MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- It was another frantic day of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at the shortest track on the schedule -- the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. After 3 hours, 32 minutes of hard racing and a track-record 31 lead changes among 12 drivers, the estimated crowd of 60,000 nearly saw beloved hero Dale Earnhardt, Jr. snap a long winless streak before Kevin Harvick snatched it away less than 2½ miles from the checkered flag.
There were some great storylines that came out of Sunday's clash so let's jump into the Five Things We Learned at Martinsville.
While Earnhardt has just as many fans who love him, Busch has equal amounts who despise him, giving the boisterous audience a moment to remember, especially after Earnhardt gave Busch a little bump to get him out of the way.
"Yeah, I was holding him up," Busch admitted. "I sucked. So it was good for him. I mean, he took the lead. No harm, no foul."
But Earnhardt's drive to an apparent victory ended just five laps from the checkered flag when Harvick's No. 29 Chevrolet passed him for the lead and went on to win the race. That not only deflated the large number of Junior Nation fans at this Virginia short track -- but the driver himself.
"I'll probably think about it a million times what I probably could have done differently," Earnhardt lamented afterward. "I think I know what is best for me. I should probably have a good attitude about what happened today and probably got into the next race and use it as momentum and confidence, like any good driver would do rather than worrying about how close we came. I should be thankful and grateful that I can take this momentum and take what looks like a better start to the season than I've had in a while to the next race track and keep plugging away.
"Honestly, I feel fortunate to finish second today in a car that I should have finished 10th. I'm really thrilled. I know it don't look like it now but I have a hell of an opportunity with this team. I'm having fun and I'm racing cars and I want to finish like this and finish better than this every weekend. We're right on the outside of that. It's frustrating to be that close and leading a race with 10 laps to go and get passed but there is a brighter side to this, too."
There are three lightning-rod drivers in the Sprint Cup Series: The first is obviously Earnhardt, followed by "Bad Boy" Kyle Busch and Harvick. Earnhardt thought he had cleared the biggest hurdle when he passed Busch for the lead with so few laps left. But the one car he didn't want to see in his rear-view mirror at the end was the one driven by Harvick.
Ironically, it was Harvick that took over that ride when Earnhardt's father, the legendary Dale Earnhardt, was killed in the last turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"I was watching the 18 and he had a little bit of a problem on that run," Earnhardt said of Busch. "I wanted him to take off and try to race the 18. I didn't really want to race anybody with another car behind us bouncing into us. I saw the Kyle was having trouble, made a couple stabs at him and got the lead. Then I saw the 29 and he was coming. I ran a couple of laps there that held him at bay and maintained the distance but the traffic at the end of that race was terrible.
"The way I was catching lapped traffic was unfortunate but he got through it better than I did."
Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports crew were able to get the most out of a car that he didn't think was that fast to begin with. He credits the changes made to the car -- and the pit strategy by crew chief Steve Letarte -- for getting him into a position to nearly win the race.
"We weren't really a top-five car all day but we tried to make changes to find some speed," Earnhardt said. "We were doing some things that hurt our performance and it really ran great. I got a run off Kyle in Turn 2 and got my nose under him. We were racing for the lead with just a few laps to go. We got out front and tried to put together good, solid laps but with 10 to go the rear end started to slip away. I thought I might be overdriving the car. We got there through the strategy that Steve had on pit road. We needed to put some effort into making the car better.
"I wasn't sitting back there leading by seven car-lengths thinking I've got the car to lose. I had a hell of an opportunity right there to win the race. I knew the 29 was fast because the run before that he was pretty quick. I knew he had the speed but he had a car in front of him and I was going to make it difficult for him to get by."
If Sunday were a "morality play," then somebody had to be the villain and that role was willingly taken by Harvick.
"I could see the people going crazy when he took the lead going off Turn 3 but I was catching him and realized I was going to be the bad guy but I've got to do what I've got to do," Harvick said. "It was cool to see him back up there in contention for a win. It's a lot of fun and I know the fans want to see him win -- I want to see him win because it would be great for the sport. Today showed how competitive they can be racing for wins.
"We all need him to win but I'm not going to back down."
After six races, it's safe to say Earnhardt is making strides to being a contender again. He improved four positions in the standings and is up to eighth in points, 20 behind leader Kyle Busch.
There are two drivers that can help NASCAR recapture the imagination of a mass audience. Danica Patrick, the IZOD IndyCar Series driver and part-time Nationwide Series competitor, who has a decision to make this season which series she competes full-time in 2012.
The other driver is Dale Jr., who has a strong connection to both the loyal followers of his father and the younger generation of fans who have strayed away from the sport. If Earnhardt becomes a winner again, it would help NASCAR regain its audience and increase television ratings -- something every sport badly needs at this time.
Earlier in the race, Harvick's Chevrolet incurred some rear-end damage in a crash, but they were able to get the car back into winning shape which helped dramatically calm down the driver.
"It was a crazy day for us," Harvick said. "It's a credit to the team for keeping me sane. I was ready to slit my wrists. We focused on getting the car back to where it needed to be. It was another character building day but I don't know how many character-building days we need.
"When Richard Childress comes on the radio and says I need to do this or that I know that is when I need to shut up. I turn into this lunatic when I get into the car. I get in this mind-frame that I can't get out of when I get in the car. I turn into this crazed animal."
After finishing 42nd in the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick has made it all the way back into the top five.
"When we left Daytona I was laughing because it was 156 races since we had an engine problem," Harvick said. "It's hard to get down when you have 156 races without a problem. There was no reason to get down on those guys because they figured it out and we moved forward."
It was Childress's first win at Martinsville since Dale Earnhardt drove to victory here in 1995.
"When I came in here I walked by the inspection bay where they tore down Dale's car after that victory," Childress said. "That brought back a memory."
Harvick's fearless pursuit of the most popular driver in the sport -- and his desire to be the "bad guy" by denying Earhardt victory -- are just the type of characteristics needed to win a championship. Less than two months into the season, Harvick believes he has already made a great stride toward making the Chase -- a season-ending playoff that doesn't begin until Sept. 18 at Chicagoland Speedway.
"When you look at the two wins I'll take our chances on making The Chase with the two wins," Harvick said. "Here we are six races into the season and we can take more chances this year, push the limits and try to win races just because we have that cushion in our back pocket. Winning back-to-back weeks is something we have only done once before in our career.
"I like our chances at the very least."
That came in a massive two-car crash on lap 221 involving Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex, Jr. The calamity ensued when the throttle on Truex's Toyota stuck wide open and into the wall, destroying both cars in one of the hardest impacts ever seen at this short track. The damage to the SAFER Barrier was so bad the race was red-flagged. Speculation had the throttle hanging up on Truex's Toyota. He hobbled over to Kahne's crippled car to make sure that driver was OK.
"We had a throttle stuck wide open -- not sure why," Truex said. "We went off to go into Turn 3 and it was stuck to the floor. Not much you can do at that point. It was, `Oh man, this is going to hurt. It didn't hurt at all. Unbelievable, isn't it? Thanks to all the guys that built the SAFER Barriers because 10 years ago I wouldn't be standing here. It was a rough day right there. We were just trying to survive and we sure didn't need that. There is nothing you can do but lock the brakes up. As unfortunate as it was that Kasey was involved, he really helped slow my car down and I hit him. It was probably a blessing. I hate that it took him out."
Kahne's day was over but he was no injured in the crash.
"We got behind on the start with the tires not leaving rubber and that put me too far back," Kahne said. "Usually you get hit here and spin and somebody is mad but in that case I knew that the throttle had stuck or something on Martin's car. He drilled me through the wall and then he follows with his, 'Pretty good wreck. Just a bad day.'"
The race was stopped for 24 minutes, 55 seconds.
"That's probably the hardest impact I've seen in a Cup car here," said Martinsville president Clay Campbell, who's witnessed more than 30 years of racing at this track. "I have not seen worse but I've seen impacts with worse results. Since the SAFER Barrier that is the hardest impact that I've seen here."
Busch appeared well on his way to his first Cup win at Martinsville, but on this short track, don't count your checkered flags until they're waving.
"We had one of the best runs here we have ever had, and I probably had the best car here today," Busch said. "Unfortunately I just didn't win with it. Coming down to the last run of the race here, kind of a short run, and we just didn't quite have the car to do it on a short run. Every time we had the lead off pit road, we lost it and took about 28 laps to get going again.
"I think the last run was about 28 laps and that's when I started catching those guys a little bit. They were racing. They were battling but we did get back up to them. I probably would have had something to beat them with, but can't seem to find speed at Martinsville when it matters most."
Busch, one of NASCAR's fiercest competitors, took this loss hard. But with his newfound maturity and raceday savvy, he's likely a serious contender for his first Cup title.
It was the second time that Goodyear changed tire compounds for a short track without any tire testing. Unlike the Bristol incident, however, Goodyear did not change tire compounds once an issue developed, essentially telling the competitors to, "Have at it, Boys."
There were several cut tires in Sunday's 500 laps of competition but no serious incidents.
"I thought the tires pretty much performed like they ended up performing today," Earnhardt said. "We really had a lot of marbles and nobody wanted to be in the second groove. Everybody was chopping each other really hard to get to the bottom. I don't really recall that being quite the norm here in the past. I think guys were a little more -- a little more less anxious just to be on the bottom. In the past, guys were more apt to run corners side-by-side and try to race guys there on the inside of them, but today was not the case. If you got inside of somebody, you pretty much got the position; so guys were all diving to the bottom of the racetrack trying to cut each other off and stuff. That was pretty interesting.
"The tires were a product of that, and the track didn't rubber up, in my opinion. Somebody might try to tell you it did, but I don't think it did; not what we are accustomed to seeing."
This is an issue that NASCAR must correct soon because there is too much at stake to be ruined by a faulty tire.