Brad Keselowski wins STP 500

Brad Keselowski dominates to win STP 500.

Maybe they love racing more in Daytona Beach or Hueytown or Charlotte. Maybe Darlington and Talladega have made more noise. But is there really a sweeter romance with pure stock-car racing than the half-mile oval in Martinsville?

You only have to scan the rolling hills at what must be thousands of motorhomes and campers and vehicles of all sorts. Or walk among the thousands who arrive hours before the green flag to hear every interview and get the autograph of any hero.

There is hugging and smooching between NASCAR fans and Martinsville that is not easily understood by the average marketer or even many residents. Even a guy whose family members pause every Sunday in reverence to the race du jour didn’t quite know what to expect.

Maybe he had seen cars tumble down the backstretch of Daytona or nudge across the first-turn finish line at Talladega. Maybe he had sat near the start-finish line and experienced the roars and vibrations as Harry Gant and Tim Richmond got into the wall near the finish. All of that is powerful and impressive, and in those places NASCAR made its biggest money and biggest glory.

But Martinsville Speedway is more like the Sportsdrome or Fairgrounds Speedway on Saturday nights, where he was introduced to ovals and figure eights. In fact, this is closer to Bowman Gray, the old NASCAR track around the Winston-Salem State football field, where thousands still go on summer evenings to smell the fumes and even see an occasional fistfight.

No blows were delivered on Sunday after the STP 500, but what Brad Keselowski did in his Ford was a knockout by every measure. In fact for most of the day, this race looked as if Keselowski, who started third, was a Bandit being chased by 35 Smokeys. He didn’t hide, but he kept running away.

Chase Elliott did chase him down (no pun) and took the lead for barely long enough to go to the bathroom, much to the pleasure of a roaring crowd who seemed to prefer Awesome Bill’s boy. And Elliott used lapped traffic like so many basketball picks and pushed his lead to about a second and a half.

But that lead was gone shortly after the very next caution flag, when  Keselowski elbowed back in front starting at Lap 380 and drove his Ford to a final caution on Lap 445. This one was courtesy of a guy who had lost an axel earlier (difficult to drive without one of those) and ended his day up against the wall between Turns 1 and 2.

If there is a problem with watching short-track races, it’s when you look away to see why Tennessee is blowing a huge lead in the NCAA Tournament. You have trouble picking the leader out of the duck-duck-goose of a pack. Maybe that’s why the March Madness and ESPN apps are jammed at the track. Focus must be maintained.

Every 20 seconds or so, the leader passes your vantage point, and you get your bearings. Otherwise you pray for caution, so order can be restored.

That’s where we were on that restart on Lap 455. For the next 20 minutes, this became a three-car sprint in which the order never changed (with Kyle Busch’s No. 18 being the third of the triumvirate), despite the fact that Elliott’s car seemed a tad faster.

Speaking of Busch, who won the Truck Series race on Saturday and now claims he has won more NASCAR events than Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt (pardon a pause while we smile at that one), he was in contention but never the lead.

That’s because almost no one was in the lead. Keselowski won both of the first two stages and led for 446 of the 500 laps.  That’s more than 90 percent. You can imagine that Elliott, Busch and everyone chasing him had plenty of opportunity to memorize the distinctive design of the rear end of that winning Mustang.

Joey Logano led briefly from his pole position, and Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney also nosed around the front of the race.  Defending champion Clint Bowyer was hitting his best speeds on Pit Road, where he twice was penalized and sent to the back of the pack, joined there by people who had “uncontrolled tires” on Pit Road.

Back there also was where you might have encountered Jeb Burton, who drove a car that operated like he bought it from little old Ma Lesh of Mount Pilot before Andy and Barney shut down her operation. He limped along so slow that on restarts Keselowski needed only two or three laps to catch up.

But no one was catching up to Keselowski. He said later that he learned just enough from watching Elliott lead to be able to hold off that Camaro in those final 45 laps. Fords have been doing that this season. They have won three of the season’s first six races.

Those other victories came on longer tracks. This was the circuit’s first short-track event of the season. Bristol and Richmond are coming up soon, imitators and wistful observers of what Martinsville is and always will be: the first, last and everlasting stop in NASCAR.

The drivers and fans will be back in October. Winning will be more important, because playoff points will be at play. Ask Logano, who drove out of The Paperclip a winner last fall and took the Cup Series championship.

But don’t dismiss Keselowski’s day. He didn’t. He celebrated his dominance by striping the front straightway with burned rubber and sending a cloud of black smoke among the fans in the most expensive seats.

Do you think they cared? Heck no. This is Martinsville. They love this stuff.

Steven Doyle is the local editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. Reach him at steven.doyle@martinsvillebulletin.com