- Chase Elliott grabs his first pole since Phoenix in 2020.
- Ty Gibbs leads 196 of 261 laps and loses Xfinity race in double-overtime finish.
- William Byron wins Truck race in his first start in that series since 2016.
Martinsville Speedway in Virginia has a well-earned and long-recognized reputation as a body man’s nightmare. More than at any other NASCAR track, the people who prepare cars for 400 or 500 laps at the half-mile bullring labor under the assumption their car might be in pieces when the checkedered falls.
Now, going into Saturday night’s Blue-Emu 400, drivers are talking about a race even more physical than usual. They’re blaming that – or giving credit to – the new Next Gen car and its more substantial carbon-fiber body.
Ryan Blaney, a frustrating 0-for-12 at Martinsville (but with five top-5s and six top-10s), anticipates more contact than in recent years. Drivers, he thinks, are more confident in how much abuse they can dish out without damaging their own car.
“I think this car is pretty resilient compared to the last one,” the Team Penske star said Friday afternoon. “Body-wise, it’s way more resilient. I think the bumpers – front and back – are a lot stronger than what they were last year. I felt like last year, if you got hit in the left-rear quarter panel or you tried to move someone out of the way with the right-front fender, you could damage your car pretty easy.
“Before, you didn’t have a lot of support in the nose. Now, it’s solid. I feel like it’s gonna be a little bit more physical Saturday night. That’s not only because it’s 100 laps shorter, but the cars can take more. I think you’re gonna see a little bit more aggressive styles of racing. That’s what Martinsville is all about. You’re gonna see more of it if you get a car that can take it.”
But rookie Harrison Burton isn’t sure drivers will use the new car as an excuse to be more physical. “More durable is a better term,” he said. “Ryan Blaney spun and hit the wall at COTA and came back with the same car and won the pole. Ross Chastain hit the wall hard at Atlanta, then came back to finish second. These cars are really tougher and can take more than the old ones.
“I don’t know how much more physical the race will be. The suspension parts still can get bent, so people will still have to be careful. People are still going to get mad at each other, so that’s a concern.”
Alex Bowman, who won’t last year’s fall Martinsville race by turning Denny Hamlin in the final laps, won’t be surprised by an increase in aggression. He is one of seven winners in the season’s first seven races, taking Round 3 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month.
“I think this car definitely lends itself to being more aggressive,” he said. “It’s not nearly as fragile as the old car was. We have more braking power than we have grip. So, like at Richmond (Raceway), you don’t have much grip to lean on the car getting into the corner. So, you have a ton of brake power, but you can’t really use it. I think this will be pretty similar to that. I’m excited to see how it works out.”
Henrick Motorsports star Chase Elliott will start from the pole at Saturday night’s 400. Aric Almirola, Cole Custer, Chris Buescher, and William Byron also will start in the top-5, followed by Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, and Todd Gilliland 6th-10th.
AJ Allmendinger flunked tech inspection three times and thus was not allowed to qualify. He’ll start from the rear of the 36-car grid and have a drive-through penalty on the first green-flag lap.
Karma Pays a Visit to Ty Gibbs
A week ago, on a Saturday afternoon at Richmond Raceway’s ¾-mile, pole-winner Ty Gibbs muscled leader John Hunter Nemechek aside in Turns 3-4 on the last lap and drove off to victory in a 200-lap Xfinity Series race.
Friday night, on Martinsville Speedway’s half-mile, racing’s “karma gods” took their revenge on Gibbs. After leading 196 of 261 laps in a double-overtime wreckfest, the grandson of Hall of Fame owner Joe Gibbs ended up steaming after a last-lap scuffle sent him from first to eighth. Until the last restart, it seemed Gibbs would win his second straight race, fourth of the season, and eighth of his 26-race career.
Instead, second-running Brandon Jones got his first victory of the season and fifth of his career. Early in the second overtime restart, he gave Gibbs a shot that opened the door for Jones to take the lead he never gave up. Third-running Sam Mayer then rooted inside Gibbs in Turns 3-4 on the last lap, pushing him perilously close to the against the outside wall. (Afterward, officials and crewmen had to separate them on pit road).
The Gibbs-Mayer incident allowed Landon Cassell, AJ Allmendinger, Mayer, Riley Herbst Austin Hill, and Ryan Truex to advance. Gibbs salvaged eighth, ahead of Ryan Sieg and Jeremy Clements. Former two-time series champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. came out of finished retirement for his annual one-off and a barely noticeable 11th.
Similar to Thursday night’s sloppy Camping World Truex Series race (11 cautions for 71 laps), the Xfinity race was even worse. It featured a 20-minute red flag and 16 cautions for 100 laps. Thirty-eight percent of the laps were under caution and the average green-flag segments were less than 10 laps.
Cup Star Shines in Friday’s Truck Race
Full-time Cup Series star William Byron brought a halt to all the first-half foolishness by dominating the second half of Thursday night’s Blue-Emu Truck Series 200 at Martinsville. After four drivers swapped the lead five times in the first half, Byron led all but two of the last 100 laps.
It was his eighth career Camping World victory since his one-race debut as a 17-year-old high school student for owner Kyle Busch in 2015. Thursday night marked his first CWTS start since the 2016 season-finale at Homestead.
Truck Series veteran Johnny Sauter (a former champion with 24 victories) was second, then Busch, John Hunter Nemechek, and points leader Ben Rhodes. Pole-winner Zane Smith led 55 laps en route to finishing ninth. All told, six drivers swapped the lead nine times, most of them in the first 100 laps.
Five of the green-flag runs went for five or fewer laps, although the final 36 were uninterrupted. After starting 32nd based on owner points – qualifying was rained out – Byron led the final 84 laps and 94 of the final 96.
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