It’s a Logano, and a Ford day, at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano will start from the pole Sunday when the STP 500 gets underway here at tiny Martinsville Speedway.

The 28-year-old pushed his No. 22 Team Penske Ford around the .526-mile oval at a speed of 97.83 mph, to nudge fellow ford driver Aric Almirola (97.643 mph) off the top spot in the final round of qualifying for the series’ sixth race of the season.

Logano won here last fall, securing a spot in the Championship 4 where he ultimately won his first Cup championship. He’s already won this season to likely secure a berth in this season’s 16-team playoffs and he finished second a week ago at Auto Club Speedway.

To say he and his team, led by crew chief Todd Gordon, are running well would be an understatement.

But Martinsville, the only track that has hosted NASCAR’s top series since its debut in 1949, has been a bit of a mixed bag for the New England native. Logano has finished in the top 10 in nearly one-half his starts here (nine of 20) but he’s also finished 20th or worse five times.

In qualifying Saturday, he and his team’s efforts were short and sweet … and fast. Logano needed just two laps to land at sixth quickest in the first round and one lap in the second round to remain sixth best. That sent him into the third and final round with remarkably fresh tires.

“That really paid a reward as we got to the third round,” Logano said, noting his team chose not to make any mock qualifying runs during practice. “It’s important to win a pole here – to start up front is obviously safer, but you can also run your (race) pace and (it’s) a safer place on pit road as well.”

Tire conservation in qualifying isn’t exactly the norm at most tracks – but at Martinsville it can be a deciding factor.

“It’s not just one lap like most tracks we go to,” he said, “(where) you lay down one and you’re done. Here, you’ve got to run quite a few laps to be able to lay down a fast one, which makes me run out of breath, by the way. It’s like the most intense qualifying session for me. … We go slower here than anywhere else we go and I’m breathing harder than anywhere else we go, so there must be something to it.”

Ford teams swept the first four spots with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski third fastest and Kevin Harvick, Almirola’s teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, fourth.

Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota) was fifth in the final round, after posting the quickest times in the first two rounds.

Logano, who has 22 career wins, hasn’t won a Cup race from the pole since 2016 (at Michigan International Speedway).

No driver has won a Cup race from the pole since Martin Truex captured the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway last summer.

Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson will carry a 64-race winless streak into Sunday’s event. A nine-time winner at Martinsville, Johnson will start 12th.

Kyle Busch could muster only a 14th-best qualifying time for Sunday. Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota in the Cup Series, has won the last two Cup races – at Phoenix and Fontana, Calif.; he also has two wins in the Xfinity Series this season and a win Saturday at Martinsville was his third consecutive Truck Series win.

Petty’s wins are exactly that – wins

So we’ve moved on from trying to compare Kyle Busch’s soon-to-be 200 wins across three different series with Richard Petty’s 200 NASCAR premier series wins to this: many of Richard Petty’s victories shouldn’t count because they took place in shorter races often against shorter fields.

Really?

Someone did a lot of research to reach that conclusion. That’s too bad. Because at the end of the day, Petty remains the only driver with 200 career victories in NASCAR’s top series. They came on tracks of all shapes and sizes, against big fields and small fields, on dirt and asphalt, but when you add them all up you get the same thing – 200.

When was the last time any Cup team HAD to compete 3-4 times during the same week because that’s how the races fell on the schedule?

Do today’s drivers and teams have anywhere near the concern about parts breakage? Engines blowing? That Petty won as often as he did when drivers were more likely to fall out of a race due to something on the car breaking speaks volumes. Parts failures didn’t discriminate when it came to race length so why should we?

Today’s drivers race with power steering, disc brakes and radial tires. For much of his career, Petty and his fellow drivers competed without power steering, used drum brakes and bias-ply tires.

I wouldn’t want to drive across town without power steering, much less race without it.

Win under those conditions in a 100-mile race or a 500-mile race and tell me the two shouldn’t be considered equal.

Faulting Petty for winning a 100-lap race against a field of 24 is like faulting Busch for winning a fuel-mileage race. “Well, he didn’t really beat anyone, he just outlasted them.” Really?

Do we even want to mention the differences in everything BUT driving in the race? You know, like the crew having to transport the car across the country to the next race, set the car up at the track, pit the car on race day, then haul the car all the way back across the country to get home, unload and get ready for the next race? The same crew mind you. And often volunteers at that.

Not a couple of fellas hired to drive, and only drive, the transporter to and from the track. Separate mechanics to set up the car. A separate pit crew that does nothing but pit the car.

Hell, if Petty had those “luxuries” during his prime, he might have won 300 times.

Of course, someone would probably find fault with that, too.

Maybe he’s the best we’ve seen

Kyle Busch is going to win his 200th race in NASCAR’s top three series before long and it will be compared to Richard Petty winning 200 times and some folks will say it’s blasphemy and others will say you can’t compare the two and still others will try anyway.

This isn’t a comparison of the King’s 200 wins and Busch’s soon-to-be 200 wins.

Richard Petty won 200 times in ONE series and if Busch was to win 200 times in only the Monster Energy Cup Series or only the Xfinity Series or only the Gander Outdoors Truck Series … well then you’ve really got yourself a story.

But that won’t happen.

If this isn’t a comparison of wins then what is it?

It’s this: Kyle Busch might be the most talented race car driver anyone has ever seen in NASCAR.

Whoa! Stop right there!

Better than Petty, who won seven championships and seven Daytona 500s and, as mentioned earlier, 200 races? Petty won on dirt and asphalt and some surfaces that were a little bit of both.

Better than Dale Earnhardt, another seven-time champ who won 76 races and was one of the most feared drivers of his era?

What about Jimmie Johnson, just the third driver to win seven titles? He’s at 83 career wins and those include Daytona 500s and Southern 500s and Brickyard 400s and Coca-Cola 600s.

David Pearson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip … all winners of multiple championships.

Better than those folks? In their prime?

Busch is 33 and just hitting his prime and he’s already won five times this year. He swept both races at ISM Raceway this past weekend (Cup and Xfinity) and won two of three the previous week in Las Vegas (Xfinity and Truck).

For the record, he now has 52 Cup wins, a series record 94 Xfinity Series wins and a series record 53 Truck Series wins.

He has only one championship and it would be easy to say it’s the current format that’s to blame – a driver and team can win 35 of 36 races and finish fourth in points based on that one final, season-ending race. How many drivers have won multiple titles since the format was introduced in 2014? None, that’s how many.

On the other hand, a truly superior competitor should be able to rise to the occasion regardless of the situation.

Maybe it’s too soon to call him the best or put him in that conversation until we see what the future holds.

Again, this isn’t about comparing one driver’s numbers with another driver’s numbers. It’s about the singular accomplishments of Busch, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota in the Cup Series.

Busch is competitive in every single series he enters – whether it’s Cup or Xfinity or the Trucks. Not just competitive though. He wins. A lot.

He also makes those around him better, whether it’s his teammates at JGR or his own drivers at Kyle Busch Motorsports.

All great drivers share that trait – they make those competing against them excel.

Save the “he should pick a series and stick to it” rants. There’s absolutely no reason Busch should not be able to compete in any series he chooses when it’s allowed. NASCAR has placed limits on how many races folks in Cup can run in other series and it may or may not be fair. But that hasn’t stopped Busch from racing in those series or winning in those series when he can.

Is he beating up on no-name competition? If you consider current and former series champions “no-name” competition, then maybe so. I don’t know. I get the impression his competition takes that particular comparison as a slight.

Busch does not have an “unfair advantage” unless you consider being blessed with tremendous talent an unfair advantage.

Would those drivers mentioned previously have more wins had they had the opportunity to compete in other series as well? Maybe. Who knows? Earnhardt won 21 times in what’s now the Xfinity Series while folks such as Gordon and Johnson and Stewart didn’t spend an awful lot of time there.

But again, this isn’t about comparing his wins to anyone else’s wins. It’s about what Busch has accomplished so far, what lies ahead and where exactly it will all leave him when he calls it a career.

Is Busch the best? I guess it depends on one’s criteria. What makes a driver “the best” in his arena? Is it championships won? Total wins?

Or something less tangible?

Busch is closing in on 200 victories and it isn’t the same as Petty’s accomplishment but it’s still pretty darn impressive.

And for that he should be appreciated. Race fans likely won’t see such an accomplishment again.

It’s more than a numbers game

I’m beginning to grow slightly weary of numbers but I’m confident it will pass.

This much horsepower, that much horsepower. The spoiler is this big, the splitter is that big.

Television ratings, attendance figures, green-flag passes … it’s become a bit much.

NASCAR is about more than just numbers, good or bad.

NASCAR is about personalities. Personalities sell the sport. Give me some strong figures, folks to care about and folks who fans can cheer for and root against, and I don’t care if the race has 20 cautions or not the first one.

People care about people.

Lee and Pops and Little Joe and Buck. The King and the Silver Fox and BP and Buddy and Tiny. The Intimidator and Rusty and Wonderboy and Swervin’ Irvan and Sterlin’ and Jaws. The Iceman and Special K, Davey and DJ and is it any wonder the sport became so incredibly popular?

Those folks weren’t setting records in terms of green-flag passes. Or if that was the case, no one knew it at the time.

NASCAR remains popular today. Maybe less so but popular just the same. There are personalities out there, strong ones, but they’re often overshadowed by the noise.

Instead we talk of numbers. And rules packages.

Decades from now, will we tell stories about Kevin and Kyle, Jimmie and Brad, Joey and Clint, Martin and Ricky and Kurt and Denny?

I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think so.

Numbers don’t tell the entire story. They have their place, but their place is not out front, used to sell the sport or to denigrate it.

Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the first for NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series teams with what’s considered the “full” 2019 rules package. All the aerodynamic bells and whistles.

Was the racing better? The numbers say it was – there were record numbers of green-flag passes for the lead (47) and green-flag passes overall (3,345) for the 1.5-mile track.

Those are good things, but do those numbers really register with most fans?

I don’t judge a race by numbers. The TV ratings may show that more people watched Sunday’s race or that fewer people watched Sunday’s race. Those numbers won’t impact my opinion of what I saw take place. Was I entertained? That’s the question.

Did the rules package accomplish everything I expected? Yes, but my expectations were that the racing would be better than before but not out of this world.

There is nothing wrong with better.

It will continue to improve. It will also fall short at some venues. That’s how it’s been forever and how it will continue to be.

The rules package shouldn’t have been the big story on Sunday. There was so much more – Joey Logano winning and Kyle Busch going for a weekend sweep and after three races is it time for some teams to begin to worry? Is it time for others to shake things up?

Numbers aren’t a bad thing. They just aren’t the only thing.

JGR extends Busch, M&M’s deals

Kyle Busch’s contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing is complete, the signing was announced Thursday via social media, and sponsorship is a done deal as well, with Mars, Inc. brand M&M’s also extending its agreement to fund the No. 18 Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The news comes just four days after Busch competed in his 500th Cup Series race, finishing sixth at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The three have been aligned since 2008 when Busch began competing for JGR following three full seasons at Hendrick Motorsports. In that time, Busch has won 47 points races and the 2015 series championship.

He is the only driver who has qualified for the title-determining Championship 4 every year since 2015.

The 33-year-old said earlier this season that contract talks were nearly complete.

“Racing for more than a decade with such an iconic team and sponsor has been incredible and knowing that we can continue this winning relationship is very special,” Busch said in the statement announcing the extensions.

Mars, Inc., has been a staple in NASCAR since at least 1997 when the company sponsored the No. 36 Pontiac driven by Derrike Cope and fielded by team owner Nelson Bowers. At that time, and for the next several years, the company promoted its Skittles brand through its NASCAR relationship.

M&M’s became the focus in ’99 – Ernie Irvan had taken over the driving duties for the team by then, replacing Cope.

Terms of the agreements were not disclosed, with the length of driver and sponsor contract extensions described as “multi-year.”

“As a team owner, the hope is to find partners and drivers that help us grow as an organization, and Kyle Busch and Mars, Incorporated have done exactly that,” Joe Gibbs, founder of JGR, said. “We have one of the longest partnerships in all of sports, and that really speaks to the strength of the understanding and respect we have for one another.”

Joe Gibbs Racing fields four full-time entries in NASCAR’s top series. In addition to the No. 18 Toyota fielded for Busch, it also fields the No. 11 for driver Denny Hamlin with sponsorship from FedEx, the No. 20 for Erik Jones (multiple sponsors, including DeWalt and Sport Clips), and the No. 19 for Martin Truex Jr. (Bass Pro for 24 of 36 points races in ‘19).

The organization also fields multiple entries in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.