Photo: Logan T. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: NOCO 400 at Martinsville Preview

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

After playing in the dirt last weekend, it’s back to the asphalt this weekend as the NASCAR Cup Series gets set for Sunday’s running of the NOCO 400 at Martinsville

A mainstay on the schedule since 1949, the historic half-mile in southern Virginia, which is also the smallest on the circuit, will test both man and machine over the course of the afternoon and is a place where bent sheet metal and hurt feelings are all but inevitable.

Given that Martinsville serves as the final race prior to the championship race at Phoenix, any lessons learned this weekend will go a long way in helping those still in the title fight when the series returns in November.

The weekend will also see Chase Elliott back behind the wheel of his No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time in six weeks after recovering from a leg injury suffered in a snowboarding accident in early March.

“I think it’s going to be tough,” Elliott said.” What challenges are going to be presented this weekend, I don’t 100% know until I get there and kind of get going through it. But anytime you miss a period and your competitors are sharpening their skills and you’re not – I do think you’ve missed out, for sure.

“The good news is – as Josh (Berry) alluded to – our team is really talented and we have a great group. I think if we have our ducks in a row and we’re prepared, I think we can go and jump in and have a really solid run. That’s obviously my goal. We’ll just have to get up there and see what the challenges are and what they bring.

“Whatever it is, we’re going to work through it and continue to fight; make the most of not only this weekend, but the weeks to come. We’re going to have 17 races or so to get a win, so we’ve got plenty of time. Just have to get after it, execute at a high level and I think we’re very capable of doing that.”

By the Numbers

What: NOCO 400, NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 9 of 36

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

When: April 16, 2023

TV/Radio: FOX Sports 1, 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

April 2022 Race Winner: William Byron – No. 24 Chevrolet (Started fifth, 212 laps led)

November 2022 Race Winner: Christopher Bell – No. 20 Toyota (Started 20th, 150 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. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 104.6
  2. Chase Elliott – No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 102.2
  3. Kyle Busch – No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet – 100.3
  4. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Team Penske Ford – 99.9
  5. Brad Keselowski – No. 6 Roush Fenway Keselowski Ford – 98.2
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Team Penske Ford – 97.5
  7. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing Ford – 92.3
  8. William Byron – No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – 89.2
  9. Christopher Bell – No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 87.4
  10. Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – 85.3

From the Driver’s Seat

“It’s just a challenging racetrack,” said Kevin Harvick. “Martinsville can eat you up pretty quickly with somebody else’s mistake, or you can get behind pretty quickly. You just have to be able to be aggressive without getting your stuff torn up. If something’s not right, it’ll put you behind in a hurry.”

Last Time at Martinsville

Christopher Bell became the king of the walk-off wins in the 2022 Playoffs, winning at Charlotte to secure a berth in the Round of 8 and then doing the same at Martinsville to lock down his place in the Championship 4.

“Mom and Dad, we did it, wow. I can’t believe it, man,” Bell said of his victory. “To come here in Martinsville, this place has always been so tough on me. Just pre-race looking up, seeing all the fans, this place is packed.

“I don’t even know what to say. Just thank you so much to DeWalt, Rheem, Toyota, everyone on this Joe Gibbs Racing 20 team. They believed in me since day one.

“We went to Xfinity and did pretty well, struggled on the Cup side for the first little bit. They stayed with me. Very appreciative to be here. I don’t even know what to say.”

While Bell was the race winner, the spotlight was on Ross Chastain after the race following the “Hail Melon” move he pulled off to sneak into the Championship 4.

Using a move that multitudes of NASCAR video game players have used over the years, Chastain kept his foot to the floor on the final lap, purposefully driving his No. 1 Chevrolet into the Turn 3 wall and keeping it there to advance past Denny Hamlin and take the final transfer spot into the Championship 4.

Chastain came into the day with a 19-point advantage over the cut-off line, but in the closing stages of the race, with must-win drivers in the lead, it came down to a battle between the old rivals to see who would claim the final spot on points.

Though Hamlin had the track position advantage over Chastain on the final lap and appeared to be poised to move onto Phoenix for another run at the championship, the wild card of Chastain’s last lap move was something no one expected to see and ultimately left Hamlin on the outside looking in.

“Played a lot of NASCAR 2005 on the game cube with Chad growing up,” Chastain said of the inspiration for his last lap move. “You can get away with it. I never knew if it would actually work.

“I mean, I did that when I was eight years old. I grabbed fifth gear, asked off of two on the last lap if we needed it, and we did. I couldn’t tell who was leading. I made the choice, grabbed fifth gear down the back. Full committed. Basically let go of the wheel, hoping I didn’t catch the turn four access gate or something crazy. But I was willing to do it.”

However, don’t expect to see a repeat of it this weekend as NASCAR outlawed the move over the offseason, making Chastain’s move truly one of a kind.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

  • Saturday, April 15
    • NASCAR Cup Series Practice (4:35 pm – FOX Sports 2)
    • NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying (5:20 pm – FOX Sports 2)
  • Sunday, April 16
    • NOCO 400 at Martinsville (3:00 pm – 500 laps, 263 miles – FOX Sports 1)

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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.