YAHOO – Undoubtedly, the escalating tension of a book or movie has kept you more and more captivated as the the ending nears. That’s what Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville was like.
Sometimes the ending is worth the dramatic build up. Other times, it’s so farfetched and bizarre that you’re left with a feeling of quasi-emptines — that the appetizer was better than the main course. That was Sunday’s race, too.
With a handful of laps to go at Martinsville, Jeff Gordon closed to the back bumper of Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Gordon had the best car for the majority of the race and led the most laps at Martinsville. Johnson had perhaps the best car over the final stage of the race.
Gordon, the four-time champ, was searching for his eighth win at Martinsville; Johnson, the five-time champion, was going for his seventh, tying Gordon for most among active drivers at the half-mile track. And if either of them had won, it would have been Hendrick’s 200th Sprint Cup Series victory.
If the cliche of “the story could write itself” could ever be true, this would have been a perfect test case, as Gordon nudged ahead of Johnson as the two completed Lap 498 of the race’s 500 scheduled laps.
Then, David Reutimann happened. Rather, he stopped on the frontstretch, and the caution flag flew, setting up a green-white-checker finish.
Reutimann had been having a terrible day. You name it, it had gone wrong on his car. But, he was determined to salvage the best possible finish for his No. 10 team, which is fighting to stay in the top 35 in owner’s points for a guaranteed starting position for both he and Danica Patrick, when Patrick takes to the track at Darlington in May.
“I hate that I was involved that anything that changed the complexion of the race,” a visibly dejected Reutimann said afterwards. “I’ve got to apologize to the guys that it affected.
“It broke a tire rod or something like that, and I was just trying to limp around out there. We needed to try to finish the next couple laps to try and stay in the top 35 and then the motor had been breaking up for the last couple laps and when it broke a timing belt or whatever down the back straightaway, the motor just quit. I would not have stopped on the freaking racetrack. I would have limped it around there and tried to come to pit road which is exactly what I was trying to do.”
Gordon and Johnson’s sizeable lead on the rest of the field, which elected to come to pit road, was wiped out. They were now sitting ducks — saving gas to make it the extended race distance and had tires with over 100 laps on them.
Clint Bowyer, who restarted third, tried to take advantage of that immediately as the race resumed under green, diving under Gordon and Johnson as the field hurtled towards Turn 1. Three wide at Martinsville in the corners rarely works. And, predictably, it didn’t work then. Gordon was caught in the middle, Johnson went spinning towards the wall. And Bowyer went around off Gordon’s bumper. The driver who emerged from the morass with the lead was… Ryan Newman?
Yep, Ryan Newman. The same Ryan Newman that spent a good portion of the race a nonfactor a lap down after a pit-road speeding penalty. Sure, Newman had one of the fastest cars on the track. But before the caution flag, Newman was half a lap behind the leaders, cruising towards a top 10. Nothing more, nothing less. After the caution flag, he was in the lead, and Gordon was out of fuel.
“I didn’t want to see that last caution,” Gordon said. “Man, we had such a great battle with [Johnson]. He’s so tough here, you know, and to get up beside him — I had to rough him up a little bit and I felt I had the position to get the lead and our car was pretty good on entry right there and his car was better on exit. It was going to be an interesting race, so, you know, that’s the way our year’s been going and it can’t go on like this forever.”
On the second green-white checker, Newman held off AJ Allmendinger, another “Where the heck did he come from?” contender. A Hendrick-built car was in victory lane, it just happened to be from Stewart-Haas Racing because of a caution that no one saw coming, and only Reutimann can explain.
“The thing quit going down the back straightaway and it shut off,” Reutimann, who ended up falling out of the top 35 by one point, said. “I just didn’t stop there intentionally. I know it sucks and I hate it for everyone affected, but, I mean I can’t get out and push the thing. It shut off, it’s that simple. Gosh… I was just trying to finish the day out and trying to stay in the top 35 which is why we were trying to limp around out there. We were given the black flag and we were trying to come to pit road and it shut off and that’s as far as I could go.”