Upon Further Review: Martinsville

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The question was simple and so was the answer.

What did Kyle Larson take out of his season-best third-place finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway?

“That I’m not as bad as I think I am here,’’ he said with a smile.

Sunday could prove to be a race that could be viewed as a key moment in his progress.

By running toward the front, Larson got to see how some top drivers at Martinsville run there, particularly Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski.

Remember, Johnson struggled early in his career at this track until he followed Tony Stewart in one race.

Larson got a similar experience Sunday.

“This track is single-file, but you can move your line around half a groove or a full groove and really pick up speed,’’ Larson said. “I’ve struggled with knowing when to move around before. Following Jimmie, it gave me a better idea of when to move around and stuff like that.’’

Larson said that running the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on Saturday also helped, noting that Martinsville is one of the few tracks where a Truck drives similar to a Cup car. Good chance he’ll drive in the Truck race there when the series returns in the fall.

While Sunday was a good starting point for Larson, work remains. This weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway is a type of track where Larson and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray have not found speed this season.

“I know with the off week they worked on it quite a bit to learn on maybe some mistakes we made with our cars and I haven’t done a great job either,’’ Larson said.

— Woe is Matt Kenseth. He’s been fast at most tracks this season and in contention for wins but has just one top-10 finish.

Sunday continued his frustrating year.

He was second on the final restart but finished 15th. Earlier in the race, he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch worked together on restarts with the leader taking the outside lane and being allowed to cut down in front of the teammate.

That changed when they aligned for a restart with 11 laps to go and Busch leading.

On the radio Busch discussed the plan with crew chief Adam Stevens: “That’s right on the border of whether we do the deal or not. What do you want to do, Adam?”

Said Stevens: “It’s time to race, pal. It’s time to race.”

Busch remained in the preferred bottom line, keeping Kenseth on the high lane.

“We essentially told each other all bets are off with under 10 to go,’’ Busch said afterward of helping a teammate on restarts.

After being told on the radio by his spotter that it didn’t appear they would do the same thing as before, Kenseth said: “Yeah, I was going to race until we got off Turn 2. That’s fine. I got it. We’ll just pass him on the top here.”

On the final restart, AJ Allmendinger, who was third, got under Kenseth. That allowed other cars to do the same, keeping Kenseth in the slower top lane. Kenseth, who did not pit for tires during that final caution, could not get down to the bottom lane and soon fell back to eighth and was fighting cars that had fresher tires. Kenseth had no chance.

It’s just another case of bad timing, bad luck, bad karma or whatever you want to call it this season for Kenseth.

Consider:

  • He led the Daytona 500 until attempting to block Denny Hamlin on the high line with less than a mile to go. Hamlin cut underneath them, they made contact and Kenseth fell back, finishing 14th.
  • At Atlanta the following week, Kenseth had a strong car early, leading 47 laps, but was penalized on an early pit stop. While the team argued the penalty, Kenseth was not told of the infraction and NASCAR did not score him a lap for ignoring the black flag. He lost a second lap while serving his penalty. He never recovered, finishing 19th.
  • At Las Vegas, Kenseth was running sixth with 43 laps to go when he slid up the track and was hit by Chase Elliott. Kenseth finished 37th.
  • At Auto Club Speedway, Kenseth had a strong car in the first half of the race before pitting under green for a tire issue. He was penalized for speeding on pit road. He fell a lap down, got it back and was penalized for an uncontrolled tire on the pit stop before the overtime finish. Kenseth placed 19th.

Brian Vickers will be back in the No. 14 car this weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing at Texas Motor Speedway. It marks the first time he’s been in the car back-to-back weeks. He’s shared duties with Ty Dillon but Dillon will be in the No. 95 car this weekend for Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing.

“For me right now I’ve had plenty of time off, I’m rested and ready to go and looking forward to having two weeks in a row with these guys and build some momentum,’’ Vickers said after finishing a season-best seventh at Martinsville.

— Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson failed to lead a lap Sunday. This marks the fourth consecutive Martinsville race he has not led at least one lap. The only other time he’s gone so long without leading a lap at the track was in his first four starts there.

Carl Edwards’ sixth-place finish Sunday was his first Martinsville top-10 finish in the last nine races there. He has six career top-10 finishes in 24 starts there.

— The eight caution flags Sunday were the fewest at Martinsville since the spring race there four years ago had seven cautions. The seven Martinsville races before Sunday’s event had averaged 14.7 cautions per event.

— Richard Childress Racing placed all three cars in the top 10 for the first time since the Oct. 2014 race at Kansas. Add runner-up AJ Allmendinger’s JTG Daugherty Racing team, which is part of the RCR alliance, and it made for an even bigger day for that group.

— Five-time Martinsville winner Denny Hamlin finished 39th Sunday – his worst finish at the track.

— The pole has not proved to be the best spot in terms of finishing positions this season. Here’s a look at the average finish for the top five starting spots:

Pole-winner — Average finish 14.8

Second starter — Average finish 10.5

Third starter — Average finish 18.0

Fourth starter — Average finish 9.3

Fifth starter — Average finish 8.2