When stage racing was first announced only a few weeks before the new NASCAR season began, old-school fans were undeniably upset. Although they had been insisting that something be done to improve the sport and make it more interesting, most shunned NASCAR’s new idea to break a race into 3 segments and award points based on position at the end of each stage. Well, if the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway proved anything on Sunday, it’s that stage racing adds a palpable level of competitiveness for the drivers and an elevated measure of excitement for fans.
The first stage of the STP 500 included 3 caution flags that can be attributed to nothing but aggressive, competitive, short track racing – the first for Ricky Stenhouse Jr who made contact with Paul Menard and resulted in Stenhouse spinning in Turn 3; the second for Jamie McMurray who gambled and stayed on the track far too long with a bad tire rub leading to his No. 1 Cessna Chevy making hard contact with the wall after the left rear tire finally popped; the third when Dale Earnhardt Jr made contact with Ryan Blaney. Jr ended up spinning on the back stretch and the stage restarted with only 4 laps to go. Amidst three-wide racing and door-to-door bumping, Martin Truex Jr was able to hold off Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin for the stage win.
Yet again, Stage Two saw an amazing finish when Ricky Stenhouse Jr refused to finish a lap down and chose to do battle with the P1 car of Kyle Busch in order to stay on the lead lap. With 4 laps to go in the stage, the situation played out as Busch passed Stenhouse and was about to pass Austin Dillon as well. This would have caused both Stenhouse and Dillon to fall a lap down; however, as the last car passed, Dillon would have been awarded the free pass around at the end of the stage. Fighting to stay on the lead lap, Stenhouse prevented Busch from passing Dillon by pushing Busch’s No.18 Toyota up the track. Then Stenhouse drove under him. Not only did the move accomplish the goal, it also slowed Busch enough that Chase Elliott in P2 also squeezed by Busch and took the Stage win.
The final segment was full of hard racing and multiple cautions, most notably, the big one that collected Denny Hamlin, Danica Patrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Aric Almirola, and others. Surprisingly, this was Patrick’s only wreck despite an ongoing door-to-door battle with AJ Allmendinger followed by another clash with Chris Buescher. With 80 laps remaining Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were side by side and fought for the lead. Eventually; however, Keselowski got around him and gained an impressive lead.
This was Brad Keselowski’s first win at Martinsville, ironically during Team Penske’s 1000th NASCAR start. It was Ford’s first win at the track since 2002. Keselowski celebrated by walking into the grandstands to shake hands and take selfies with fans.
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