Monday, October 29, 2012

Rating the TUMS Fast Relief 500: 3 Stars ***

A week after his team pulled off a fairly big miracle to stay in championship contention, Jimmie Johnson put together a vintage performance Sunday at Martinsville Speedway to put him back in that all-too-familiar position atop the points standings. The final short track race of the season gets a 3 StarRating.
Johnson now leads Brad Keselowski by two points after Keselowski finished in sixth, which was actually a terrific finish considering he started 32nd and never had a car capable of contending for the lead. However, the overwhelming sense around the sport is that another championship for Johnson is just a formality.
For the sake of the sport, hopefully Keselowski keeps the top of the standings tight going into Homestead so there would be a real chance he could rise up and beat the five-time champion. If not, 2012 could go down as one of the more boring seasons in recent memory.
Anyway, Sunday’s race was about as typical of a Martinsville race as possible. Cautions fell fairly regularly throughout the race while allowing for some long green-flag runs, the end of the race got shuffled up by a late-race wreck and the #48 car ended up in Victory Lane.
Martinsville is one of the few tracks in NASCAR where the final caution creates an agonizing decision for crew chiefs in terms of whether or not to pit. Maybe it’s because Martinsville is one a half-mile track, but the tire wear is ideal. The lap times do fall off during a run, but they don’t drop so much that taking four tires every stop is a given.
Keselowski stayed out on the final stop to try and steal a win, but he faded to sixth. But that’s also part of what makes Martinsville a great track. The tires wear enough that it is difficult to stay ahead of cars with four fresh tires, yet not enough to have everyone follow the leader into the pits.
Martinsville is also a place that allows for some new faces in the top 10. Aric Almirola put together his second straight fantastic race. He led much of the early part of the race at Kansas before tire issues derailed his day. He then backed up that performance Sunday with a fourth-place finish.
The top 10 actually contained four non-Chasers, by far the most in any Chase race this season. Kyle Busch finished second, Almirola fourth, Brian Vickers eighth and Bobby Labonte ninth. But don’t expect that to continue next week at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
The season is down to the point where just a few drivers still have a chance to win the championship, and they will most likely perform as though they are the best in the sport.
Johnson and Keselowski will likely run well inside the top 10 and even the top five most of the night. Other contenders such as Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne will absolutely have to be at the front of the field throughout the race, finish in the top three and have some help in the form of less-than-stellar races from the top two drivers.
In any case, it is no longer premature to talk about who the real contenders are going to be for the championship. Johnson and Keselowski look to be the two drivers who will face off at Homestead, while Bowyer and Kahne will be close enough to catch a bit of a draft from the front two, but they needed more outstanding races earlier in the Chase.
Either way, this is one of the most intense times of the year.
Have a great week, everybody.


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