The NASCAR Cup Series got its first look at the Next Gen car on a short track last weekend at Richmond Raceway and will do so again this week at Martinsville Speedway. While the field did get strung out and the race ended in a strategy call that saw Denny Hamlin gain a full lap on late-race leader William Byron, Richmond has trended toward strategy over full-contact racing in recent years.
That's not the case with Martinsville, though, as proven by a pair of races already run at the 0.533-mile paperclip this season. The Paperclip regularly features heavy contact, aggression, and close-quarters racing. Plenty has been said this season about the increased durability of these new cars, allowing for a little more contact with other competitors or the wall, and that could lead to even more aggression Saturday night.
“Maybe in the right circumstance I could see it getting a little more aggressive. The bumpers are certainly not as fragile as they used to be,” polesitter Chase Elliott said Friday. “The quarter-panels don’t seem to cause tire rubs as easily as they used to. Now some of the components – toe links and things of that nature – are pretty fragile. So, I do think you can break some of the suspension.
“But as it pertains to bumping a guy out of the way or things like that, you are at less risk of hurting your car in the process. I feel like when it comes down to it, sure yeah, guys are going to get aggressive. But we all got aggressive before, too. I don’t know that it will look a lot different.”
Fresh off of putting all four of its cars inside the top 10 at Richmond, including Hamlin's win, Joe Gibbs Racing returns to a track that's proven quite successful for the organization, dating back to the early 2000s with Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte. Hamlin does have five wins at Martinsville, though his most recent one came in 2015.
That said, his teammate Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last five races at Martinsville and enters the weekend as the defending winner of this race, and it's highly likely the short-track experience will beat out the youth that stole the spotlight for the first six races this season.
Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400
Date: Saturday, April 9
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
After a dismal start to the 2022 season where he failed to finish in three of the first six races, Hamlin made an impressive run from more than a lap down inside 35 laps remaining at Richmond last weekend to score his first win, top five and top 10 of the year. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota heads into this weekend with a ton of momentum, fresh off of his first win since last September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and he boasts the best average finish among active drivers at Martinsville.
Who's at the Back: Kurt Busch
After back-to-back top-five finishes at Phoenix Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway a few short weeks ago, Busch has since posted a pair of results outside the top 30 and has plummeted from fifth to 18th in the championship standings. Busch struggled with his handling throughout Circuit of The Americas and then suffered an equipment failure at Richmond that saw him spend a large chunk of the early parts of the race in the garage. He and the No. 1 team, along with teammate Bubba Wallace, have had a dismal two weeks and need to find a way to stop the bleeding in a hurry.
This week, the National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld an L2 penalty assessed to Brad Keselowski and RFK Racing following a post-race inspection at Phoenix Raceway. Friday, Keselowski detailed the violation that led to the deduction of 100 driver points, 100 owner points, 10 playoff points, and included a $100,000 fine and four-race suspension for crew chief Matt McCall.
“We had repaired a tail panel and it had a key feature that NASCAR deemed was not repaired adequately enough, and it’s a tough situation,” Keselowski explained Friday at Martinsville. “We didn’t want to run the tail panel. We didn’t have any new tail panels to put on the car. We had a tail panel with three races on it and we did some repairs to it. We probably could have done a better job on the repair and we put NASCAR in a tough spot. It’s kind of like a trickle-down effect. I wish we had, quite frankly, done a better job repairing it, but we can’t go back on it. I understand NASCAR’s position on it. It’s kind of one of those things where everybody is right and everybody is wrong at the same time. Ultimately, we’ll have to learn to be better for it.”
Brandon Jones utilized a last-lap pass in Friday night's (Xfinity Series race to score his first win since 2020. In a race that was delayed by a brief rain shower, slowed by 16 cautions, and saw two overtime attempts end in a fistfight on pit road, Jones led just 28 laps while a dominant Ty Gibbs, who paced the field for 197 of 261 circuits ended up eighth.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Races since Chase Elliott has led the Cup Series field to the green flag. He snagged his 10th career pole and his first at Martinsville Speedway Friday afternoon.
Different winners in seven races this season. It's a bit of 2021 deja vu as the season opened the same way last year. Martin Truex Jr. broke that streak with a win at Martinsville that marked his second victory of the season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Martin Truex Jr. seems like a no-brainer in this category with wins in three of the last five races at Martinsville. Last season, he was the first driver to score two wins with a victory in this race. And he starts deep in the field, making him a solid choice for place differential points.
Polesitter Chase Elliott may not be a great decision when it comes to place differential points, but since he's starting on the pole and was one of the two drivers to win when Truex didn't over the last five events, he's a solid bet for your fantasy lineup. He posted the quickest single lap in practice and was fourth overall in 10-lap averages too.
After scoring three straight top 10s to open the 2022 season, Aric Almirola fell off the pace a little and has just one top 15 in the four races since. But he narrowly missed putting the No. 10 Ford on the pole and boasts two top 10s in his last three starts at Martinsville.
While he didn't qualify terribly well (22nd), with the exception of a crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Tyler Reddick has finished inside the top 15 in four of the last five races. He's already shown he's got the speed to compete on race day, something Richard Childress Racing has been lacking overall in recent years. And the right strategy combined with Reddick's ability to drive on the edge of control should prove a solid combination for Martinsville.
For the second time in three races, Cole Custer will start third and while he's had a bit of a rough season with six finishes outside the top 15, Stewart Haas Racing is beginning to show some small signs of life. After a slow start, the organization put two of its drivers inside the top 11 last weekend and Kevin Harvick showed the kind of speed he hasn't for much of 2022.
Last weekend at Richmond, AJ Allmendinger's No. 16 failed inspection three times, resulting in a penalty to be served this week that included not being allowed to run in qualifying at Martinsville. He'll have to serve a pass-through penalty when the race begins but given the frequency of yellows in short track races, it's reasonable to believe he'll be able to get back on the lead lap. Plus, he has nowhere to go but up in the running order, leading to automatic position differential points.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has Martin Truex Jr. sitting at +550 to lead the way at Martinsville Speedway with polesitter Chase Elliott hot on his heels at +700. Last week's winner Denny Hamlin sits at +900 along with current points leader Ryan Blaney.
What I Think
I'm going with the Vegas odds this week. Martin Truex Jr. has won three of the last five races run at Martinsville. He's on a hot streak right now after scoring his third straight top-10 finish at Richmond. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has been quietly putting together a consistent season and should make the rest of the field take notice at Martinsville.
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