Martinsville makes history with its first race under the lights
This has been one of the most unusual years in recent memory, to put it mildly. We tend to get more historic moments in a week than we get over the course of a typical decade. But we shouldn't overlook what's happening Wednesday night with NASCAR's atypical short track, primetime event at Martinsville Speedway – the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500.
Martinsville's .533-mile oval is the smallest one on the circuit. It's also the only place to run a Cup race every year since the series first debuted in 1949. With 142 races already on the books here, No. 143 is arguably more historic, as it will be the first one run under the lights.
NASCAR hopes the change will supercharge competition after a very atypical 2019 here. One of the sport's best venues napped through the year with a below-average short track package that gave too much of an edge to clean air up front. Brad Keselowski set a modern-era record by leading 446 of 500 laps while cruising to victory last spring; Martin Truex Jr. beat it with 464 laps led in the fall.
A best-case scenario here has this Wednesday night showdown playing out like a B-level version of the August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That event has a flair for dramatics, with contact, bizarre crashes and photo finishes making it one of the year's can't-miss events.
Can Martinsville make up for years of lost time with a version of Denny Hamlin vs. Chase Elliott after dark? How about Martin Truex Jr. vs. Joey Logano? Or maybe Matt Kenseth and Logano will reprise their feud from years ago?
A late-race game of bumper cars will lose a little luster without tens of thousands of cheering fans in the stands. But the buzz surrounding this race is still high; it's a historic moment for a track that's seeped in it. Winning this grandfather clock trophy will feel like a crown jewel.
Three days after the sport dove headfirst into the #BlackLivesMatter conversation, NASCAR will have plenty of fresh eyes on it Wednesday night. With the hope for more midweek racing to come in 2021, they hope the finale of their three-week, May-to-June experiment can convert people casually interested in their stance against racial injustice into actual fans willing to buy a ticket once the COVID-19 pandemic recedes.
Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500
Time: 7:20 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Harvick has been exceptional since pairing with Stewart-Haas Racing at the beginning of the 2014 season. A win Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway was his 28th with SHR in six-plus years; compare that to 23 wins in 13 years with Richard Childress Racing.
Harvick has had faster starts during his career but it's hard to find a year when he's been more consistent. 10 races into the year, he has no finish worse than 11th and is the only driver to finish every lap of every race (2,931). On track for his sixth championship appearance in seven years, he has to be considered a slight favorite at this point in the 2020 title race.
Who's at the Back: William Byron
During NASCAR's COVID-19 quarantine, Byron became a breakout star in iRacing. With three wins in seven starts, it felt like the momentum would translate back into his real-life Cup ride.
Instead? It feels like Byron, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 24 team has taken a step backwards. Last week's bout with the wall at Atlanta was Byron's second wreck in the last six races, leaving him a disappointing 33rd, 12 laps down at the finish.
Now, Byron sits 17th, 20 points out of the final playoff spot, and has just two top-10 finishes to show for his 2020 season to date. Considering the speed his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have shown (two wins, eight top-5 finishes) it makes these missteps stand out even more. When is the kid compared to Jeff Gordon actually going to look like a man capable of reaching that level behind the wheel of the vaunted No. 24? We're 82 starts in at this point.
NASCAR made a clear statement of support toward the #BlackLivesMatter movement gripping the country Sunday at Atlanta. Bubba Wallace wore an "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt made highly visible during pre-race ceremonies. African-American official Kirk Price kneeled during the national anthem. Then, all competitors stopped on the frontstretch for "30 seconds of listening" during the pace laps. The festivities were capped by a special video of drivers pledging to listen and change while NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the sport’s complicated history on race.
"The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country," Phelps said. "It has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must to better. Our country must do better. The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice."
Wallace took things a step further on a Monday night CNN appearance by suggesting the sport should ban the confederate flag. "Get them out of here," he told CNN's Don Lemon. "No one should feel uncomfortable when they come to a NASCAR race."
Reaction in the NASCAR community has been more lukewarm than the #BlackLivesMatter support. On Tuesday, when asked about Wallace's comment, Joey Logano appeared to defer. "I'm not someone that's waved the Confederate flag in the past in any way," Logano said. "I'm someone that waves the American flag and I wave it proudly and I'll continue to do that."
NASCAR released a plan Tuesday that'll allow for up to 5,000 fans to attend the upcoming June 21 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway. All those in attendance will be required to wear masks while strict social distancing protocols will be required. Fans will also be barred from the infield, keeping them away from drivers while NASCAR takes small steps forward in its continued return from COVID-19.
"We have tremendous respect and appreciation for the responsibility that comes with integrating guests back into our events," Daryl Wolfe, Executive Vice President, Chief Operations and Sales Officer, NASCAR said. "The passion and unwavering support of our industry and fans is the reason we race each weekend and we look forward to slowly and responsibly welcoming them back at select events."
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led in 2020 by Clint Bowyer. That's already one more than he led through the entire 2019 season.
Average finish for Bowyer in the three races this year he's led at least one lap.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
A third-place finish for Martin Truex Jr. at Atlanta Sunday was his best this season. Can he get two spots higher and into Martinsville victory lane? It's the right time for him to harness momentum after last fall's dominant performance here. Worth the price.
Truex's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, surged to second in the closing laps at Atlanta. It was easily his best Cup Series performance of 2020 and now, he's heading to a track that's one of his most consistent historically. How reliable is Busch here? The last time he finished outside the top 15, in spring 2012, rival Chase Elliott was a junior in high school.
Jimmie Johnson hasn't gotten all the finishes he's deserved since NASCAR resumed racing during COVID-19. But Johnson, who was a strong seventh at Atlanta, has a good rhythm going with crew chief Cliff Daniels. Can he keep it rolling at a track where he's got nine career victories, the most of any active driver? Johnson has six straight finishes outside the top 10 at this track, once considered unthinkable. Chance are he's due for that luck to turn around.
Chris Buescher isn't the first name you think of as a short track specialist. But in his last three starts, he's quietly put together two top-15 finishes at a place that's not his strong suit. Roush Fenway Racing has arguably better equipment than Buescher's former employer, JTG Daugherty Racing, making Buescher a candidate for a sneaky top 10. A great, cheap option to add on your roster.
Bubba Wallace has some off-track momentum and support at his side with #BlackLivesMatter. Expect that mental boost to translate onto a racetrack where Wallace's underfunded team is on a more equal playing field. The No. 43 team earned two top-20 finishes at Martinsville last season, one of their better results overall in a trying year. Wallace's 23rd starting spot for Wednesday night also gives him some bonus points for position differential.
John Hunter Nemechek had an off week at Atlanta. First, he spun out to cause a caution; then, he spun out teammate Michael McDowell. But Martinsville offers the chance for a make-up moment. Nemechek has won here in the sport's Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series (2018) and drives for a team in Front Row Motorsports that has earned a top-10 finish here. Add in the cheap price in daily fantasy and he's a secret weapon to fill out your roster.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch led the vegasinsider.com picks at press time with 9/2 odds. Martin Truex Jr. is close behind at 11/2 followed by the race's defending winner, Brad Keselowski, at 6/1.
The best longshot pick might be short track darling and runner-up finisher at Bristol last August Matt DiBenedetto. He's sitting at 50/1.
What I Think
A history-making race like this one feels like it's tailor-made for a driver who's been getting his act together in recent weeks: Kyle Busch. Go for the favorite but don't be surprised if it's a wild, "Rowdy"-type ending that gets him to the finish line first.