Weekend Preview: Martinsville Speedway

Hamlin leads NASCAR Cup Series to Martinsville

There are seven different race winners in the seven-week-old NASCAR Cup Series season and plenty of reason to believe that trend of 2022 first timers continues in Saturday night’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Last week for the first time since he won the 2021 Las Vegas Playoff race,  41-year-old Denny Hamlin hoisted a trophy, snapping a streak of 12 consecutive wins by drivers under the age of 30 and also putting the perennial championship contender Hamlin back on course after a rocky start to the season.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota shows up at the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway as the winningest active driver (five wins) at the half-mile track – and easily one of the most motivated after an uncharacteristically slow start to the year. His win at Richmond, Va. last Sunday marks his only top-10 this season to date.

There is a robust list of traditional annual race winners – from Hamlin’s JGR teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch to former series champions Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick – still vying for that first 2022 victory. And there’s plenty of reason to make any of them a favorite for this weekend’s race – officially shortened from the historical 500-laps (to a scheduled 400-laps) for the first time in 50 years.

Truex, driver of the No. 19 JGR Toyota, has three wins in the last five Martinsville races and is the defending Spring race winner – taking the victory by a full 1.9-seconds over Elliott and Hamlin last March – despite Hamlin’s race best 276 laps out front.

Elliott won in 2020, Logano in 2018 and both brothers Kyle (twice) and Kurt Busch (once) have victories at Martinsville as well.

As with Hamlin, William Byron, who led late at Richmond (Va.) Raceway last week but was overtaken in the final laps, finished top-five in both Martinsville races last year.  Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Elliott also finished among the top-five in both 2021 races. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet’s laps led total (525) in the last three races (including his 2020 Fall victory) is most in the series. There is plenty of extra mental motivation as well. Elliott, who has advanced to the last two championship Final Fours, is the only member of the four-driver Hendrick team without a win so far this year.

Neither Elliott nor Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney has won this season, however the pair currently are tied atop the championship standings by 19-points over Truex. Blaney has won a season best three pole positions – including the last two – and led a series best 334 laps but a pair of fourth place finishes (at Daytona and Phoenix) are his best showings.

The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford is looking for his first win at Martinsville, although he has an impressive six top-10 and five top-five finishes in 12 career starts – including runner-up showings in both 2020 races. He was 11th in both races last year – leading 157 laps in this Spring race.

Kyle Busch, who finished runner-up to Bowman in last Fall’s race, is another driver with past Martinsville success ready to get in the win column this year. He has a pair of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wins as well as his two NASCAR Cup Series trophies. He has only a single top-five finish – fourth place at Las Vegas – and has led more than on lap only time in the last four races. Martinsville, no doubt, presents itself as a game-changer for Busch as well.

“There are all kinds of different ways Martinsville has always put on really good and exciting racing and we’ll see how things look with the new car and trying to adapt as best we can,’’ Busch said. 


Xfinity Series drivers hungry for a Martinsville trophy

In many ways it’s hard to believe the NASCAR Xfinity Series season is only seven weeks old with drivers already making strong championship bids and week after week of dramatic last lap action.

Friday’s Call 811 Before You Dig 250 at the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the first night-time short track offering of the year and adding to that excitement, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be on the starting grid.

Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team driver Josh Berry earned his first career victory in this race last year – holding off teammate Noah Gragson by .590-seconds. Gragson answered with a victory in the Fall race.

This season, the Xfinity Series will only race once in Martinsville adding a sense of urgency for those hoping to earn one of the sport’s most renowned trophies – a grandfather clock.

Veteran A.J. Allmendinger holds a 20-point lead over fellow 2022 race winners, Ty Gibbs and Gragson. The margin in the standings is dramatically different afterward with the defending race winner Barry 76 points back in fourth place and Justin Allgaier 87 points off in fifth place.

This race is the second round of Xfinity’s Dash 4 Cash incentive program with last week’s race winner Gibbs, Allmendinger, Sam Mayer and Riley Herbst eligible for the $100,000. The top finisher Friday night among these four drivers will take home the big check and the top four finishing – and eligible – drivers in the Martinsville race will be eligible for the Dash 4 Cash payout next week at Bristol, Tenn.

Martinsville is an interesting venue for the Xfinity Series. There have been only three series races held at the venerable track since 2006 – the two last year and one in 2020 won by current NASCAR Cup Series rookie Harrison Burton. There may not be a long list of former winners in the field, but there are a lot of motivated racers.

Gragson, 23, who won at Phoenix and has five top-five finishes in seven races this year, has to be considered the favorite at Martinsville. In three races, the driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has finished third, second and first and is coming off a dominant showing in the Fall leading 152 of 257 laps en route to that win.

Gibbs, 19, is coming off a dramatic win at Richmond, Va. last week, going door-to-door bumper-on-bumper with his teammate John Hunter Nemechek to take a series best third win of 2021. He led 114 laps, but it was an aggressive last lap move to get around Nemechek that landed the young star the big trophy. Three of this four top-10 finishes in 2022 have been wins. He has finishes of fourth and 27th in two Martinsville races.

The points-leader Allmendinger’s best Richmond finish is seventh last Fall, but the only time the driver of the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet has led laps at Martinsville were in that 2020 Fall race when he finished 26th. He was 13th and seventh in the two races last year.

Berry, 31, who is keeping the championship leaders in sight, has three top-five finishes this season in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, rebounding from a pair of disappointing showings at Atlanta (33rd) and Circuit of the Americas (27th) with a seventh place at Richmond last week.

Certainly, the eyes and hearts of fans will be on the sport’s perennially Most Popular Driver, Earnhardt, who will be driving his JRM team’s No. 88 Chevrolet. The 47-year old’s last NASCAR race was a one-off, 14th place finish at Richmond last year. The last time he raced at Martinsville was his 2017 final NASCAR Cup Series season. He earned a NASCAR Cup Series victory there in 2014 and had 18 top-10 finishes in 35 series starts.


Truck Series goes short track racing

Zane Smith not only boasts a season best two race victories in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this season but arrives at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for Thursday night’s Blu-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 200 (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the most recent winner at the famed half-mile track.

And even with those confidence-building credentials, the driver of the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford can expect a busy night on track. There are six former winners in the field, including Martinsville’s all-time truck series best Johnny Sauter, who has four race wins. This will mark the former series champion’s first race this season since a 34th place finish in the Daytona season-opener

Another former series champion Matt Crafton brings a pair of wins as does Kyle Busch, who will drive his team’s No. 51 Toyota this week. Grant Enfinger (2020),  and John Hunter Nemechek (2018) join Smith as the other former race winners.

The 24-year-old Nemechek, last year’s regular season champion, could stand a good dose of Martinsville magic. After an uncharacteristically rough start to the 2022 season – three finishes of 24th or worse in the opening three races – Nemechek finished runner-up in the most recent race at Austin and is a former winner at Martinsville with a pair of runner-up efforts at the half-miler as well.

Chandler Smith, who earned a career first victory at Las Vegas last month, holds a 15-point advantage atop the championship standings over reigning series champ Ben Rhodes. Stewart Friesen is 23 points back and Smith and Tanner Gray are tied, 31 points off the lead.  Last year’s regular season champion, Nemechek, is ranked eighth – with only a single top-10 in a slower-than-usual season start.

This season, the truck series will only race at Martinsville this Spring weekend instead of the traditional Fall date. And it marks the first true short track event of 2022. More typically, Martinsville is a high-contact venue, but drivers say they aren’t necessarily sure how the new early-stop on the schedule will play out.

“I don’t know how it will be this year,’’ Smith said. “Martinsville is always crazy, but I feel like we’ve seen the past few years that it’s been the transfer race to get to the Final Four, so I feel like that really made the aggression level really high there at the time. Going back and watching film of the night race in 2020, it was ugly how aggressive it got and that was my first time ever at Martinsville, so I was little gun-shy, but I was in a must-win situation last year and we pulled it off.

“I just feel like that place has been good to me and it fits me and I always look forward to Martinsville week.’’