Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – Kyle Busch had a strong enough car to lead 100 laps in Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, but not enough to race for the victory in the closing laps of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race.
Ultimately, Busch ran fourth in the opening event in the Round of 8, but he retained a comfortable series lead. The 2015 champion has a 21-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr., Sunday’s runner-up, and Kevin Harvick, who finished 10th.
What’s more, Busch is 46 points ahead of his brother Kurt, who ran sixth on Sunday and is the first driver below the current cut line for the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That’s a comfortable margin – unless drivers in the bottom four continue to win races, as Joey Logano did on Sunday at the .526-mile short track.
“We just weren’t turning the center (of the corner),” said Busch, who started from the pole. “We tried to do everything we could to get it to rotate to the center of the corner and get the drive off, and every time we tried to help the drive off, we just made it tighter. And then we tried to come back on that adjustment, and then we just made it looser on exit.
“It’s like nothing we did was helping us. We went one way on our adjustments, which took us backwards. We went another backwards on adjustments which took us backwards, so it was just a matter of we had what we had.
“I thought the M&M’s Camry was faster than that, better than that yesterday in practice and stuff. We made improvements to it for qualifying, but it just didn’t hold serve when the rubber was going down and so that’s kind of where we just missed it today.”
CHASE ELLIOTT ALREADY IN MUST-WIN MODE AFTER SEVENTH PLACE AT MARTINSVILLE
Chase Elliott made the most of a 19th-place starting position and a balky No. 9 Chevrolet on Sunday, but he left the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway under water in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.
Thanks to excellent pit work adjustments that improved the car’s performance during the race, Elliott managed a seventh-place result, but he’s 31 points below the current cut line for the Nov. 18 Championship 4 Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“It was just really bad, really poor execution on our qualifying effort and better in the race, but not near where we needed to be,” Elliott lamented after the race. “So, I’m sure we’re in a hole and probably going to have to win one of these next two races.
“We needed some pace. The guys did a great job on pit road and things to get us kind of back in the ball game, but definitely not what we want.”
Elliott doesn’t expect to be able to claw his way into the top four on points.
“No, I need to win,” he said. “I mean playing the points game is nice, but I need another sticker.”
The good news is that Elliott has picked up win stickers in two of the last four races, and he’s the only driver who has won two events in the Playoffs.
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS UNVEILS ALLY AS NEW SPONSOR FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON
Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has a new full-season primary sponsor.
Roughly an hour before the command to fire engines at Martinsville Speedway, team owner Rick Hendrick announced that Ally Financial has agreed to sponsor Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
“We are beyond thrilled to be in the fast lane with Jimmie Johnson, one of the most successful drivers in the history of NASCAR, and with Hendrick Motorsports, a premier organization in professional sports,” said Jeffrey Brown, Ally’s CEO.
The association with Ally marks a new chapter in Johnson’s career, as he tries to win a record-breaking eighth championship. Johnson’s 17-year association with sponsor Lowe’s will end this year, as will the driver’s partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus, who will move to the No. 24 Chevrolet of William Byron next season.
Kevin Meendering, Elliott Sadler’s NASCAR Xfinity Series crew chief at JR Motorsports, will move up to the Cup level with Johnson next year.
Johnson underscored the value of a single primary sponsor for the entire season.
“To have one sponsor for all 38 races for two years … clearly, I’ve had just one sponsor, and to enter this new chapter in my racing career and have one sponsor once again, I think says a lot about Hendrick Motorsports and the value of this No. 48 car and also in our sport.
“As today unfolds, with the media buys they’ve done and the way they’re going to advertise in our sport, and as you see them engage next year, they’re really using NASCAR as a marketing tool for their company. You will all be very impressed with their vision and the importance they see in NASCAR racing. (That’s) the main reason why they are here and involved.”