Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: First Data 500 at Martinsville Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

After a trip out to America’s Heartland, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back east this weekend and straight to the final short track race of the season, with Sunday’s running of the First Data 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.

Sunday’s race will mark the start of the three-race playoff semi-finals that will trim the eight-driver playoff field down to the final four that will fight for the title at Homestead. A good run at Martinsville will go a long way in helping a playoff driver’s fortunes down the road.

The track has basically one groove, meaning the only way to pass will be the move we all know and love – the bump and run. Of course, that type of racing leads to a lot of bent sheet metal and tempers flaring, which is always entertaining.

To be successful at Martinsville, drivers have to have a special skill set that will let them be able to navigate the treacherous track and avoid trouble that is almost certain to happen around them at some point during the race. There are those who have taken to the track and excelled and those who have trouble each and every time they visit the track.

This weekend will be another with an “enhanced schedule” as practice and qualifying will take place on Saturday, with the race on Sunday. While the start time has been pushed up a half-hour from last season, Martinsville’s lights will likely make another appearance this weekend should the race run past sunset.

By the Numbers

What: First Data 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 33 of 36

Where: Martinsville Speedway – Martinsville, Virginia (Opened: 1947)

When: October 28, 2018

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 2:30 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, Final stage: 240 laps

Pit Road Speed: 30 mph

Pace Car Speed: 35 mph

April 2018 Race Winner: Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford (Started ninth, 215 laps led)

October 2017 Race Winner: Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota (Started 14th, 184 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:

  1. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 114.6
  2. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 106.3
  3. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 103.5
  4. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 96.6
  5. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.2
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 92.4
  7. Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 91.3
  8. Matt Kenseth – No. 6 Ford – 89.2
  9. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 89.2
  10. Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 85.2

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings:

  1. Kyle Busch (+40 over cut-off)
  2. Kevin Harvick (+39)
  3. Martin Truex, Jr. (+23)
  4. Chase Elliott (+3)
  5. Clint Bowyer (-3)
  6. Joey Logano (-3)
  7. Kurt Busch (-3)
  8. Aric Almirola (-12)

From the Driver’s Seat

“Martinsville is definitely one of the more challenging places that we go to on the circuit in terms of getting your car to turn,” said Regan Smith. “Getting your car to be able to get up off of the corner, having the drive that you need and the grip with the rear tires so that you’re not spinning the rear tires are all really important factors for there.

“It’s typically a one-lane racetrack and the transitions from concrete to asphalt really present quite a challenge in terms of getting the car to grip the same over those two varied surfaces, as well as getting the car to transition across them where they have bumps into the corner.

“There are a lot of things that you have to think about and worry about when it comes to Martinsville.  There’s a curb along the bottom lane, so it’s not like other tracks where you can maybe cheat the apron just a little bit to help yourself out.  Brakes are always a severe issue there.  You really need to work on having your car rolling well so that you aren’t using too much brake as you get into the corner, which can cause bigger problems like blown tires and bead failures.

“There are a lot of things to keep in mind as we head into the weekend, but Martinsville is one of those places where if you get your car right, it can be a very fun race track.  If you can find a balance that lets you be happy with your car, it can even open up some opportunities to pass, especially on old tires.  If you manage your tires well it can really pay dividends at the end of the race.”

Last Time at Martinsville

Delayed a day due to snow, April’s race at Martinsville was well worth the wait for Clint Bowyer.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver took over the lead at lap 285 and never looked back, leading all but one of the final 216 laps of the race en route to breaking a 190-race winless streak dating back to Charlotte in Oct 2012.

The win was a culmination of Bowyer’s move to Stewart-Haas Racing following the downfall of Michael Waltrip Racing and proved that the Kansas native still had a lot of fight in him and could still get it done on the race track.

Following Bowyer to the line to round out the top-five was Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex, Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

“To come here.  This is a place where I’ve gotten so close,” said Bowyer.  “I wanted to win this grandfather clock so bad.  Brian Pattie came over.  We got so close back in 2012 and to see him and everybody – everybody on this team at Stewart-Haas Racing.  Obviously, Harvick came on strong at the end of last year, but it was a learning year for our team, the 14 bunch.  For whatever reason, it felt right driving up here.

“It’s such a cool place to be able to drive up through the countryside on a two-lane road and think about the race.  I told him this morning, I was like, ‘Dammit, we’ve got to get our picture in victory lane.’  He told me he wanted a checkered flag.

“Let me tell you something, Gene Haas, Tony Stewart, to give this old dog a fresh chance and fresh blood with a new opportunity.  Finally, to get the 14 in victory lane is just a weight off the shoulders.  It’s been a long time.  You start to question if you can get it done or not.  To have it come at this place meant a lot.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, October 27

  • MENCS Practice (9:00 am to 9:50 am – CNBC)
  • MENCS Final Practice (11:30 am to 12:20 pm – CNBC)
  • MENCS Qualifying (4:05 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, October 28

  • MENCS First Data 500 (2:30 pm – 500 laps, 263 miles – NBC Sports Network)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.