By Cara Cooper
Denny Hamlin believes this weekend is shaping up to be all his.
"I hope," Hamlin said. "All signs indicate yes if you were looking at a Magic 8-Ball right now."
Hamlin won the pole Saturday for Sunday's First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway, his fourth pole win of his Cup Series career at The Paperclip.
If he has his way, that pole could lead to a sixth career win and grandfather clock trophy.
Hamlin's lap time of 19.354 was 0.03 seconds faster than Chase Elliott, who was second fastest in qualifying, but will have to start Sunday's race from the rear, a punishment for changing engines following practice Saturday morning. Elliott's engine blew up just a few laps into the first practice session.
"Certainly it’s not how you want to start your day and it puts you in a bit of a hole, but I think at the same time I think if your car is driving good and you do a good job fighting your way up to the front, you still have a shot," Elliott said. "That’s why a good qualifying effort is still important. If you do get yourself in a position towards the front at the end of this thing, tomorrow, a good pit stop could decide it for you. So, I think we have to continue to push in all areas and just hope it goes our way.”
Martin Truex, Jr. was third in qualifying and will start Sunday's race third.
"It was a good effort. We had a little bit of a weird day practicing," Truex said. "It’s always difficult to practice here. A green track this morning pretty much and then cold temperatures – it heats up throughout the day. We pretty much threw out the first practice, we only get one really and we were off a bit. We tried some new stuff here from what we’ve been doing the last few times and had to kind of go back to home base for a while in qualifying. Luckily, we hit it pretty close. The guys did a good job there and we got a good couple laps in. Happy about it and hopefully we can stay somewhere near the front there.”
"To have the pole is obviously a huge, huge deal here," Hamlin said.
Hamlin is currently third in the Cup Series playoff points behind Busch and Truex, and his team comes into Martinsville with added confidence, which is only boosted by the pole win. Having won five times on the track in the past, the team knew it was important to focus on a place they felt they had the best chance to win to earn a spot in the NASCAR championship race at Homestead-Miami on November 15.
"We've definitely spent a lot of time and emphasis working on set up for this race track," Hamlin said. "Definitely wanted to spend more time on working on set up on a race track where I'm particularly good at. You try to win at places that you're extremely good at and I think that hard work and effort that they've done working on all that stuff is paying off right now."
Rain hitting the area Saturday night and into Sunday morning is expected to be cleared out by early morning and not affect the race. Hamlin said he doesn't expect teams to make any changes to setups because of the weather, and he only expects the track to be affected for the first handful of races.
"It'll change the first 50 laps or so for sure. I think it will level off after that," Hamlin said. "I don't think it'll change a whole lot but certainly at the beginning it will throw us all for a loop... If anything we have an advantage because we'll have some track position but I'm obviously confident in our car with the heat and the sun today."
The green flag for the First Data 500 Sunday is expected to wave at 3 p.m.
Kyle Petty and Jeff Burton bring their own experience and analysis to NASCAR TV coverage on NBC. This week, the two spoke with the Bulletin about the Cup Series playoffs, and Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.
(Editor’s note: These interviews have been condensed and edited for space and clarity)
Martinsville Bulletin: Now that the final eight drivers are set, what are your thoughts? Were there any surprises or do you feel these have been the best eight cars all season?
Kyle Petty: Obviously I think you look at the three (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars, you look at Denny (Hamlin) and Kyle (Busch) and (Martin) Truex and they have been mainstays in this sport, along with Kevin Harvick. And honestly Joey Logano for the last three or four years. They’re the guys. Those are the guys that win the races, those are the guys that run up front. I think Kyle Larson was a little bit of a surprise just from the standpoint that a (Chip) Ganassi (Racing) car had never made it to the round of 8, so this is his first foray into the round of 8. And last week at Kansas it was a big surprise that Brad Keselowski was bumped out and that Chase Elliott was able to bump his way in. Now, I don’t think it’s a surprise that Chase Elliott should be in the round of 8, that’s not what I’m saying, but it was a surprise the way he got in, by absolutely having a great race and racing himself in. Because I don’t think there were a lot of people except true blue dyed in the wool Chase Elliott fans who believed he could do it. And Chase Elliott believed that he could do it. But the general consensus seemed to be that it was going to be tough to get in, but they overcame those odds to get in. So when I look at that I think okay, that’s a little bit of a surprise. But the biggest surprise I think to me is Kyle Larson because he’s not made it this far before.
Jeff Burton: I think Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are the two that surprised me a little bit. Earlier in the year Kyle Larson... they didn’t have the speed, they didn’t have the results of being a top 8 team. And I feel the same about Blaney and his team. I feel like they’ve been a step off of their Penske teammates, although lately they’ve been as good as their Penske teammates, but those are the two surprises.
Do you think there are four clear favorites for the championship at Homestead?
KP: I don’t believe there is a clear cut favorite. Unlike last year where we came into Martinsville talking about the big three, talking about Truex, the Kyle Buschs, the Kevin Harvicks, this year it’s been a little bit more of a streaky year for me. We’ve had guys get hot for five of six races and then cool off. I know it’s been a while, 10 or 15 races, maybe more, since Kyle Busch has won a race, so even though he’s up there running in the front and has been leading and doing all the things he’s supposed to be doing and running in the top 5, he’s just not broke through and been there consistently, just not won races. Where Kevin Harvick went on a streak right before the playoffs and won two or three races, Denny Hamlin got on a streak and just was unstoppable and winning races and being in the top 5. And Joey, these races are right in Joey Logano’s wheelhouse. When we come to Martinsville, when we go to Texas, when we go to Phoenix, and Homestead, that fits his driving style. So is Joey Logano going to get on a streak these last four races and walk away with another championship? So I don’t think there’s a clear cut favorite, but I think there’s interesting story lines in how they all got here and what they could do.
JB: I do not. I think this year I have found to be the most unpredictable. The one pattern has been Joe Gibbs Racing. They’ve been really good, but what is the best team within Joe Gibbs Racing has changed week to week. So I think team-wide, I think that Gibbs has the best opportunity, but which team within Gibbs confuses me a little bit. There’s days I watch Kevin Harvick and think nobody can beat him. And then there’s day that I think he won’t have a enough speed to win a championship. It’s just been one of those up and down years where there hasn’t been a rhythm to it where you can point your finger and say here’s the favorite.
It seems like if you ask every driver they’re going to tell you something different, but what do you feel like, if you’re a playoff driver trying to get into the final four, what’s the key to making sure that you run your best at Martinsville?
KP: When we used to go up there we used to just say if you can survive until the last 50 laps you’ve got a chance at winning. Because it’s a tough little racetrack. It’s hard on equipment. It’s a physical racetrack, it’s an emotional racetrack where people beat and bang on you and you get mad and lose your mind inside your helmet. There’s so many factors when you go up there. It’s a tough little place, and the thing is I think these guys... we talk about the clock at Martinsville being the coolest trophy in racing, if not the coolest. These eight guys go into Matinsville and they do care, don’t get me wrong. They don’t care about the clock because they feel like if they can win at Martinsville they can make it to Homestead and win a championship and win a cup. So Martinsville to them is about a championship. Joey Logano came in there last year, did everything he needed to do, put himself in a position, and did a bump and run at the end of the race and won that race and went on to win a championship. That’s how important Martinsville is to this round. Kyle Busch has said... after they won Martinsville it was almost like having two weeks off to prepare for the championship game. So it puts you in a different mindset going into the championship. So yes it’s important to win at Martinville. It’s important to do something in this first round. And the problem is you’ve got eight guys trying to do it, oh yea, along with the 30 other guys in the field that can win the race too. Because you’ve got Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch. Now you’ve got guys who are not in the championship race who can win too... and steal that victory and steal that opportunity. And then you’ve only got two races left to secure that golden ticket to Miami. Martinsville started for these teams weeks ago, preparing this car and making sure it is the best car that they can bring to Martinsville. That nothing breaks, that everything is the way it should be. And these drivers, once they got through Kansas last week, have thought about nothing else but Martinsville. So I think they’re as prepared as they can be. There’s nothing left to do but drop the green flag.
Do you think Martinsville is sort of in a sweet spot in the playoffs, because winning earlier gives you a chance to prepare for it more and winning here gives you a chance to focus on the championship?
JB: it’s a a really interesting dynamic because if you look at the points and where they all are, Blaney and Larson can’t afford to have bad races. They can’t go to Martinsville and just say, ‘Well it’s not a good track for me, we’re just going to have to get through the day.’ Keep in mind everyone always talks about if you win you go to Miami and race for a championship. All of that is true, but at least one person is going to get into the race at Miami with points. At least one. And if you look at Blaney and if you look at Larson and you certainly look at statistics they have way better chance of not winning the next three races then they do winning the next three races. So they have look, all the teams do, they have to be looking at points. Points matter. They just can’t afford to leave Martinsville and be way behind. Anything can happen, right? Anything can happen the next two races ,but in Blaney’s case I think he has the great opportunity with two teammates and the availability of data to really look at what his teammates have been doing because they’ve been fast. Joey and Brad have been fast at Martinsville. I think there’s an opportunity for Blaney to run better there than he’s been running. And I think Kyle Larson... Kurt Busch has been pretty good at Martinsville. He’s had good speed at Martinsville. There’s an opportunity there to learn as well. The Penske cars have had speed at Martinsville. Set up matters, cars matter. I think Blaney can lean on that a little bit and try to get as much out of his car as his teammates have gotten out of theirs.
Who among the playoffs drivers do you think has the best chance at a win this week, and who is the dark horse who could sneak out with a win?
KP: My dark horse is going to be Kyle Larson. I think if Kyle Larson comes out of there with a top-5 it’s been a huge day for Kyle Larson, so he’s going to be my dark horse for the win.
That’s a good question because I can give you a reason why Denny Hamlin is my favorite, I can give you reasons why Martin Truex is my favorite, I can give you reasons why Kyle Busch is my favorite. Or Joey Logano is my favorite... Those guys are the guys. They’re the guys at Martinsville. And that’s how it is. Kevin, he’s okay there but not had the success that those others guys have had there. Blaney runs good there, could this be a breakthrough for him? I don’t know. It’s really tough to narrow it down. Denny probably stands out more. If I had to pick one I would say Denny just because Denny is coming off of a huge win for them at just the right time at Kansas to gain that momentum... To be able to get back on a little bit of a roll to carry that into Miami.
JB: I think Kyle Busch has the best chance to win this week. I think the majority of people will say Denny Hamlin because of Denny’s success there, but he hasn’t won there in four years. If you look at the stats, Kyle Busch has been better over the last three, four, five races. I like to look at recent stats. I like to look at things as they are today. I won a lot of races at a particular racetrack but didn’t run good there for multiple years. What’s happening now is what really matters.
Once we get to this point in the year it’s kind of hard to call them a dark horse because they are in the final eight. I go back to Penske, and I go back to how much speed those cars have had at Martinsville. People are kind of writing off Blaney. It will not surprise me to see them run better this week at Martinsville than he has run there. Martinsville is tough, it’s a very difficult racetrack. Some people just never get it. But I think the Penske cars are going to run well this week. So I just don’t want to write Blaney off... because the Penske speed is there, and I don’t see that going away.
Do you feel like drivers like Denny and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who have had so much success at Martinsville, do you think they’re coming in this weekend with a little bit more comfort than they would at other racetracks?
KP: Yes. I’ve seen a couple of interviews with Denny this week and he is extremely confident. But he’s carried a different confidence this year to the racetrack. I think Kyle Busch, he looks at it and says this is place that we can get on a roll and kind of get our stuff turned around. And I think Joey feels the same way. I think Joey Logano had one of the ugliest rounds I’ve ever seen in the playoff series the last round, had an axle come out in the first lap before the race even started at Dover, got in wreck at Talladega and still salvaged something out of that, and then last week got spun there with four or five laps to go and had to fight to finish... to move on to this round. So that was an ugly, ugly way to make it to the round of 8, so I think those guys have got to get back up on the horse and make something happen. I think all those guys, there’s a little bit extra incentive for a Kyle Busch or Joey Logano to really make something happen when they get there.
JB: I don’t think anybody goes into Martinsville with comfort. It’s too aggressive. It’s a short track and there’s so many good cars out there... You can have the best race car there and kind of almost do nothing wrong and still finish 10th with it. Because if you get on the wrong line on the last restart, if you have a bad pit stop... if there’s a wreck in front of you you can’t avoid it. It’s just one of those tracks, almost like Talladega, where you can’t go into the race feeling like today is going to go well because it can all be going well and be pulled out from underneath you. And sometimes it’s not even your fault. When you put that many cars with this much on the line on that size racetrack you can expect to see fireworks. You can expect to see what we have been seeing... Think about the last races we’ve had there in the playoffs. They’re intense. So I just don’t think anybody can go in there feeling good.
Other than picking a winner, do you have any other bold predictions for Sunday?
KP: I think Jimmie Johnson, I think the Chevys and I think Jimmie can run really good there. Really good. You know what he can do there, and let’s go back a few years when we saw Jeff Gordon win that race and the crowd went wild and that was a time in Jeff’s career when people didn’t think that he was going to come back. Jimmie is not at that that time, don’t get me wrong. Jimmie can still win tons of races, but at the same time they’ve fallen on some flat times here, so I think Jimmie can be that guy. And I think Brad Keselowski is going to play a part in this race. I think he’s just mad enough by not making it to the round of eight that he’s going to prove to everybody that he could have been the champion. And he may go on and win the next four races in a row.
JB: I expect the Gibbs cars to run really well and I expect Chase Elliott to run really well. Those are the things I feel really good about. And there will be at least one, probably two drivers in the top eight that leave there almost in a must-win situation. It’s Martinsville and stuff happens. If a guy is running 12th all day and all of his competition is running top-6, top-7, it can put a hurting on you with points. And some of those drivers just cannot afford to lose points.
It was a decidedly mixed bag of results on Saturday at Martinsville Speedway for the six drivers currently in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series playoffs.
Half of the group was out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 by Lap 140, clearing the way for the other three to earn those crucial points in the championship race.
Here is how their days played out.
Chastain had the most to gain out of Saturday, and he made the most of his chances.
He entered the race sixth in the playoff points standings, two points out of the top four, and led 68 total laps. Chastain started 12th but worked his way into the top 10, ultimately taking over the top spot on Lap 122.
He lost the lead on the final restart and had to watch Todd Gilliland lead the final 11 laps to claim the victory.
“The truck was fast. Once we got out front, we were able to hang on,” Chastain said. “We’re lucky to come home second.”
Chastain’s previous best finish at Martinsville Speedway was fourth—earned March 23 this season during the TruNorth Global 250.
Still, he finished one spot out of where he truly wanted to be. A victory would not only have netted him a prized grandfather clock, but he would have secured his spot in the final four of the playoffs with a chance to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 15.
Chastain can still qualify for the championship if he wins Nov. 8 in Phoenix or if he otherwise hangs on to a top-four spot in the standings.
“We go there the same way we came here, trying to win,” Chastain said of Phoenix.
Shortly after Chastain took his lead, Hill was involved in a multi-car accident that brought significant damage to his truck, among many others.
Hill, who was third in points and started 17th overall, was running in the top five at the time of the wreck. He got caught up in the fray caused when Sam Mayer bumped Grant Enfinger from behind, spinning out the latter and dropping Hill to 20th.
“We got kind of sandwiched in the middle and hit from all kinds of ways,” Hill said upon his release from the medical center. “The good news is a lot of other playoff guys are having trouble, so that doesn’t make it too bad. I’d rather be out there competing, though.”
Stewart Friesen, Tyler Ankrum and Brett Moffitt
Friesen started seventh in the race and moved up and down throughout—sometimes running in the mid-teens and other times challenging in the top five.
Friesen blew a tire on Lap 149, bringing out a caution. He was running fifth at the time.
Ultimately, he avoided the accidents that picked off some of his peers and managed to place sixth.
Moffitt, who entered as the points leader and started second, won the first stage and led 80 total laps before bowing out with 78 laps to go due to truck damage.
He also turned his attention to his next opportunity to win and secure a spot at Homestead.
“We’ll go to Phoenix and try to win there,” he said.
Ankrum’s vehicle also sustained heavy damage in the same crash that banged up Hill’s truck. Hill ended his day after 127 laps, and Ankrum followed six laps later after being black flagged for failing to maintain minimum track speed.
“It’s unfortunate what happened there,” Ankrum said. “Martinsville happens.”
Crafton started fourth and was fourth in the playoff points, just one point ahead of Ankrum. His start to the race was marred by an engine power issue, however, and he eventually rejoined the race eight laps behind the leaders.
“It just shut off,” he said. “It’s a common theme we have with the motors we’re forced to run in the Truck Series. … It’s a shame because our truck was phenomenal.”
Crafton’s strategy late in the race was simply to stay alive so as to avoid a similar fate of his fellow playoff contenders.
“We knew we weren’t going to get back on the lead lap,” he said. “We just rode around there and did what we had to do to finish the race where we were. We hated to see it with some of the other guys, but at the same time, it was a fortune for us.”
Kyle Busch: family man, candy salesman, NASCAR bad guy.
Take your pick. He’s not one to bandy words. He has a job to do, and he needs you to step out of the way. Or move your car from his lane.
Or he’ll do it for you, sometimes with a smile on his face. Need some M&Ms? He has tons back home.
Halloween has come and gone for Busch. The man with access to more candy than any dad on earth will be in Martinsville this weekend. He’ll be in no mood for small talk. He’d prefer you eat hot dogs this weekend and give him room.
There was a time when no place was safe here with Busch on the half-mile track.
“It did take me a little bit to get going at Martinsville,” he admitted this week. “I was out to lunch there for a long time. I ran into everything except the hot dog stand.”
Now he bides his time, maybe taps a bumper or two, and lets the race come to him.
Imagine that: Busch has learned to be patient.
You have to be patient at Martinsville. The race is long and sometimes interrupted by caution flags. Lots of caution flags.
And there was a time when Busch brought out his share.
That was when he was just wandering around the place, trying to find a line, trying to figure out why you can’t just stomp on the gas and zip around the little bullring like you own it, the way he races every other track on the NASCAR schedule.
“For the longest time I never could figure out how to be one the fastest guys, but once we figured it out we’ve been running up front ever since,” he said.
But he still hasn’t won here the way he wants. Twice, he went home with grandfather clocks, but he’s also finished in the top five in every Martinsville race since he came back from his Daytona crash in 2015. Every single race here.
“I finally figured it out, I guess,” he said. “I got to where I finished in the top five a few times, you know, third and a second, a fifth, a third. And then in 2016, I think it was, we won the spring race and then came back and won the fall race in 2017.”
Nobody runs as well at Martinsville now. No one is close.
But he’s still only won twice, a far cry from Jimmy Johnson’s nine wins or even Denny Hamlin’s five wins.
Busch figures he’ll win a few more times at Martinsville as long as he stays, you know, patient.
“I think it's just experience and getting used to everything,” he said. “When you first start racing you learn to go hard into the corners, come out fast and go as hard as you can down the straightaways. That’s not how you drive Martinsville. Martinsville is all about rhythm.”
He said it’s about the flow of the track, easing into the first and third turns then accelerating at just the right moment, full to the floor with no slipping. Over and over and over again. Racing for 500 laps around Martinsville isn’t something that a lot of drivers will admit to liking.
“I like it,” Busch said. “Sometimes it gets frustrating with all the late-race restarts. But that’s Martinsville.”
Busch the candy salesman is here to race. He and the rest of the circuit got Halloween out of the way at Talladega in the RV neighborhood. His trailer was the most popular.
His son Brexton, who has more candy than any kid on earth, only likes it in moderation.
“Our pantry has a candy section,” Busch said. “M&M Tablets, bags and bags of M&Ms, chocolate candy, Milky Ways, Snickers. We have it all.”
Admit it, you didn’t know he had a sweet side.
It’s only in moderation.
Sunday, he’ll have the M&M’s Halloween Candy Camry in somebody’s rear-view mirror, trying to save his tires at the expense of somebody else’s bumper. Patience, it turns out, only gets you so far at Martinsville. He’s learned that, too.
“You beat and bang and knock people out of the way, and I finally figured out that part of it,” he said. “And now I do it, too. It’s all condensed into a small space and time frame. Martinsville’s a little different in that it’s a two-day weekend. You do everything in just two days, so it makes for an action-packed weekend.”
And it makes for tempers and crashing and threats and payback from the last race or from any race for that matter. Martinsville brings out the worst in most drivers.
Somehow, it brings out the best in the most ornery driver in NASCAR. Or it has in recent years anyway.
For all his consistency here, he’s getting a little tired of top fives.
He’s not here to hand out candy this weekend. He’s here to move somebody out of the way and take home a clock.
By Cara Cooper
Todd Gilliland was asked in victory lane if getting his first NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win was as sweet as he expected it to be.
“It’s better,” Gilliland said emphatically.
After started the day 11th, and failing to get into top 10 at the end of both Stage 1 and 2, Gilliland worked his way to the front and led the 11 laps that truly mattered Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, coming away with the win in the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 and taking home the coveted grandfather clock trophy.
Gilliland’s Kyle Busch Motorsports teammate Harrison Burton looked like the KBM driver with the best chance to win Saturday, running in the top 5 as the laps dwindled down. A caution set up a green flag run with 10 laps to go, and Gilliland outpaced Truck Series playoff driver Ross Chastain for the lead. He jumped in front again on the final restart with two laps to go.
Gilliland said the last 40 laps was just about “picking people off kind of methodically.”
“Under those cautions I kept getting nervous,” Gilliland said after the race. “I was like, ‘Man, this is not good.’ ... The motor was like 280 degrees for like the last half of the race. It was pushing water like every five laps. I definitely thought I was just going to get to get the lead and blow up. But everything worked out.”
Burton was caught up in an incident on the final lap, and finished the day 18th. Gilliland said the two teammates tried to work together a bit at the end to outpace Chastain, but ultimately he wanted to get the win himself.
“It was both of us trying to win on our own,” Gilliland said. “After the restart I got down in third, he got down in second, and he was beating the bumper off the 45 and then I tried to move him and we both kind of got away from the 45, and luckily there was another caution and we got caught back up. My spotter was telling me to let him (Burton) do the work but I wanted to do the work. I wanted to get the lead myself.
“It was nice having Harrison up there but at the same time... that’s not a guy I want to move. He’s my friend and we’re pretty much going for the same thing.”
The season hasn’t been the one either Gilliland or Burton were hoping for, with neither driver getting a win until Saturday. KBM owner, NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Busch, has aired his frustration with his Truck drivers this season, and Gilliland was heard on the radio following the race telling Busch to “stay in his... motor home.”
While Gilliland said he understood the frustration from Busch this season, he was happy to prove his owner wrong in Saturday.
“Everyone has heard what he’s said and obviously it’s true,” Gilliland said of Busch. “I wanted to win for the last year and a half as well. I’m doing all I can and the guys at the shop are doing all they can.”
“KBM has worked really, really hard, they just haven’t got to victory lane” said Gilliland’s crew chief Wes Ward. “Todd and Harrison has been under a lot of scrutiny for that but he prevailed today. What a race.”
Gilliland said following the race he doesn’t know where he stands for 2020. Right now, he’s glad to get out of a slump and try to build momentum for the final two races of the season.
Being just 19 years old, he knows a win can go a long way for his self-confidence.
“Being younger, I think I can do it at a high level,” Gilliland said. “But week after week it gets more of a daunting task every time. I think even just for the drivers I’m racing with, everyone in the garage, I think this is a big weekend for us all and hopefully this can open some doors.
“Just to finally get a win, because going winless through two seasons would have really sucked. But just to be able to get this win and finally be able to hang a banner at KBM, that’s something I’ve been wanting to do for two and a half years now.”
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.