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The off week couldn't have come at a worse time for NASCAR. If ever an event screamed for a follow-up race seven days later, it was Fontana. Here's why:
• A post-race scuffle and a clear threat of retaliation from Tony Stewart against Joey Logano.
• A last-lap crash between two heated rivals battling for the victory -- Logano and Denny Hamlin, one week after Hamlin wrecked Logano.
• A disappointing back injury from the Fontana crash that has forced Hamlin out of the car for several weeks and leaves fans wondering how well the No. 11 Toyota will race without him.
• A new leader at the top of the Cup standings -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who will have almost everyone arguing whether he can stay there.
Martinsville never looked so good, even though it took two weeks to get there. The half-mile, paper clip-shaped oval is a bumping and banging 500 laps even when things are calm -- and things are anything but calm entering Sunday's race.
First, there's NASCAR most unexpected bad boy -- Logano. Fair or unfair (I'm on the unfair side of this one), he's wearing the black hat these days after two consecutive races with controversial moments on and off the track.
No doubt there are a few betting pools going around on which lap Logano gets punted on Sunday and whether it comes from Stewart or someone else.
Stewart was furious with Logano after the Fontana race because Logano blocked him on the last restart when Logano was trying to stay up front and win it.
Now the etiquette of blocking has become a big topic of conversation.
"I think it's a chicken way to drive," Ryan Newman said on a conference call Tuesday. "That's something I don't do. It's not very respectful of the guys around you."
Maybe Newman should tell that to his boss and teammate, Stewart, who caused a 25-car crash at Talladega last year after blocking on the last lap.
Not everyone sees it the way Newman does.
"I might block in certain situations, and I have," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "I expect to be blocked sometimes, but you have to give me a lane to run. You can't run me into the fence."
As for the Logano-Stewart incident, Earnhardt said: "In my opinion, it was just hard racing and [Logano] was trying to do what he could to win."
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the points lead, and he might just be willing to block an opponent to keep it.|
Logano's block led to a post-race dust-up when Stewart pulled his car up in front of Logano's and tried to slug him, but the crew guys broke it up.
"Once again, my team showed they have my back," Logano said afterward. "That will only make us better going forward."
Like him or not, Logano is getting the job done in his new spot driving the No. 22 Ford for Penske Racing. He's ninth in the standings after the first five races.
By comparison, AJ Allmendinger was 26th in the standings for that team at this point one year ago.
Whether Logano stays in the top 10 after Martinsville could depend on whether he gets to the end of the race without a payback.
Sadly, one combatant from the Logano feuds won't be racing for a while. Hamlin is out for at least five races because of an L1 compression fracture in his back.
And the saddest part of it is he would probably still be racing if the Fontana track had the SAFER barrier in place where Hamlin hit head-on against the inside wall during the crash.
Mark Martin will drive for Hamlin in Martinsville, but the plans Joe Gibbs Racing had to keep Martin in the car for all five races were nixed by Michael Waltrip Racing.
It was likely Aaron's, the sponsor of the No. 55 Toyota for MWR, that wanted Martin in the No. 55 for the races he is scheduled to run for the team.
It caused an unfortunate backtrack by JGR, saying it jumped the gun on the Martin announcement. Brian Vickers will take over in the No. 11 car at Texas Motor Speedway in two weeks.
The good news for Hamlin is he still has an outside shot at winning the championship, thanks to the Chase format. If he can return and finish in the top 20, plus win a couple of races, he might make it in with one of the two wild-card Chase spots.
It's another reason why the Chase works. Under the old season-points total format, Hamlin's title chances would be over, through no fault of his own.
"If I were in his shoes, I would feel it's a very tall order," Earnhardt said of Hamlin's Chase chances. "But they are a team that can win three or four races. I don't count him out at all. The wild-card rule really opens it up."
The Chase format didn't help Earnhardt last year because he missed two races with concussion symptoms during the 10-race playoff rather than during the regular season. But Earnhardt is off to an impressive start this year.
For the first time in his career, Earnhardt has posted five consecutive top-10s to start a season. In only three of his 13 Cup seasons has Earnhardt ranked No. 1 in any given week, and two of those have come in the past two years.
That's not a fluke; it's a signal. Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and the No. 88 Chevy team are getting it done. And Earnhardt is going to a track where he has finished seventh or better in four of the past five races.
"We've been closing out races and passing a lot of car in the last 10 percent of the races," Earnhardt said. "Two races, Bristol and California, with a handful of laps to go we were not in the top 10. Steve made some good calls that set us up to make up a lot of ground at the end. I don't know if that was his plan, but it made us look good."
Earnhardt still has plenty of doubters on whether he's a legitimate title contender, but the way to silence some of them is to win more races. He has one victory in his past 168 starts.
However, if Earnhardt continues to run up front as much as he has the past two seasons, common sense tells you more victories will come. He was second at the spring Martinsville race two years ago.
"We're still not winning races and I don't expect much attention until we win races," Earnhardt said. "If we go out and win, we'll get credit where credit is due. There's still a little bit for us to gain until I feel super-comfortable. We've got time to get there."
Considering everything that transpired at Fontana, this race couldn't get here soon enough. Martinsville is known for its hot dogs. It's the ones on the track that everyone has anxiously waited to see for two long weeks.