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Two days after seeming pessimistic about his chances for success at Martinsville – and the rest of the season – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was suddenly running up front like he used to, thrilling the Virginia crowd.
Earnhardt Jr. led 90 laps – 19 more than he had led the entire season combined before Sunday – and had a shot at winning until his handling went away late in the race.
Hadn't he just said there was no reason to believe things would get better?
"I didn't say there was no hope," he said. "That was qualifying. ... If we get a half-decent car, I feel like I'm smart enough to stay out of trouble and get a decent finish."
Running up front ultimately turned out to be somewhat of a tease for Junior Nation, though Earnhardt Jr. still finished seventh – only his second top-10 finish in the last 14 races.
"I love short track racing and I love coming here," he said, speaking with an air of confidence. "This place has a lot of history. I have a lot of respect for it. I used to not understand how to get around here and then I have been pretty good here for a long time now. I feel pretty good that when I come here I can run good. I like racing here and I like this style of racing."
Earnhardt Jr. used the word "fun" in describing Martinsville, and that hasn't been a part of his vocabulary all that often lately.
"The mile-and-a-halfs, when the car is tight, you go in the corner and turn the wheel and wait for it to turn and mash the gas," he said. "That's not much (fun). This is where it's at, right here."
Jeff Burton was confused why his Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick sounded off on the team radio and said Burton was "out of mulligans" as the two battled during Sunday's Martinsville race.
Harvick apparently felt Burton was chopping and cutting him off in the turns as the two raced close to the front. Burton denied that and said he didn't understand why Harvick was upset.
"There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him," Burton said. "Every time there's a conflict, he's involved. And you would think over the amount of years he's done it that he would get the hint that he's always in the middle of it. Maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he'd be OK.
"I'm not out to harm him. I'm a teammate of his. I'm trying to help him. There comes a point where he's got to catch his breath and realize that it's my racetrack too, and I didn't do anything wrong. And if he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can't race. There's nothing I did that I regret and there's nothing I won't do next week."
Burton said he believed Harvick was just "wound up" about racing for a championship, because there was no way Harvick meant what he said.
"I can assure you I didn't do anything wrong and I'll do it again a thousand times," Burton said. "If what I did was wrong, then I'll just quit racing."
Harvick was more tight-lipped about the incident in his postrace news conference.
Asked about the hard racing, Harvick said, "I didn't see any bent fenders or contact, so I think it was fine."
When a reporter tried to follow up by asking about the big picture and perhaps not racing so hard with a teammate, Harvick responded curtly, "We were just racing."
After getting a bump from Jeff Gordon, short-tempered Kurt Busch saw red during Sunday's race at Martinsville and retaliated in a big way, spinning Gordon out on the frontstretch at lap 385.
His face red, the clearly agitated Busch tried to choose his words as carefully as he could after the race, but his frustration showed through.
"Yeah, he shoved me in there and I shoved him back in Turn 4," Busch said. "Didn't mean to get into him that hard, but over the years with Gordon here wrecking the 97 (Busch's old car) and wrecking the 2 car (with Rusty Wallace), whether you're a current Kurt fan or an ex-Rusty fan, he's wrecked the 2 car a lot here."
Gordon, told of Busch's comments, offered a resigned half-smile.
"Why does that not surprise me that he said that?" Gordon said. "I think if we just let him talk, that's all that needs to be said."
Gordon's explanation was that he was "quite a bit faster" than Busch and dove under the 2 car's inside in Turn 3. He said he bumped Busch's car unintentionally, adding, "I barely got into him."
"I probably made the move a little late (and) I got into him," Gordon said. "It wasn't much, but I gave him enough of a reason from past history (to retaliate). Or whatever thoughts he has, it sparked it. At that point, he was determined to wreck me."
Gordon said he makes moves similar to the one on Busch "all day long" but noted, "Kurt Busch doesn't have a very long fuse."
"So either it was payback or (he) just got angry really quick and decided to wreck us," Gordon said.
Now, the Chase is really on.
Denny Hamlin picked up his Sprint Cup Series-high seventh victory of the season at Martinsville on Sunday, closing to within six points of Chase leader Jimmie Johnson.
This is the closest points margin NASCAR has ever had with four races to go since the inception of the Chase.
"Who said it was over?" a happy Hamlin said, pointing to reporters in the media center. "I told you it wasn't over!"
Johnson finished fifth, but saw his points lead practically erased. Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick finished third to remain third in points, just 62 behind Johnson.
The three-man race practically guarantees the final four races could be some of the most riveting in Chase history.
Click the comments section below to see what fans had to say during SB Nation's live chat during the Martinsville race.
Richard Petty Motorsports director of competition Robbie Loomis met with reporters Saturday morning at Martinsville to answer questions about the rumors surrounding the team. Here are his full comments:
First of all, I want to thank Kasey. Kasey did a great job for us and if you look at the banners in the shop, a lot of them are there from Kasey and I really wish him well in his new deal. I think that started a lot of the stir and speculation throughout the whole week, but we've been working really hard and everyone is working hard. I couldn't be prouder of the job the guys have done with the Aric Almirola seat change on Thursday at the last minute, and we're just looking forward to continuing into 2011 and finishing this year up strong.
I've heard a lot of things about our relationship with Roush and Roush has been great to us. They've been a great sponsor, a great provider and work for us in a lot of different ways to help us from the engine shop side with Doug Yates has been amazing. If there's anything I have not felt good about is they had three cars make the Chase and we didn't. That's up to us to get our program better, but I think Robbie Reiser and the whole organization over there has always done everything we've wanted. They work really hard to provide good cars for us.
Is this team going to finish the season?
I think it's our full intention to go forward. Like I said, most of the things we've been working on throughout the week is, ‘What do we look like in 2011? What's our driver lineup look like the rest of the year since we lost Kasey?' I told the guys yesterday, I sat back at lunch and said, ‘Look, this is no different than running a race when you're a crew chief. I've been right here at Martinsville leading a race and all of a sudden hit a pothole and you've got to figure out what to do and how to react to it and move forward.' That's what we're looking forward to do with Richard Petty Motorsports.
I think a lot of people have their thoughts and prayers with Richard. He's dealing with (wife) Lynda and she's going through some issues and Richard is with her. His thoughts are with her. We might see Richard up here tomorrow. As you guys know, he usually comes to Martinsville on Sunday, but right now he's spending a lot of time with Lynda.
What gives you confidence you can move forward this year and next?
Like I said before, there's been a lot of speculation about a lot of things, there always has been in this sport, but what gives me confidence is that we've always had the ability to move forward. We do our best today. I was thinking riding up the road this morning with Dale (Inman) and I said, ‘You can't look too far out in the future because today is all that we really have,' and many of you know that from being around this sport.
Any decision on if Aric Almirola will remain in the No. 9 car past this weekend?
Most of the things we've been working on has been our models for 2011 and what our race teams look like moving forward. Aric is somebody we were looking at to drive for us next year and the timing of it didn't work out and come together, so he got the deal with Dale Jr.'s Nationwide deal, which is a great opportunity for him and a strong organization.
For us, we had Marcos Ambrose come available and we're real excited about AJ and Marcos as we go into next season. All of the drivers have really stepped up. I know AJ met with all the guys yesterday and have really been team leaders. I called Marcos last night and putting a good qualifying lap up there was encouraging for
Have there been any changes to the team?
There hasn't been any change. Max Jones, our president, has been working really hard with the Roush crowd and everybody on the plans for the future. I think it's been a collective effort. The only change we've really had is Kasey and his spotter, Cole. I like Cole, Cole is a great spotter for Kasey, those are the two guys that are gone.
The Gilletts still own the team?
Yes. The Gilletts, they've been through a lot obviously – everyone knows that. They've worked really hard to be a four-car team last year and continue it this year, and now we've got to look at what our teams are gonna look like going into next year.
Will RPM be in Talladega?
Yeah, we'll be at Talladega. I hope we're all in Talladega. It's our full intention to keep rolling right along.
Is it true Richard Petty is trying to get a group of investors together and gain more control of the organization?
I don't want to speculate on anything like that. Like I said, there are a lot of people working collectively together to make this thing more successful as we go forward in the future. Like Richard said when he came down on Thursday, he said, ‘Look guys, we're in the same business. We're trying to provide winning race cars and give them to AJ Allmendinger and Elliott Sadler and our drivers that are driving the cars today, so the game hasn't changed. It's the same thing we're doing.
On a less-than-satisfactory day at a place where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has experienced past success (Martinsville is his fifth-best track statistically), the sport's most popular driver had trouble mustering much optimism – or even a smile – following a 28th-place qualifying effort.
"I wasn't too happy in practice and it didn't run very good in qualifying," he said, his face revealing little emotion. "It's just not fast. I don't know. I like this track and I like getting around here, but when we put it in qualifying setup, it felt just like it did in race trim. It didn't have that qualifying grip."
That was disappointing, because as Earnhardt Jr. noted, he's run fairly well on short tracks despite a drop-off in performance at intermediate tracks since mid-2008.
"I just come in here probably with more confidence, that I know I can get around here and know how to drive a car around here," he said.
But when it was time to drive, the car didn't suit his needs. That's been a frequent pattern for the No. 88 team this year: The driver comes to a track where he's had past success, but the team can't deliver a car that helps Earnhardt Jr. go fast.
So what's the deal?
"The vibe's fine," he said of his team. "Everybody gets along and we have positive attitudes that 'This practice will go well' or 'Qualifying is going to go well' and we make changes that we think we need to make. Everything works like it should, we just haven't been able to produce."
A reporter asked if that meant there should be changes on the team. Earnhardt Jr. chose his words carefully in response, saying he wanted to "concentrate on the rest of the year before I start thinking about that."
"To be focused and to do our best job, we want to concentrate on each race and just get the season done before we start worrying about what we're going to do for next year," he said.
With just five races to go, Earnhardt Jr. indicated he feels there's little reason for optimism. Even if he had a great race somewhere, Earnhardt Jr. said he wouldn't be sold that the team is turning the corner.
"I would need a little more convincing than just one good run," he said. "It ain't happened all year. I don't think anybody believes it's going to happen the rest of the year. But we're going to show up and work hard and try not to give up."
Kevin Harvick, sitting third in the championship points with five races remaining, has found a solution to his struggles on pit road: Get a new pit crew.
Harvick has had numerous problems on pit road this season and has been heard berating his crew for what he believed were costly mistakes.
So this week, Richard Childress Racing came up with a solution: Swap the entire pit crews between the Nos. 29 (Harvick) and 33 (Clint Bowyer).
After all, Bowyer is out of Chase contention. So while Bowyer gets a lesser pit crew for the remainder of the season, Harvick gets an upgrade at a much-needed time.
"There is no question that my team is arguably the best team at RCR," Bowyer said. "They've been together the longest. With us being out of the championship deal, Kevin is the last shot at RCR at basically bringing a championship home. We owe it to everybody involved – all the employees – to try to bring that championship back home."
Bowyer said he personally went to the RCR shop on Tuesday to inform his crew of the news – he wanted it to come from his mouth, even though it wasn't his decision.
"Certainly I'm going to miss them," he said. "I think we can win with (Harvick's) pit crew as well. There is certainly no slouch with what he had, and if he needed my crew to be better, I was going to give it to him. I owe it to him as a teammate."
The pit crew will return to Bowyer if Harvick falls out of championship contention, he said. Some of the crew also work on and build Bowyer's cars during the week, so there will be a reunion at some point.
Harvick was more tight-lipped on the change.
"Those (pit road) issues have been addressed and I believe everything will be fine this week," he said. "Richard (Childress) made some huge changes this week."
Jeff Burton, Bowyer and Harvick's other RCR teammate, said the pit stops for the 31 and 29 teams have "been a weak point" this season.
"There's been a tremendous effort to address it, to get it working better," Burton said. "I know that as we entered the Chase, there was a tremendous effort to take the next step again and for neither team, the results weren't there.
"Richard indicated to us a couple of weeks ago that as the Chase continued, and if we had one team that was still available...there had to be something done about shoring that problem up because it was really affecting us in a negative way."
Burton said he was OK with the mentality of building one team up as an "A team" as long as it was "on a very, very temporary basis." He said he would not support having one team get resources over another for the long term.
"It is kind of a sign of ‘OK, we've done everything else we know to do, this is all we got,'" Burton said. "I don't want to say it is a sign of weakness, but it is a sign of saying we have no choice."
Kasey Kahne says his release from Richard Petty Motorsports was a mutual decision and responded to those who believe he walked out on RPM, saying he wasn't a quitter.
"People can talk, they can say what they want, but I'm definitely not a quitter," Kahne said Friday in his first public comments since being released from RPM late Wednesday night. "I've done a lot for that company for a long time, and we went our separate ways. That's the way it is."
Kahne, wearing Red Bull jacket to signify the first race with his new team, said anyone who questions his commitment doesn't know him very well (an unnamed RPM official told Kahne he needed to pull his weight around the team, Kahne said after Charlotte).
After a crash on Saturday night, Kahne left the track without finishing the race and said he was sick. The next day, he lashed out at RPM for its continued mechanical failures.
"I don't think there's anybody out there who puts as much into it as I do throughout the week," Kahne said. "I feel like I do everything I need to do to make myself the best I can be. And we kept having problems.
"I was sick to my stomach (on Saturday night at Charlotte). It was time for me to just call it a day, and that's what I did. I'm happy I did it, and ready to go onto this weekend."
Kahne will still honor the balance of his Budweiser contract, which requires him to do personal appearances and meet-and-greets on behalf of his now-former sponsor. But he'll drive Red Bull's No. 83 car for the final five races.
"It's definitely not the way we wanted it to end on either side, but it's the way it ended," Kahne said.
As for next year? Brian Vickers has said he'll be healthy enough to return at Daytona, and Kahne will obviously be the other driver for what Red Bull GM Jay Frye said is a two-car team.
That likely leaves Scott Speed out in the cold. Frye said Speed has an unspecified performance clause in his contract in order to renew for next year. ESPN.com's David Newton reported Speed must finish 16th in the points for the option to kick in, but is currently 28th.
Though crew chief Kenny Francis will stay with RPM for the balance of the season, Kahne said he's excited about the opportunity to get a head start on next season. Kahne will then move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.
"For me, next year is one year, but it's a short year," Kahne said. "I'm happy to be able to get prepared a little early, learn about the company, the cars, the engines.
"I want to come out and win next year, and the only way to do that is to get off to a good start at the start of the season."
Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are 1-2 in the point standings halfway through the Chase, and they've combined to win the last eight races at Martinsville Speedway.
Can third-place Kevin Harvick spoil the party? Or will Johnson and Hamlin pull away in a two-man race to the championship?
SB Nation is live from the half-mile Virginia paperclip, so follow along with all the news, notes and analysis from NASCAR's shortest track (and don't forget our live race chat on Sunday).
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