By Jerry Bonkowski
Now that’s more like it.
NASCAR promised us when it introduced its low downforce package (LDF) that it would make smaller teams and normally less successful drivers more competitive with the sport’s big boys.
That’s exactly what we saw Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, and it only serves to reinforce my excitement and belief in the LDF going forward.
Six of the top 10 finishers were drivers who, to put it diplomatically, haven’t exactly enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years, if not their overall Cup careers.
Runner-up A.J. Allmendinger had his best finish since his one and only career Sprint Cup win at Watkins Glen in August 2014.
Third-place finisher Kyle Larson, who I like to refer to as a win waiting to happen, almost captured that elusive first career Sprint Cup victory. I sense a win from Larson in the next month-plus – with the best likelihood at Bristol or Richmond – certainly by the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend.
Fourth-place finisher Austin Dillon earned his best showing and second top-five of the season. While he didn’t have the car to beat race winner Kyle Busch, Dillon still had a very stout machine and continued to show the type of talent that, much like Larson, will result in his first career Sprint Cup win in short order.
Let’s not forget Dillon’s two Richard Childress Racing teammates. Paul Menard finished eighth, while Ryan Newman, who had slumped since the beginning of the season, rebounded with a very respectable 10th place finish.
But the biggest and most pleasant surprise at Martinsville was the performance of Brian Vickers. Making his fourth start as a fill-in driver for the injured Tony Stewart, Vickers picked up where he left off two weeks ago at Fontana, where he finished 13th, which up to that point was the best showing in 2016 for the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. That is until Sunday, where Vickers finished even better – seventh-place.
“I was pleased, but not satisfied,” Vickers said. “We had such a good car. We were so fast. … I’m really proud of the effort by the guys. We had a great car. It was a top 10.
“We’ll take a seventh and move on. The team is getting stronger every week, really. I’m proud of those guys and it’s going to be a strong team.”
And now, as Vickers prepares to hopefully improve even further upon that kind of showing at Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway – he certainly has the car and team to win – he’s also facing an uncertain future after that race.
For now, Vickers is a man without a team after Texas. He’s not been told whether he’ll have any more starts in place of Stewart, or if Ty Dillon, the other replacement driver who has made the other two starts thus far this season, will get a few more tries in the No. 14.
Or maybe it could be another fill-in driver.
And then there remains the uncertainty of how long Stewart will remain sidelined from the back injury he sustained in an ATV accident at the end of January.
While Vickers knew he was only going to be a replacement driver for an undetermined time, his showings at Fontana and Martinsville have proven he should remain in Stewart’s stead until Tony is healed and ready to get back to racing himself.
I mean, what happens if Vickers wins at Texas? Would SHR have the temerity to say, “Thanks for the win, Brian” and then cut him loose?
I hope not. He’s proven he deserves a whole lot more.