By David Morgan, Associate Editor
After a weekend away for the first break of the 2021 season, the NASCAR Cup Series gets back to business Saturday night with a trip to southern Virginia for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
A mainstay on the schedule since 1949, the historic half-mile, which is also the smallest on the circuit, will test both man and machine over 500 grueling laps. As has been the case for the last year and a half, no practice, no qualifying, just line up and turn ‘em loose.
With Martinsville serving as the final race before the championship, any lessons learned here will go a long way in helping boost someone into the season finale with a shot at the title.
Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, who have had their own recent run-ins at Martinsville, will start on the front row, with William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski rounding out the top-10.
By the Numbers
What: Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 8 of 36
Where: Martinsville Speedway – Martinsville, Virginia (Opened: 1947)
When: Saturday, April 10
TV/Radio: FOX Sports 1, 7:30 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 0.526-mile oval
Banking: Turns banked 12 degrees, flat straightaways
Race Length: 500 laps, 263 miles
Stage Lengths: First two stages: 130 laps each, Final stage: 240 laps
Pit Road Speed: 30 mph
Pace Car Speed: 35 mph
June 2020 Race Winner: Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Toyota (Started fifth, 132 laps led)
November 2020 Race Winner: Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet (Started eighth, 236 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (18.898 seconds, 100.201 mph – March 28, 2014)
Top-10 Driver Ratings at Martinsville:
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 105.0
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 102.7
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Team Penske Ford – 99.8
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 98.5
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 97.3
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 95.3
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 93.8
- Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 84.4
- Ryan Newman – No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford – 83.8
- Kurt Busch – No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet – 82.0
From the Driver’s Seat
“If Martinsville were a golf course, it would be a 50-hole golf course,” said Brad Keselowski. “It’s a 500-lap race, so you get behind early there is plenty of opportunities to catch up, and even to expand upon that with the advent of the wave arounds and the lucky dogs and stages it’s never been easier to catch up from behind in NASCAR, so I think having the mental strength and capacity to acknowledge that, work through it and play that to your advantage is super important. Not everybody has it, but the best do and they’re able to succeed.
“It’s a track that requires a lot of confidence. You find a technique that works and you stick with it, but those techniques only work when you have a car that’s good enough. What ultimately happens a lot at Martinsville is you get a technique, you get a good car and you get in a rhythm and someone starts to dominate and vice versa. If you never find that technique and you never have a car that works well, you get lost.”
Last Time at Martinsville
Coming into Martinsville in a must-win position last fall, some 25 points below the cut-off line, Chase Elliott drove the race of his life to punch his ticket into the championship race, and eventually on to his first Cup Series title.
Leading a race-high 236 laps, Elliott took over the top spot for good with 43 laps to go when Martin Truex Jr began fading due to a loose wheel shortly after the final restart. From then on, it was smooth sailing for the Hendrick Motorsports driver as he pulled away to a 6.577 second margin of victory over Ryan Blaney.
Following Elliott and Blaney would be the Team Penske duo of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, with Kurt Busch rounding out the top-five.
“Oh, my gosh. This is the biggest win ever for us,” Elliott said. “I’m just so proud to be able to be backed into a corner like that and have to win tonight. I feel like that’s what we’ve been missing these past four or five years and perform when we don’t have a choice. And, to do that tonight; we couldn’t ask for a better night.
“This is unreal. Thanks to the fans for coming out. They’re here and I love to see it! I’ve just got to catch my breath. This is just unbelievable. We’re going to Phoenix with a shot to win a championship and have a beautiful blue NAPA Camaro headed out there with a shot to win a title. What more could you ask for?”
Behind Elliott’s drive to the win, drama was playing out for the final spot in the Championship 4 still on the line. Kevin Harvick, who had won nine races on the year, was in the thick of a tight points battle between himself, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin to see who would be moving on to Phoenix with their championship hopes still alive.
A lackluster race at Texas the week prior put Harvick in the precarious position he found himself in at Martinsville, with the myriad of issues the team faced at the half-mile only compounding the situation.
Struggling with handling issues throughout the first two stages, things went from bad to worse for the No. 4 team when a flat left rear tire sent Harvick to pit road on lap 183, which dropped him two laps down to the leaders.
Despite the hole he found himself in, Harvick eventually got back onto the lead lap with 100 laps to go in the race and set his sights on making up the ground he had lost. However, the car just didn’t have the necessary speed to be able to challenge the way he wanted to and it became a game of inches between himself, Hamlin and Keselowski to see which of the three would be on the outside looking in at the end of the day.
Harvick managed to climb all the way to 11th with Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch ahead of him and only one point separating him from being one of the four drivers competing for a championship.
In a last-ditch effort to make it in, Harvick charged into the final set of corners, making contact with Busch in the process. The move was a swing and a miss as Busch was able to maintain control of his car and finish 10th, while Harvick spun himself out and came to rest against the inside wall on the frontstretch.
Ultimately, all the wins and points Harvick racked up along the way as the regular season champion weren’t enough to keep him off the chopping block.
He took the loss in stride, electing to focus on the success his team had in 2020 rather than the gut punch of winning so many races, but not being able to go for another championship.
“We won nine races, had a great year, and, like I said, the championship is kind of a bonus,” Harvick said. “It would be great to win it, obviously, but I’d rather go through the year and win races and do the things that we did. “These championships aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them. You have to put them together three weeks at a time and it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and came up short.”