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 qualifying and the race will both take place on Sunday, with practice on Saturday. With the tight schedule on race day, qualifying from Kansas set the pit road picking order, so Martin Truex, Jr. will have an extra advantage, while a driver like Ryan Blaney, who had to start at the back of the pack last week, will have his work cut out for him on pit road Sunday.
With the late start time (3:00 pm ET), Martinsville’s new lights will likely make their Cup Series debut if the trend of long races continues and the race gets pushed beyond sundown.
By the Numbers
What: First Data 500, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 33 of 36
Where: Martinsville Speedway – Martinsville, Virginia (Opened: 1947)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 3:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90
Track Size: 0.526 mile oval (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
April 2017 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started fourth, 116 laps led)
October 2016 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (Started third, 92 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 – 116.9 (9 wins)
- Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 106.6 (5 wins)
- Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 101.3 (1 win)
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 97.8 (1 win)
- Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 93.7 (1 win)
- Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 93.4 (1 win)
- Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 91.3 (Best finish: 2nd)
- Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 89.0 (Best finish: 2nd)
- Clint Bowyer – No. 14 Ford – 88.7 (Best finish: 2nd)
- Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 86.2 (1 win)
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings:
- Martin Truex, Jr. – 4069 points
- Kyle Busch (-27)
- Brad Keselowski (-43)
- Kevin Harvick (-52)
- Jimmie Johnson (-52)
- Denny Hamlin (-55)
- Ryan Blaney (-60)
- Chase Elliott (-63)
From the Driver’s Seat
“To me, the toughest part about Martinsville is you just never have a moment to breathe,” said Kurt Busch. “You have to be on your game nonstop for 500 laps because somebody’s on you, or you are on top of somebody the whole time, and there’s just no room for error.
“Track position is everything, everywhere, but at Martinsville it is just so easy to lose it. It doesn’t take much to find yourself going backward, whether it’s a situation with someone bumping you out of the way or you get too high on the track and up in the marbles. Then, deal with what that does to the tires and, boom, next thing you know, you may have had a 10th-place car and now you are 18th. It’s a goal all day to work your way forward and then just to have smooth pit stops to carry you through those midpoints of the race. Then, at the end, when everything is on the line, you have to be aggressive and you can’t be afraid to use the fenders on people to get that solid finish.”
Last Time at Martinsville
For 15 years, Ford had been missing a grandfather clock on their trophy case as they hadn’t won at Martinsville since 2002, but in April’s STP 500 on the half-mile track, Brad Keselowski broke their winless streak, bringing the Blue Oval back to victory lane.
Keselowski and Kyle Busch were the class of the field throughout the day, with the two continuously swapping the lead over the final 95 laps, but it was Keselowski that got the upper hand shortly after the final restart to pull away for the win, beating Busch to the finish line by 1.806 seconds.
Chase Elliott finished third, followed by Joey Logano in fourth and Austin Dillon in fifth.
“This is awesome,” said Keselowski. “We’ve ran so good here with the Miller Lite Ford, but something always happens and we haven’t been able to bring it home. Martinsville is just one of those champion’s tracks. The guys that run well everywhere run well here, and it’s really just an honor to win here and get to compete here. This track is 70 years old and a lot of legends have won here. It feels great to be able to join them and bring home a clock. A lot of people don’t know this, but those clocks are built in my hometown in Rochester Hills, Michigan, so it’s cool to get one of them from back home. I have one as a truck owner, but not as a driver, so I’m glad to bring one back as a driver.
“But probably more than anything else I’m really proud, you hear it all the time about the boys back at the shop, but Team Penske has put so much effort in these Martinsville cars the last three or four years because we knew it was one of our weakest tracks, and finally we got the result they deserve. Thank you guys, so much. And thank you to the fans. There’s a lot more people these last few weeks wearing 2 gear and it’s really cool to see. I’d like to say thank you to them that are watching at home and in the stands. It’s an amazing day.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Saturday, October 28
- MENCS Practice (11:30 am to 12:20 pm – No TV, NBC Sports App)
- MENCS Final Practice (4:00 pm to 4:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
Sunday, October 29
- MENCS Qualifying (12:05 pm – NBC Sports Network)
- MENCS First Data 500 at Martinsville (3:00 pm – 500 laps, 263 laps – NBC Sports Network)