By Cole Cusumano
A week’s worth of recharging over Easter weekend is frantically unraveling for teams across NASCAR, as they’ll be tasked with taming one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit; Martinsville Speedway. Getting off to a rollicking start and serenity will be crucial to with this 15-race stint, but that will be easier said than done heading to a place notorious for inciting unrest.
Praised by many as a “driver’s track,” Martinsville historically brings out the best (and worst) in competitors due to the constant side-by-side racing for 500 laps. When you take into account the seven different winners in as many races and both events being run under the lights, the safe assumption would be the brake rotors won’t be the only things scorching hot throughout the night.
The theme of this weekend is going to be management — brakes, tires and tempers. It’s a strenuous battle of physical and mental endurance requiring constant composure throughout in order to conquer.
This is easier said than done with equal hunger from 37 teams and racing in such close quarters with playoff spots diminishing. It’s important to remember Martinsville is one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit, but the feeling of triumph and receiving the infamous grandfather clock is one of the most revered moments in NASCAR.
NASCAR Cup Series
It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite heading to “the paperclip,” as there’s been an insurmountable variety of winners and performers through seven races. It was Chase Elliott and Hendrick Motorsports who came out on top most recently in Martinsville, and they should be a force this weekend, but this could be a day dominated by the other two titans in Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.
With top-fives in all but one race this season (an 11th-place finish being the only outlier) and a 4.7 average finish in 2021, it feels like we’re poised to see Denny Hamlin breakout and put on an onslaught. Taking the green flag from the front row and being the winningest active driver at Martinsville with five, the hometown hero could very well secure his first victory of the year in Virginia.
All eyes should be on Hamlin regardless, as he has a reputation for tangling with drivers at the .526-mile track, including the one starting alongside him, Joey Logano. It’s also worth noting he took a shot at the 2018 Champion following the most recent race at Bristol Motor Speedway for blocking on the final restart. With no love lost, the rule of thumb each weekend is to keep watch when these two are racing around each other and this race is no exception.
We can’t talk about Martinsville without bringing up Martin Truex Jr. While a flat tire in the closing laps derailed his dominant day in Bristol, the driver of the No. 19 has been a frontrunner as of late with a win under his belt. The 2017 Champion has driven to victory in two of the last three races at the paperclip and led 725 laps in this span.
Truex may dominate the headlines at Martinsville, but Team Penske may give Joe Gibbs Racing a run for their money on Saturday. Although under the radar at the short track, Brad Keselowski has been silently dominating since 2016. Over his last 10 starts, the driver of the No. 2 is the only competitor to have a top-10 in every race within that span, in addition to two wins (tied for most) and owning the best average finishing position of 3.8.
Along with Keselowski, Ryan Blaney is the only other competitor to have a top-five in each race at Martinsville over the last two years. In fact, the driver of the No. 12 placed runner-up in both events last year and has an average finish of 3.3 in this time. This isn’t someone who typically comes to mind when thinking about the Virginia-based track, but given his recent history and current string of top-10s, it should be.
Trending on Twitter: Start them while they’re young! Piper Harvick gets a driving lesson from her father.
NASCAR Xfinity Series
It feels like an eternity ago since drama and madness headlined the most recent Xfinity Series event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but the anticipation for potential carryover into Martinsville on Friday night couldn’t be higher. For the first time since 1993-’94 the developmental division will be competing in consecutive years at the paperclip, making it difficult to go in with expectations for who will perform well.
It was Harrison Burton who emerged victorious after a 14-year hiatus last season, but there wasn’t really a dominant car in the race that flaunted 11 lead changes — the most in Xfinity Series history at Martinsville. The driver of the No. 20 led the most laps (81) and will start from the pole on Friday.
The drivers everyone will be watching are Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric. Although two weeks have gone by since fists were thrown on pit road, there’s no reason to believe those feelings of anger have dissipated. This will be the first race since the post-race scuffle occurred and revenge tends to play a factor each year at Martinsville.
Lastly, up-and-coming racing sensation, Ty Gibbs, will be making his third Xfinity Series start. The 18-year-old has yet to place lower than second and won in his debut at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Taking the green flag from 16th, it’s going to be interesting to see if he can keep the momentum going.
Trending on Twitter: School is in session for Ryan Vargas.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to action on April 9 at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, while the NASCAR Cup Series seeks its eighth different winner in as many races since 2003 with the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 from Martinsville on April 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET on Fox.