The Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway kickstarts the largest portion of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series schedule. This April 10 showdown (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) is the first of 17 consecutive weekends of racing, running all the way through July 18 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
During that stretch, we'll see some of this year's surprises on the calendar, from a May debut at Circuit of the Americas road course to a June return to Nashville Superspeedway. But the sport starts with an old favorite, a track they've run on for 72 consecutive years in Martinsville Speedway.
The sport's shortest track is long on history, known for wild finishes and an iconic grandfather clock for one lucky winner. It's a paperclip-shaped oval where brakes are at a premium, along with track position as a bump-and-run might be the best way to get by a pesky car in front of you.
Last fall, Chase Elliott captured his first checkered flag at Martinsville and won the Cup championship at Phoenix Raceway one week later. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver hasn't won since, off to an uneven start in 2021 and is hoping to recapture that November magic.
But he's far from the only contender without a victory through seven races. Last year's dominant driver, Kevin Harvick, sits winless along with current points leader Denny Hamlin, 2020 Championship 4 driver Brad Keselowski and two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch. This quartet has a total of 10 Martinsville victories among them, all looking to get off the schneid in a year with quality playoff competition.
The biggest question mark for everyone is the weather. Martinsville has a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms in the forecast (the NASCAR Xfinity Series already got postponed 91 laps into Friday night's event). Will the potential for a shortened race heighten aggression with drivers like Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch starting further back? And how will crew chiefs balance setups with a possible move to Sunday afternoon in the cards?
Either way, get set for the meat of the NASCAR season to begin. Hanging in the balance is a streak of seven winners in the first seven races of 2021. Can Martinsville and its tendency for close, exciting competition continue this recent parity sweeping the sport?
Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500
Date: Saturday, April 10
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway
TV: FOX Sports 1
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Joey Logano won the inaugural Bristol Dirt Race but Hamlin continues to win the season-long war. In just seven races, his lead in the Cup standings has grown to a whopping 58 points over Logano, the only driver within striking distance.
Hamlin has put together six top-5 finishes and no result worth than 11th to start off 2021. His three stage victories are tied for the series lead with Kyle Larson, picking up valuable playoff points while an average finish of 4.7 is roughly half the total of his closest competitor.
Who's at the Back: Aric Almirola
Could the year have started any worse for this 2020 playoff driver? Almirola sits 84 points outside the top 16 after racking up his third DNF in the first seven races, crashing out in the Bristol dirt. He's without a top-10 finish and has yet to lead a lap for a Stewart-Haas Racing program that's struggling across the board.
FOX booth analyst and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon has tested positive for COVID-19. The 49-year-old Gordon claimed he had “minimal symptoms” and has been cleared to work the race at Martinsville this weekend.
Best wishes to NASCAR prospect Taylor Gray who was injured in an off-track car accident this week. Gray suffered a fractured L4 vertebra, fractured left foot and fractured left ankle in the single-car incident, sidelining him from racing for at least a couple of months. The 16-year-old driver was set to make his Camping World Truck Series debut at Richmond Raceway next weekend.
NASCAR legend Davey Allison will be honored with a special paint scheme by Joey Gase later this month at Talladega Superspeedway. The team will run the No. 28 decked out the Texaco Havoline colors made famous by Allison during the best seasons of his NASCAR career with Robert Yates Racing (1991-93).
NASCAR by the Numbers
Points-paying Cup races run at Martinsville, the second-most of any active NASCAR track on the circuit (Daytona International Speedway leads with 148).
Short track victories by Martin Truex Jr. the past two seasons after starting his career 0-for-81 at this track type.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Points leader Denny Hamlin enters the weekend red hot and overdue for some Martinsville success. Hamlin has five career victories here but hasn't won at the paperclip since 2015, suffering through some tough luck in recent years. That could easily change Saturday night with a second-place starting spot at a Martinsville oval which rewards track position.
Chase Elliott won the last Martinsville race held here last November and is looking for a boost after a winless start to 2021. Three top-5 finishes in the last four races here make him worth the expensive add to your roster.
Kurt Busch is the type of mid-tier driver who wins you money on daily fantasy rosters. He hasn't won a race here since 2014 and led just 23 laps here the last five seasons, making him an afterthought for most people. But Busch has quietly racked up six straight top-12 finishes, including a fifth last November as this veteran knows how to be there at the end at a track that's tough on equipment.
Alex Bowman isn't known as a short-track specialist. However, back-to-back sixth-place finishes make him a good value buy for Martinsville. Hendrick Motorsports always runs well at this track historically, winning 25 times here, and Bowman could benefit from teammate Elliott's speedy setup from last fall.
Erik Jones has just a pedestrian 20.4 career average finish at Martinsville. So why pick him for small-time Richard Petty Motorsports? He's overachieved thus far this season in the No. 43, posting two top-10 finishes including a season-best ninth on the Bristol dirt. Martinsville is a track RPM can excel at, running 11th with Bubba Wallace last June.
Ryan Preece remains uncertain of his schedule with the No. 37 of JTG-Daugherty Racing. That makes every race an audition and Martinsville is a great place to add to the resume: he's got three top-20 finishes in his last four starts, including a surprise 19th last November in a nightmarish year.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the pack with 11/2 odds to win at Martinsville according to vegasinsider.com. Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski follow close behind at 6/1 while Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano sit at 7/1.
If you really, really believe in Erik Jones, the longshot is sitting pretty at 100/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin starts tilting wins back toward the heavyweights after a Cinderella start to 2021. He captures his sixth career Martinsville grandfather clock and becomes the eighth different winner in eight races this year.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.