Rick Hendrick casts a long shadow when he exits the tunnel under Turn Four and enters the infield of Martinsville Speedway. His thoroughbred short-track machines have claimed 24 victories, 17 poles and a staggering 78 top-five finishes in 223 races on the half mile.
Success in the STP 500 on March 25, then, is something that his drivers expect. The fact that Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron are yet to visit Victory Lane in a regular season race in 2018 brings no added pressure, they said.
Bowman, who has taken the reigns of the No. 88, said that he enjoyed his previous four trips to Martinsville and is excited at the prospect of driving a Hendrick car there.
“Going to Martinsville with Hendrick Motorsports is going to be a great time. They always seem to bring really fast racecars there and it’s one of my favorite racetracks to go to,” Bowman said. “There’s really not a whole lot of pressure taking over the 88 car. I’m just ready to go enjoy it, have as much fun as I can and hopefully win some races along the way.”
Jimmie Johnson made Martinsville his personal playground early in his career and he said the positive memories of nine wins at the historic facility give him confidence heading into the first short-track race of 2018.
“I have nothing but great thoughts for Martinsville,” Johnson said. “For me I just love that little racetrack. Martinsville has been a great place for me.”
In regards to his younger teammates, however, Johnson said patience is the key at a unique track like Martinsville.
“It took me a while to figure it out,” Johnson said of the driving style at Martinsville. “We’re not that slow through the center of the corner anywhere we go. There is just a rhythm and a feel and even a look to the way that our cars go around that track and the way we complete laps (that is unique).”
Chase Elliott is in the midst of that learning process and nearly capped it off with a win in the fall of 2017 before a late-race incident with Denny Hamlin saw his hopes of his first grandfather clock trophy fall by the wayside.
“Martinsville was my first start so it’s kind of always going to be a special place,” Elliott said. “There’s been a lot of things that have happened since then, obviously, at the track. But your first of anything is always special. We didn’t have a very good run that day, but it was still my first and I would love to have a great run there. It was my first Cup start and hasn’t been my best track so I would love to figure it out.”
Byron, on the other hand, will be making his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Martinsville on March 25, something he said does come with a little pressure, adding that a fast race car can erase that pressure in an instant.
“It’s definitely a little bit of pressure. They (Hendrick Motorsports) have been so good at Martinsville for so long,” Byron said. “That’s a racetrack you circle on your calendar to hopefully have success at and I feel like we’re going to be capable of doing that this year.”
The Charlotte, NC native noted that Martinsville has a special place in his young career as he drove in Late Model Stock Car and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races there on his way to the Cup series.
“Martinsville has always been special to me. It’s where I went to my first Cup race and it’s also where I got to race a Late Model and do a lot of different races,” Byron said. “It’s always special to me and I think it’s going to be one of those places that you always look forward to and hopefully, one day, I can get one of those clocks.”
As for Johnson, it isn’t just a place he enjoys driving, but a track he recommends people attend in person.
“Because of the history of the track, the connection to history when you experience it first hand, and the tradition of the trophy, I have an experience when I race there that feels like I could be racing in the 50’s or 60’s,” Johnson said. “It has that feel and that intensity to it…it really is a track that I suggest all my friends go to. When people ask me what track to visit, I tell them that they won’t find a more intimate and cool track to experience than Martinsville.”
The STP 500 weekend presented by whosyourdriver.org is March 23-25.
Advance ticket prices for the STP 500 begin at just $46 with youth tickets for fans 17-and-under costing just $25 regardless of location. Youth 17-and-under will be admitted free to the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race as well as Friday’s practice day.
The weekend starts with a practice day for the truck series on Friday, followed by the Hauler Parade.
On Saturday, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is in action with the Alpha Energy Solutions 250. Following the race the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will qualify for Sunday’s STP 500.
The STP 500 is the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race on the East Coast, after the “West Coast Swing” and the first short-track race of the season. Last year, Brad Keselowski won the race, becoming the first driver to win in a Ford at Martinsville since 2002.
Tickets to both races are on sale and may be purchased by calling 877.RACE.TIX or online at www.martinsvillespeedway.com.
Martinsville Speedway PR