races.

No, I didn’t expect a third Penske team to be quite as competitive right out of the box but they keep reminding us that the No. 12 group is basically the No. 21 Wood Brothers bunch of a year ago just clad in different colors.

Blaney’s worst finish this year has been 16th and that’s the exception.

Alex Bowman earned his first top-10 of the season, scoring a seventh-place finish in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports entry. His was the high Chevrolet for the race, but Allmendinger and teammate Chase Elliott (ninth) weren’t far behind.

Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) is still winless but has three runner-up finishes now after Monday’s second-place result. That’s five endings of seventh or better in six starts.

It’s also why he’s now leading the point standings.