Joey Logano returns to the track that changed the course of his career Sunday for the 2019 STP 500. Martinsville Speedway provided the mayhem that would propel him to win a series championship.
No one was thinking Logano back then as the laps wound down here during the race last fall. NASCAR’s Big Three of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick had dominated the season to that point. The trio were widely expected to make NASCAR’s championship finale a private battle among themselves.
But four drivers enter that race with an equal shot at the title, leaving one open slot for an underdog. Logano seized the moment, leading 40 of the final 41 laps of the Martinsville race to earn a spot. And when Truex passed him, edging in front for the white flag lap Logano responded by simply knocking him out of the way. The dreaded bump-and-run on Truex left him defenseless, sitting there fuming while the Team Penske driver sat in Victory Lane.
“That’s NASCAR racing,” Logano said then. “That’s what the grassroots are. That’s what fans come here to see.”
“He won the battle,” Truex responded. “But he didn’t win the damn war.”
Except... Logano did exactly that. The win afforded him an automatic entry in that Homestead-Miami Speedway finale; he needed it after mechanical problems at Phoenix later that season. Once there, Logano’s No. 22 promptly upended Truex, Busch and Harvick to win his first career NASCAR championship at age 28.
The reigning champ has been pushed under the radar this season in a wave of Kyle Busch Victory Lane appearances. But there’s no reason to think Logano can’t do it again in 2019, a year shaping up to be a battle amongst his Penske Ford outfit, Stewart-Haas Racing Fords, and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. He won the pole for this race and has already won this season, his Las Vegas victory securing a postseason bid.
Logano isn’t flashy off the track. But he’s aggressive on it, a trait that served him well last fall much to Truex’s chagrin. Just don’t count out one of his main rivals, now running for JGR after Furniture Row Racing shut down in November. Truex was fast in practice this weekend, starts ninth and remains hungry for the first short track win of his NASCAR career. It’s a bucket list item, perhaps the final one on a checklist that might land him in the sport’s Hall of Fame.
Will Sunday be the moment we see the two battle once again?
Time: 2 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Martinsville Speedway (Martinsville, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Forget 200. Busch already has 201 NASCAR victories in the sport’s top three series after capturing yesterday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Martinsville. He’s now won seven times this year in 11 starts across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. It’s an absurd winning percentage of 63.6% that’s left everyone simply scratching their heads on how to beat him.
Who’s at the Back: Daniel Hemric
Hemric has shown plenty of promise during his rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. He was in the mix during Daytona Speedweeks and ran inside the top 5 at Atlanta the following week before a tire issue.
It’s just the freshman, like most first-year drivers, has yet to deliver on results. He’s 0-for-5 so far on even top-15 finishes, failing to capitalize on strong qualifying efforts. RCR as a whole is struggling (Austin Dillon is out of playoff position) but at some point, they’ll need Hemric to start closing.
Angela Ruch is increasing her Gander Outdoors Truck Series schedule. Ruch, who raised eyebrows with a top-10 finish at Daytona, will run a 12-race schedule with Niece Motorsports later this year. Ruch is also starring in a TV docu-series called The Ruch Life, out later this spring focused on how she balances racing life and home life. Ruch and her husband recently adopted a child.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Of Kyle Busch’s 201 wins that are from the Cup Series. He has 54 Truck Series wins and a whopping 94 in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series.
Chevrolets inside the top five spots in Martinsville qualifying. William Byron (sixth) was their best effort and now he’ll have to start Sunday’s race from the rear after failing NASCAR inspection. The manufacturer has yet to win a race in Cup this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Certainly, Martin Truex Jr.-Joey Logano and their feud should be at the top of your list. It’s also hard to ignore Kyle Busch based on his recent tear through the NASCAR lineup. But if you’re looking for a true alternative here, how about Denny Hamlin?
Hamlin was a quiet second in last fall’s battle, nearly stealing the victory when Logano-Truex made contact in front of him. His five wins at Martinsville are the most for him at any track. And he’s led laps in eight of his last nine starts here, racking up important bonus points for your roster. He might not win the race but this year’s Daytona 500 winner is a sure bet for a top-five finish.
Aric Almirola has a streak of five straight top-20 Martinsville finishes. He’s poised to do far better than that after the best qualifying effort (second) of his career at this track. Teammate Clint Bowyer may be the race’s defending champion but Almirola enters the weekend with more momentum.
In a year where Alex Bowman has stayed under the radar, part of Chevrolet’s recent struggles you might want to take a look at him here. Bowman used short track success to sneak into the postseason last year and while Martinsville wasn’t his best track, runs of seventh and 17th showed he can stay out of trouble. Don’t expect any laps led but a 15th-place, survival-type run would boost your roster.
Rookie Ryan Preece steps into a car this weekend at Martinsville that was a top-10 effort almost every time out here with AJ Allmendinger. He’s qualified 16th and is due for a good run after a flurry of rookie mistakes since his scintillating Daytona Speedweeks debut with the team.
Ross Chastain is a bit of a longshot despite a top-10 effort as recently as Daytona. But the slow speeds of Martinsville can leave underdogs like his Premium Motorsports outfit capable of competing. Chastain, who starts 31st Sunday, also had a strong run in the Truck race before ultimately capitulating to Kyle Busch.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has 9/5 odds to win Sunday’s race, not surprising considering his recent burst of momentum. Brad Keselowski is next up at 9/2.
What I Think
I’ll go with Martin Truex Jr. to finally get over the hump and win the first short track race of his career. There will be no bump-and-run finish this time.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.