By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The Round of 8 is on.
Following a barn burner of a finish at Kansas last weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s running of the First Data 500. A win by any of the eight drivers still in contention for the title and they punch their ticket to the championship race at Homestead.
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. Just as we saw a year ago, the race on Sunday will more than likely finish under the lights, bringing the final short track race of the season to a thrilling finish.
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 27, 2019
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 3:00 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
March 2019 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started third, 446 laps led)
October 2018 Race Winner: Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford (Started 10th, 309 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:
- Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 111.5
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 106.9
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 104.4
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 99.6
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 94.3
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 94.2
- Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 91.7
- Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 91.0
- Chase Elliott – No. 9 Chevrolet – 89.7
- Ryan Newman – No. 6 Ford – 84.4
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Points Standings:
- Kyle Busch (4046 points)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (-4)
- Denny Hamlin (-9)
- Joey Logano (-16)
- Kevin Harvick (-18)
- Chase Elliott (-22)
- Kyle Larson (-35)
- Ryan Blaney (-37)
From the Driver’s Seat
“Martinsville is like no other. It’s so flat and so tight-cornered. It is truly unique to all of the tracks that we run,” said Ty Dillon.
“With the paperclip and a 180-degree turn, you are driving straight in, braking straight, and don’t have a lot of wheel in on the entry to the corner. Then you have to be able to release the brake and roll the middle pretty fast. Whereas when you go to a Richmond or a Bristol, the corners flow a little bit better. You are not doing it all in one motion. You are slowly guiding the car through the corner. At Martinsville, you have to do it all in one quick snap.”
Last Year at Martinsville
It always seems that if the spring race at Martinsville is a tame race, the playoff race in late fall is going to have some drama to go along with it and that was exactly the case last year.
With Joey Logano in the race lead in the waning laps and Martin Truex, Jr. slicing through the field like a man on a mission, the two were on a collision course, with one of them coming out on top for the win and an automatic bid to the championship finale.
Truex caught up to Logano with about 10 laps to go, as the two drivers staged a thrilling side-by-side battle for the lead and the win. With the white flag in sight, Truex was eventually able to clear Logano but the race was far from over at that point.
Still holding the lead down the backstretch having cleared Logano, Truex looked to finally have an elusive Martinsville victory in his grasp.
However, Logano had other plans, laying the bumper to Truex in Turn 3, shooting him up the race track and allowing Logano to pull alongside. The two made contact again in Turn 4, which caused Truex’s car to get sideways entering the frontstretch.
Logano pulled back ahead and beat him back to the finish, while Truex got his car gathered back up and finished third after Denny Hamlin was able to sneak by for the runner-up spot.
“I was next to him for six laps,” said Truex. “I never knocked him out of the way. We were going to race hard for it in my book. I cleared him fair and square. We weren’t even banging doors for me to pass him. He just drove into the back of me and knocked me out of the way. That’s short track racing, but what goes around comes around.
“I pretty much had the feeling going to the backstretch that that was going to happen and there was nothing I could do about it. It sucks, but that’s the way it goes. I can promise you I won’t forget what he did.”
While Truex was fuming, Logano was celebrating a redemption of sorts, winning at the track for the first time and punching his ticket to Homestead and eventually the championship.
“That was just a hard great race,” Logano said. “NASCAR racing at its finest. It was a lot of bumper banging towards the end and a hard race. You know, we didn’t wreck each other. We bumped into each other a lot and that is what this sport was built on.
“I know a lot of fans out there aren’t too happy about it but it is racing and that is what NASCAR is about and what stock car racing is. I am just glad we finally won here. It has been so long and we have had so many chances and it feels like sweet redemption after everything that has happened here.”
This year, the spring race was a relatively mundane affair as Brad Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps en route to the win, so if the trend holds, Sunday’s race should be a thrilling start to the Round of 8.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, October 26
- MENCS Practice (9:05 am to 9:55 am – CNBC)
- MENCS Final Practice (Noon to 12:50 pm – NBCSN coverage starts at 12:30 pm)
- MENCS Qualifying (4:35 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Sunday, October 27
- MENCS First Data 500 (3:00 pm – 500 laps, 263 miles – NBC Sports Network)