NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. overcomes early penalty, wins at Richmond

Martin Truex Jr. clinched his spot in the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs with a win at Richmond Raceway.

Joe Gibbs was always known for earning big wins near Virginia as an NFL head coach in Washington. That trend carried over on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Truex, driver of Gibbs’ No. 19 Toyota Camry, led the final 51 laps of the Federated Auto Parts 400 en route to his fourth victory of the Cup Series season and his first since the first race at Darlington in May. Gibbs Toyotas have won each of the first two Cup Series postseason races of 2021 after Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 won at Darlington’s opener last weekend.

Hamlin, winner of the first two stages of the races, finished second while Christopher Bell’s No. 20 allowed Gibbs vehicles to sweep the top three spots. Fellow playoff drivers Chase Elliott and Joey Logano rounded out the top five.

Truex Goes From First to Last to First

Truex began the 31st victory of his Cup Series career on the front row but was quickly forced to the back. NASCAR officials determined that he jumped the start, passing Hamlin (the de facto pole-sitter after Kyle Larson had to start from the back) as the field took the green flag. The No. 19 was forced to serve a pass-through penalty, though he was able to stay on the lead lap. Truex made his way back to the top 10 by lap 70 of 400 and took his first lead of the day nearly 200 laps later.

The Mayetta, NJ native didn’t agree with NASCAR’s judgment but opted to look at the early infraction from an optimistic lens.

“Two laps after I pitted or whatever, I was like, this is ridiculous, but I’m already last now, so there’s nothing I can do except for go forward,” Truex said after the race. “I don’t really understand what you’re supposed to do in that situation. I let the 11 get a nose out in front of me to get the launch first. I wasn’t going to jump him, and then he spun the tires and stopped. What am I supposed to do, stand on the brakes, and crash the field behind me? It’s ridiculous, but yeah, I got over it fairly quickly because that’s what it was, and we had to go forward.”

Truex historically struggled at Richmond prior to commandeering Gibbs’ No. 19 in 2019, earning only three top five finishes in his first 26 visits. Over five starts at JGR, Truex has finished no worse than fifth at the short track and has visited victory lane three times. Truex claimed that there has been no official turning of the corner, believing his Richmond revolution was an endeavor several years in the making.

Nothing really clicked. It wasn’t like one thing we did. It was just kind of a work in progress more than anything,” Truex said. “I’ve always felt good at this racetrack and had some really good runs years ago in other cars with other teams. Honestly, it’s more just great equipment, a great approach to the racetrack…Once we got in Gibbs cars and I guess 2016 is when we really turned the corner on being one of the guys to beat every time we come here.”

In that aforementioned September 2016 event, Truex, then driving the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, united with his future teammate Hamlin to lead 382 of 407 laps but missed out on the win in an overtime finish. Since then, Truex has been the driver to beat at Richmond: over the last 11 events, he has completed all but one lap at the 0.75-mile, D-shaped oval.

“We certainly gave a few away here in the past, and to have three is pretty awesome. Feeling lucky to have great equipment, and always look forward to coming here.”

Buschwhacked

Unlike last week’s postseason carnage at Darlington, playoff drivers mostly stayed out of trouble at Richmond on Saturday. Postseason contenders took up all but one spot in the top ten (Ross Chastain was the lone outlier in 7th) and 13 of the first 15 slots.

Alas, Kurt Busch ran into trouble early on. His No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was running third when he lost his left-rear tire at lap 40, shortly after a strong pit stop during a competition caution period. Busch was the only driver who failed to finish the race, relegating him to a last-place finish in 37th. He goes into next week’s race at Bristol as the last of the dozen drivers eligible for the second round of the playoffs, trapped in a tie with Alex Bowman.

“Had a damn good car, feeling deflated by how it all went down,” Busch said on Twitter in response to his bad luck at Richmond. “I thought Virginia is for lovers, but not feeling the love right now. On to Bristol baby, and we know what we gotta do…let’s win!”

Bristol is certainly the place for Busch to secure a much-needed win: he was won a career-best six races at The Last Great Coliseum, second-best amongst active drivers behind his brother Kyle (8).

In terms of other playoff struggles, William Byron finished a lap down in 19th, placing him 18 points away from the 12th seed. A late speeding penalty on pit road relegated Michael McDowell’s No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford to 28th. The Daytona 500 champion is undoubtedly stuck in a must-win situation, as he’s 38 points away after the penalty and a wreck at Darlington last week.

The 5 moves to the 12

After matching fourth-place finishes in the first two stages, it was determined that Kyle Larson had earned enough points to clinch a spot in the second round of the postseason. Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team already had a sizable advantage in terms of advancement prospects through a series-best five wins and the regular season championship. He finished the day in sixth.

Up Next

The NASCAR Cup Series moves onto Bristol Motor Speedway next Saturday night for the final race of the first round of the playoffs (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Bristol’s famed asphalt will reappear, as the track was covered in dirt for the annual spring event, won by Joey Logano in March. Kevin Harvick won last year’s late summer event on the asphalt, uniting with runner-up Kyle Busch to lead 385 of 500 laps.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: A.J. Allmendinger wins wild debut on Indianapolis road course

The NASCAR Cup Series’ first race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course featured an upset win mired by late calamities.

Late carnage yielded an unlikely winner at the NASCAR Cup Series’ maiden voyage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

After the first 70-plus laps of Sunday’s Verizon 200 ran without major incident, a curb of calamity in the sixth turn took out numerous contenders in violent wrecks. In the end, it was A.J. Allmendinger, a NASCAR Xfinity Series regular running a part-time schedule that stole the victory in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. It’s the first win for Kaulig, an Xfinity team that is set to make the leap to the premier Cup Series next year, and Allmendinger’s first Cup win since August 2014 at Watkins Glen.

Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top five.

Sunday marked the Cup Series’ first road course endeavor at the legendary IMS, having run on its famous oval annually since 1994. Rumble strip curbs, made to prevent drivers from going into the trackside infield, in Turn 6 caused some trouble in yesterday’s Xfinity Series race. NASCAR removed one such rumble strip after that race but kept the rest of the curbing, including a relative “launchpad” that sent Kris Wright’s Xfinity car airborne.

The Turn 6 curbing was adjusted several times through the course of the race to clean up debris, but caused its biggest accident at lap 78. A 19-minute red flag period followed, during which a majority of the curbing was removed, though the launchpad stayed. Another wreck immediately ensued, setting up a second overtime session.

Rookie Chase Briscoe and Denny Hamlin led the field into the narrow first turn, during which Briscoe’s No. 14 Ford was sent through the nearby infield and back on the track. Briscoe was penalized for shortcutting the track but briefly continued to race Hamlin for the lead. In the ensuing battle, Hamin was spun out, giving third-place runner Allmendinger the opening he needed to steal the win. Briscoe and Hamlin shared a tense but ultimately peaceful confrontation on pit road.

The win was an emotional event for Allmendinger, who previously ran 11 years as a full-time Cup Series driver (2008-18). Allmendinger, made a name for himself as a professional racer on the open-wheel circuit, earning five wins on the Champ Car circuit. The 39-year-old is set to represent Kaulig Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs this fall.

After consecutive weeks at road course, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to an oval next week at Michigan International Speedway’s FireKeepers Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Two races remain in the Cup Series’ regular season, which will end on August 28 at Daytona.

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series: Kyle Busch wins the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 in dramatic fuel mileage race

After finishing second in both the Camping World Truck Series race and the Cup Series race on Saturday, Kyle Busch was finally able to turn his bad luck around, winning the Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 in the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday.

“This is a really good place for us,” Busch said. “Our guys do a really good job of coming here with really fast stuff”.

However, this win was certainly no cakewalk for Busch and the No. 18 team. Sunday’s race turned into a typical Pocono fuel mileage race, as well as Busch having to deal with a broken transmission for the majority of the race.

“I was just rolling around under yellow, scrubbing my tires, getting ready for the restart, and it popped out of gear,” Busch detailed. “When we took the green on the restart, everything was fine, shifting into gears, getting into fourth was fine, and then I’m holding it down the backstretch and chaos ensued….. the next caution comes out, I go to hit the shifter to see what’s wrong with it, and it’s stuck. Like it’s welded in fourth gear”.

Busch made trips down pit road for his crew to try and fix it, however, the team was unable to get the car out of fourth gear. The No. 18 car was forced to lay back on restarts due to lack of acceleration, but the car’s overall speed propelled Busch up with the leaders.

After cycling through from his final pitstop, Busch sat in fourth place with eight laps to go. The leader at the time was the No. 2 car of Brad Keselowski, however, he was forced to pit early and surrender his lead.

“We ran a really good race, but didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the end,” Keselowski, the third-place finisher said. “They beat us on power and fuel mileage, so we have a lot of work to do to keep up with those guys”.

William Byron assumed Keselowski’s lead when Keselowski was forced to pit on lap 132. He maintained the lead until three laps remained when Byron ran out of fuel himself.

“The goal for half the run was to run hard and get everyone else to pit and [then] we’d have to pit for less time,” Byron said. “Sometimes it hurts to have a fast car because you burn more fuel”.

Byron made it to pit road on fumes and was able to get back on the track for a 12th place finish.

After Byron ran out of fuel, Denny Hamlin landed in the catbird seat. Hamlin remained the leader for just over a lap when he ran out of fuel with two laps to go. That set up Busch to take his second victory of the season and his fourth in his Cup Series career.

Overall, it was a much improved day for Toyota teams, as all four Gibbs cars showed speed and both Hamlin and Busch were in contention for both Cup Series races this weekend. Martin Truex Jr. led 19 laps on Sunday and Bubba Wallace registered his first top-5 with 23XI Racing, all while team owner Michael Jordan was in attendance.

“[Jordan] understands,” Wallace said. “He wants to win, but he knows what it’s going to take for us to get there. It’s more from me, more from the team, it’s a more group effort. He’s in the background watching it and enjoying it….we’ll just keep plugging away forward”.

Busch, Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Wallace completed the top-5. Saturday’s winner Alex Bowman notably finished in the top-10 with a 7th place finish.

Larson continues to lead the playoff standings, while Hamlin continues to lead in overall Cup Series points. The Cup Series is back in action next Sunday at Road America for the Jockey Made in America 250 Presented by Kwik Trip. That race will begin at 2:30 PM Eastern time on NBC.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix

This weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series heads south to Austin, Texas for the inaugural EchoPark Texas Grand Prix at COTA. No driver in the field has ever run the Formula 1 designed course, setting things up for an interesting weekend. Since nobody in the field has ever raced this track before, this weekend’s event is one of the few with practice and qualifying in 2021.

Sunday’s race is scheduled for 68 laps/231 miles around the 20-turn, 3.4-mile road course. Here are three drivers to watch in the EchoPark Texas Grand Prix:

Chase Elliott (+240)

You can’t go to a road course without throwing Chase Elliott’s name into contention. 5 of his 11 victories have come on road courses, including back-to-back wins at Watkins Glen in 2018 and 2019 as well as back-to-back wins at the Charlotte Roval in 2019 and 2020. Elliott also won last summer at the Daytona Road Course, showing he can adapt to new tracks on the NASCAR schedule.

Although he hasn’t scored a victory in 2021, Elliott’s seven top-10 finishes have placed him seventh in the Cup Series standings. He finished third last weekend in Dover, contributing to Hendrick’s 1-2-3-4 finish. Elliott is a massive favorite this weekend, so expect him to be in a position to secure his first victory of the season.

AJ Allmendinger (+2800)

AJ Allmendinger, making his second Cup Series start for Kaulig Racing, is also a major road course favorite. He has a ton of experience in both IndyCar and IMSA, making him out as one of the best road course racers in the field. Allmendinger’s lone NASCAR Cup Series win came at Watkins Glen in 2014, and he also has four Xfinity Series victories on road courses.

Although he’s only running a part-time Cup Series schedule, Allmendinger is actually running a full-time Xfinity Series schedule. He has a win and six top-5s in 10 races this season, putting his name well into Xfinity Series title contention. Expect Allmendinger to have a chance to pull off an upset on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+900(

Denny Hamlin’s having one of the best yet one of the weirdest seasons we’ve seen in a long time. Despite failing to pick up a win through 13 races, Hamlin leads the standings by over 100 points. He has nine top-10s and five stage victories to help maintain his high points position.

Although he isn’t known as one of the best road course racers, Hamlin knows how to race them well. He won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and has seven top-10s on the circuit. Hamlin also has six top-10s at Sonoma Raceway in California. Sunday would be a great opportunity for Denny Hamlin to pick up his first win of 2021.

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s Buschy McBusch Race 400

After an eventful Talladega race, the NASCAR Cup Series makes a stop in the Midwest at Kansas Motor Speedway. The race will last 267 laps, equivalent to 400 miles. Last week’s winner Brad Keselowski rolls off from the pole position while last fall’s winner Joey Logano starts 29th after a crash at Talladega. Here are three drivers to watch on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (+650)

To no one’s surprise, Martin Truex Jr. has had a lot of success at Kansas Speedway. Living up to his name of “Mile and a Half Martin”, Truex Jr. has two wins and 12 top-10s in 25 starts on the circuit. Both of his wins came in 2017, the year he won the Cup Series Championship.

2021 has so far been kind to the Truex Jr. and the No. 19 team. With wins at Phoenix and Martinsville, Truex Jr. is the only Cup Series driver with multiple wins on the season and is currently 2nd in points. Expect Truex Jr. to run up front on Sunday.

Denny Hamlin (+600)

Much like Truex Jr., Kansas has been kind to Denny Hamlin over his career. He’s won three times at the track with 8 top-5s and an average finish of 14.5. Hamlin is also the winner of two of the last three races at Kansas.

Although Hamlin’s had massive success this season, he still hasn’t pulled out a victory. With top-10s in 8 of 10 races, Hamlin holds a nearly 90-point lead in the standings with many close calls and stage points this season. Sunday would be a great time for Hamlin to finally break through and secure his first victory of the season.

Chase Elliott (+800)

Someone who’s struggled a bit this season is defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott. He’s managed just 4 top-10s so far, however, he remains in 8th in the standings due to stage points.

Elliott’s had a good bit of success at Kansas, winning once with 6 top-10s in 10 starts at the track. He has an average finish of 11th and doesn’t have any DNFs. Don’t be surprised if Elliott breaks through for a big victory on Sunday.

NASCAR: Martin Truex Jr. survives Martinsville for second win in 2021

Truex survived several caution flags and a battle with a teammate to become the NASCAR Cup Series’ first two-time winner in 2021.

New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr. became the first two-time winner on the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday, taking home the Blue Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. The race began on Saturday night, but all but 43 laps were pushed to Sunday due to inclement weather.

Truex survived a seemingly endless barrage of caution flags to earn the victory, which featured a final pass of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin with 15 laps to go to secure the win. The No. 19 Toyota previously won at Phoenix and has earned a win at Martinsville in each of the past three seasons.

Defending series and Martinsville champion Chase Elliott finished second ahead of Hamlin, who led a race-best 274 laps. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates William Byron and Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.

Truex’s No. 19 was a rare clean vehicle in a race that featured 15 caution flags, all but five coming after the midway mark at lap 250. The most carnage occurred on lap 387 when a get-together between Kyle Busch and Chris Buescher blocked the entry into turn two caused major damage and ended the days of Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Brad Keselowski, and Michael McDowell. An ensuing red flag paused the race for just over 20 minutes.

The constant restarts allowed Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, a strong short-run vehicle, to jump out to the lead on restarts, a gambit that allowed him to lead a race-best 276 laps. Truex gained the lead after the final caution of the day (Chase Briscoe’s spin in turn three) led to pit stops, but Hamlin quickly assumed it back.

But as the final 42 laps went green, Truex eventually realized that his car would be able to outperform the tightening No. 11. He eventually made the victorious pass with 16 laps to go and earned the win by a 1.9-second margin.

It was part of a strong day for Joe Gibbs Racing, which placed all four of its Cup vehicles in the top ten. Christopher Bell, another 2020 winner at the Daytona road course, finished seventh and led nine laps while Busch recovered to place tenth. In the Xfinity Series conclusion that ran before the Cup event, Gibbs had four cars in the top seven.

Truex’s victory continues a dominant stretch on short tracks. He has now won five of the last eleven events at short tracks (less than a mile long) and is one of two active drivers with at least three wins at Martinsville (the other being his teammate Hamlin with five). The win was also the 29th of Truex’s Cup Series career, breaking a tie with Carl Edwards and Hall of Famer Rex White.

NASCAR will return to Martinsville in October, as its fall event will serve as the penultimate race of the season.

A prime opportunity awaits for Truex to continue his short-track dominance. The series descends upon Richmond Raceway next Sunday for the Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). Truex’s No. 19 team swept the pair of Richmond events during the 2019 season.

Race Notes

  • Ryan Blaney won the first stages, lasting 130 laps each. Blaney was in contention all day and led 157 laps, but a pit road miscue during the final stops relegated him to the rear of the field. The No. 12 Team Penske Ford recovered to finish 11th.

 

  • Pit strategy allowed Bubba Wallace to lead a career-best 23 laps. His No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota hovered around the top ten for a good portion of the latter stages, but late contract relegated him to a 16th-place finish.

 

  • Suarez, relegated to a 32nd-place finish after the wreck, endured a brutal weekend. The No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet was relegated to the rear of the field and lost crew chief Travis Mack after an illegal ballast issue was discovered during prerace inspection on Saturday.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Saturday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500

Denny Hemlin

After an off week, the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action on Saturday for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Beginning at 7:30 pm, it’ll be the first night race of the season and just the second in the track’s history. The event is 500 laps and 263 miles long with Joey Logano leading the field to green. Here are three drivers to watch in Saturday’s race.

Denny Hamlin

Over his career, Denny Hamlin has always performed well at Martinsville. He’s won there five times in the Cup Series and won three straight races there from 2009-2010. Hamlin’s average finish at Martinsville is an impressive 9.9 with 70% of his starts at the track resulting in a top-10.

Through seven races this season, Hamlin leads the points standings despite not yet winning a race. He already has six top-10s and his worst finish of the season is just 11th. Expect Hamlin to contend for the victory on Saturday.

Martin Truex Jr.

At one point, short track racing was an Achilles heel for Martin Truex Jr. But now, after winning two of the last three races at Martinsville, Truex Jr. has asserted himself as one of the best short track racers in the sport. He has 7 top-5s at the track and 13 top-10s for an average finish of 17th.

Truex Jr. secured his first win of the 2021 season a few weeks ago at Phoenix, and he’s looking for more. After winning just one race in 2020, the 40-year-old wants to bounce back in 2021 and become the first driver with multiple victories this season. Truex Jr. should most certainly run up front on Saturday.

Aric Almirola

2021 has been a season to forget thus far for Aric Almirola. Currently 28th in points, the 37-year-old has failed to place in the top-10 in this year with his best finish being 11th at Phoenix.

Historically at Martinsville, Almirola has been up and down. He has four top-5 finishes in his career, however, his average finish is 22nd thanks in part to several accidents and car failures throughout the years. To turn his season around, Almirola needs a strong run on Saturday, and he has the potential to do so.

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Joey Logano wins historic dirt race at Bristol

Joey Logano held off off a final push from Denny Hamlin to win the NASCAR Cup Series first race on dirt in over five decades.

Joey Logano came out clean at the end of the first NASCAR Cup Series run on dirt in 51 years.

The No. 22 Team Penske Ford led the final 61 laps en route to victory at the Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished second, while Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five.

Bristol’s dirt endeavor, the first NASCAR Cup Series event held on dirt since 1970, was pushed back from Sunday to Monday after inclement weather flooded the parking lot and rendered the track inoperable. Thanks to a strong effort from the BMS crew, both the Cup and Camping World Truck Series were able to run their full events without issues.

Unlike several of his Cup peers, Logano did not run the Trucks race, instead calling the race for Fox Sports 1. Despite limited dirt experience, he was able to stay toward the front for a good portion of the day after starting 10th. He took care of business after the first 100-lap stage through a sixth-place finish while the Truck race winner Martin Truex Jr. dominated.

Logano first took the lead at lap 170 of 250, passing the upstart Suarez in the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team Chevrolet. He would go on to beat out Suarez for the stage two win before a ten-minute break commenced. By then, the middle stage of the race had thrown a new obstacle for the drivers: the return of single-file restarts, which hadn’t been seen on the Cup circuit since 2009. Early runs in the second stage were quickly stopped by multi-car get-togethers that damaged the cars of several contenders, including Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney.

With the track moistened for the final 50-lap stage, Logano held the lead despite a strong push from Hamlin in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Mike Marlar’s spin just five laps from the checkered flag set up a two-lap overtime finish, but Logano was able to keep Hamlin and a charging Stenhouse behind him. Stenhouse had worked his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet up from eighth over the final 30 laps to secure his fifth career runner-up finish at Bristol.

Logano is the seventh different winner in seven different events to open the 2021 season, the first time the Cup Series has had seven unique winners to start since 2014. The series will go on hiatus during Easter weekend before returning for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 10 (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1).

Race Notes

  • Dirt track veterans and Cup regulars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell saw their days end on a wreck at lap 53, an incident that also took out Ross Chastain.

 

  • Truex dominated the Truck event earlier in the day, leading 105 of 150 laps and sweeping each stage in a Toyota Tundra owned by Kyle Busch. His No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was running in the top five at the end of the race, but lost a tire late and was relegated to 19th.

 

  • Another early incident involved Aric Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. Almirola failed to finish for the third time this season, matching his DNF total from all of last year. That wreck also ended the days of Anthony Alfredo, Corey LaJoie, and Shane Golobic (a dirt veteran driving B.J. McLeod’s No. 78).

 

  • Bubba Wallace’s top ten run was ended after contact with Stenhouse created a tire rub that sent him spinning with 34 laps to go. Forced to pit road and unaided by a caution and finished 27th.

 

  • Suarez set a new career-high with 58 laps and earned his first top-five finish since November 2019 (Texas). Monday marked the seventh race for Trackhouse, which is led by owner, recording artist, and philanthropist Pitbull.

 

  • Newman survived an early spin (one that forced Kevin Harvick into rookie teammate Briscoe) to earn his first top five since October 2019 (Talladega).

For full results, click here

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Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags