MARTINSVILLE, VA (Sunday, April 02, 2017) — A warm, sunny day set the stage for the running of The 68th Annual STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway early this afternoon. Kyle Larson, who won The Auto Club 400 last weekend, was awarded the pole position – determined by current owner point standings – deferred the top spot to Chase Elliott. Neither line would be kind to their respective leaders. Both struggled early and slid slowly through the field.
Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano quickly moved to the top two spots, respectively. Martin Truex Jr settled into third.
Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Jamie McMurray all showed promise early in the 500. Then all three came together near the midpoint of stage one. McMurray was left with a visible tire rub – one that would send him hard into the outside wall a few laps later. McMurray was done for the day. Neither Blaney nor Johnson would be a factor at the finish.
Truex went on to lead the stage. He did so after a brief green flag shootout set up by a caution for the spinning No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt was left with little to no damage and continued. Truex managed to finagle the lead away from Keselowski in the commotion of the restart.
Kyle Busch forfeited a pit stop and led the field back to green for stage two. Elliott would take a turn at the lead, briefly, before Busch regained control. Busch was ready to shine and appeared to be the driver to beat. He would go on to lead the most laps for the day. The No. 18 Toyota led seven times for a total of 274 laps. He was joined in the leader column by Keselowski, Elliott, Larson, Hamlin, Truex and Logano.
Although attrition remained relatively low, the close quarters racing produced numerous dings, dents, tire rubs and other damage. Dale Earnhardt Jr would be knocked out in a lap 419 crash involving Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Danica Patrick, Ty Dillon, Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger. Twenty teams managed to finish on the lead lap. Fourteen cautions slowed the race for 95 laps.
Just beyond halfway, on the final lap of stage two, Ricky Stenhouse Jr moved Kyle Busch up the racetrack and passed to the low side, earning one of his laps back. Elliott capitalized, followed Stenhouse and took the stage by a nose.
Busch seemed unstoppable in the middle portion of the 500-lap contest, but it was Keselowski who couldn’t be caught in the beginning and in the end. The soon-to-be two-time 2017 Cup winner took the lead with 42 circuits left to go and never accepted a challenge from then until the checkers.
The victory was Ford’s first at Martinsville in over a decade, and it came on a day when Edsel Ford himself served as honorary pace car driver. Adding to a weekend full of statistics and irony, it was the same winning team, with the same number and sponsor – although with Rusty Wallace at the wheel – that last delivered Ford a Martinsville trophy.
“I think the commitment that Ford Performance has made has been a by-product of Edsel’s commitment to the program and bringing on Stewart-Haas and the partnership that we have with [Wood Brothers Racing], which is obviously supported with Ford,” said winning car owner Roger Penske. “I think it was terrific to have him here driving the pace car. You couldn’t plan anything any better. For me, delivering for Ford was special.”
Keselowski led four times for a total of 116 laps, including the last. Better yet, it was his first win at the Martinsville venue. It was also a win for Penske in their 1000th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start.
“Certainly that feels really good to be able to check something off the list.” Keselowski said after the race. “There seems to be a bit of numerology today, with this being the Team Penske 100th start here in the series…A lot of numbers stacking up and I felt like they were stacking up in our favor.”
The standout number that didn’t prove to be in Keselowski’s favor was 35. That was the pit road speed limit; a limit he was once penalized for exceeding.
“I had this lofty goal, before the season started, to go a whole season without a speeding penalty, because every time a get a speeding penalty I get a not-so-subtle reminder the next week, and I really hate that phone call,” Keselowski joked of boss Roger Penske, who was seated next to Keselowski at the time. “There’s nothing you can do other than just slow down. It’s frustrating, because, you know, there’s so many variables: the radius in the corners and the engines – they’re surging up and down in RPM’s – so you’re trying to kind of steady it out and you’ve got traffic – you’ve got all these different things going on…The dash [pit road speed warning] has a lot of lag to it. You add in all these variables and then you kind of combine that with the competitve element that exists on pit road, where every car length can literally make a difference between winning or losing this race. It puts you in a position where you’re just forced. You’re forced to live on the edge. No matter who you are and what you do, when you live on the edge, you’re going to step over it. You’re going to fall off.”
The Michigan driver credited persistence for his STP 500 triumph.
“Sometimes you just go to races time over time and you know that you ran so well here, and you just know that it’s eventually going to come together…I feel like our team has done the right thing time over time here at Martinsville and we haven’t gotten the result. We knew eventually we could.”
Austin Dillon brought home a fifth-place finish and logged laps inside the top three, putting an end to a long run of overall dismal results for himself and adding to renewed success at Richard Childress Racing.
“Our car had take off speed the whole day,” Dillon said. “It’s the first racecar we’ve had that can actually take off and go for the first five laps. That’s a lot of fun. We’ve got to focus on that. The way the stage racing is, short-run speed is key and if you have a long-run speed fall-off, it really doesn’t matter, because you’re going to get a caution at some point.”
Busch might have led the majority of the 500 laps run, but he referred to his final battle for the lead with Keselowski as “grasping for straws,” stating that Keselowski was “way better than we were at that time.” Busch, still without a win in 2017, was not happy with the tires provided for The STP 500.
“Our car definitely changed there for the last run of the race. We just didn’t have what we needed in order to have the speed we had all the rest of the day. We were able to drive away from the field. We led a lot of laps. We really had no contention there from a lot of people, just past halfway and the rest of the way to the end. You put a set of tires on and you lose three tenths, so that was pretty shameful, but we came home P-2, so that’s all we had.”
The top of the championship standings remain unchanged, but a lackluster day for leader Larson allowed second-place Elliott to close the gap to four points. Elliott also picked up a second stage lead, as third-place Martin Truex Jr earned his fourth stage lead.
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for the running of The O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.