Gamble on Track Position Doesn’t Pay Off for Stewart at Martinsville

Date:  March 29, 2015

Event:  Martinsville 500 (Round 6 of 36)

Series:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Location:  Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (.526-mile oval)

Start/Finish:  6th/20th (Running, completed 500 of 500 laps)

Point Standing:  32nd (87 points, 176 out of first)

Winner:  Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) 

Tony Stewart hovered in and around the top-10 throughout much of Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. But when a late-race bid for track position didn’t work out as planned, Stewart finished 20th.

The result was not indicative of the effort. Stewart qualified sixth on Friday in his No. 14 Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR), and then Saturday saw two solid practice sessions that had Stewart and his racecar dialed in for 500 laps around Martinsville’s .526-mile oval on Sunday.

Stewart held steady in the top-10 through the race’s first 100 laps. He dropped to 15th as his car was tight early in a run, where it lacked the forward bite necessary to power off the track’s scant, 11 degrees of banking. But Stewart and crew chief Chad Johnston kept adjusting the car’s handling to where they were 10th by the race’s halfway mark.

Stewart again dipped in the running order, all the way to 16th, but with 60 laps to go he had clawed his way up to 11th and was within striking range of the top-10.   

But when the caution flag waved for debris on lap 461, Stewart and Johnston had a decision to make – stay out and pick up valuable track position or pit for four tires and fuel in a bid to make a late-race charge.

With only 19 laps of green-flag racing on their tires, Stewart and Johnston rolled the dice and stayed out. They gained track position, but everyone else on the lead lap pitted for tires. While Stewart restarted in first place, he had his work cut out holding off those behind him in the race’s final 34 laps.

But with 16 caution periods already on the day, Stewart and Johnston believed another caution was inevitable, which would force everyone back to pit road anyway. By that time, at least in theory, Stewart’s track position would be strong, and with another solid pit stop by the Code 3 Associates/Mobil 1 crew, Stewart would rejoin the field among the same drivers he had been racing.

Stewart led the field to green on the lap-467 restart and paced the field for a total of eight laps before those with fresher tires began motoring past him. Stewart gamely made each driver work for the position, but the caution Stewart and Johnston had been banking on never materialized. The race went green to the finish and Stewart dropped to 20th by the time the checkered flag waved.

Leading the way for SHR at Martinsville was Danica Patrick, as the driver of the No. 10 TaxACT Chevrolet SS finished seventh. It was Patrick’s first top-10 of the season and her fifth top-10 in 88 career Sprint Cup starts. Patrick is now tied with Janet Guthrie for the most top-10s by a female driver in the Sprint Cup Series. 

Kevin Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Budweiser/Jimmy John’s Chevrolet SS for SHR, finished eighth. Harvick led eight times for a race-high 154 laps to bring his laps-led total at Martinsville to 518. It was his 13th top-10 in 28 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville and his sixth top-10 of 2015. Harvick has finished among the top-10 in nine straight races dating back to last November at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevrolet SS for SHR, led once for 21 laps before finishing 14th. His laps-led total at Martinsville now stands at 442. This was Busch’s 10th top-15 finish in 30 career Sprint Cup starts at Martinsville.

Denny Hamlin won the race to score his 25th career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his fifth at Martinsville.

Brad Keselowski finished .186 of a second behind Hamlin in the runner-up spot, while Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan rounded out the top-five. Martin Truex Jr., Patrick, Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray comprised the remainder of the top-10.

There were 16 caution periods for 112 laps, with two drivers failing to finish.

With round six of 36 complete, Harvick leads SHR in the championship point standings. He is first with 263 points, 24 ahead of second-place Logano. Patrick is 16th with 148 points, 115 out of first. Busch is 25th with 113 points, 150 out of first. Stewart is 32nd with 87 points, 176 out of first.

The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Duck Commander 500 on Saturday, April 11 at Texas Motor Speedway. The race starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by FOX beginning with its prerace show at 7 p.m.