After enduring a stressful end to the season chasing points in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, Mike Looney has a much more chill attitude heading into this weekend’s ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway.
Looney, driving for Stuart’s Billy Martin Racing, finished second in the final NWAAS national championship points race after leading the race heading into the final weekend. He won the track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, and won 13 races in all this season.
“After the season we’ve had there’s really not a lot of pressure on us,” Looney said at the Speedway last week. “Chasing those points was really, really stressful. This is all about the grandfather clock and a lot of money, so we can just come have fun. If we crash out, it’s not like our whole season goes up in smoke like it does when you’re chasing points.
“Really it’s going to be a lot more relaxed than it’s ever been for me racing this race just because of the stress we endured with the national points deal.”
Looney already has a win at Martinsville in 2016, and he said picking up a second victory at The Paperclip would “be just icing on the cake.”
The last month has been a whirlwind for Looney as he chased a first national title. Even though he came up eight points short of Minnesota driver Jacob Goede, he still finished the 2019 late model season as Virginia state champion.
His state championship got him invited to Richmond Raceway to drive the pace car for the NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400.
“It was pretty cool getting to see how all that stuff rolls,” Looney said. “It’s definitely a different world of racing. ... Forty miles an hour doesn’t quite do it for me going around the racetrack, but it was a really cool experience. I hope to maybe be able to do that some day. I doubt that’s going to happen, but it was cool to get a little smell of that anyway.”
Looney had to go through “pace car training” earlier in the day to prepare for his drive.
“You go out on the track and set the cruise control at 40 and turn the switch to turn the lights on. It’s pretty simple,” he said. “It’s neat anytime you can go around Richmond Raceway. It would have been nice to have been belted into a race car instead of that Camry, but it was neat experience.”
Looney and owner Billy Martin come to Martinsville this week with a new race car they bought at the beginning of the season. They have 11 wins in the ride, but it’s of course not the same car they won at Martinsville with three years ago.
Looney told reporters he had tried the last two years to keep the same setup on his car as he had during his winning race at Martinsville, saying he “hated to get too far away from what we ran so good with,” but found that with the race switching from day to night in 2017 that setup won’t work under the lights.
The team seemed to have it figured out at last week’s practice in which he posted the fastest speed of the day and broke the track’s late model time record.
“We know how the cars needs to feel. How we’re going to get it there, I don’t know,” he said. “It makes a really drastic change really quick when the sun goes down here.”
More notes ahead of the VSCU300:
Martinsville Speedway announced in June several changes to the format for this year’s VSCU300. Those changes include:
- Final pit stop caution will come out with 50 laps to go, instead of 10 laps last year.
- This year’s race will allow for unlimited attempts at a green-white-checkered finish. Last year there was a maximum of three overtime attempts allowed.
- Qualifying will be changed to single-car on Friday night, and the top 20 finishers will automatically qualify for Saturday’s feature race, as opposed to years past when only the top two finishers qualified.
- With the changes to qualifying, there are also changes to the heat races given the fewer number of cars. There will now be two 50-lap heat races, rather than three 25-lap races, with the top 10 from both heats moving on to the feature. The last-chance heat race will be eliminated.
- During the feature race, changes to the car are no longer limited to just at the stage breaks. There will also be no engine rule changes during the event.
CE Falk hoping for history
Since the late model race at Martinsville changed formats in 1995, no driver has won back-to-back races.
CE Falk, winner of the 2018 VSCU300, is hoping to change that.
“It would work for me,” Falk said with a laugh. “To even win this race and be able to go back-to-back is crazy.”
Falk admitted the 2019 season hasn’t been up to par for him – he has no wins and seven top-5 finishes in 12 races between Langley and Motor Mile Speedways – but feels like he and his team are peaking at the right moment.
“I feel like I got my car better toward the end of the season,” he said. “The wins haven’t been there, but I feel like we’re kind of on the upswing going into Martinsville, and that’s always really important.”
Falk told reporters he believes the new format will change with final pit stops coming with 50 laps to go will the dynamic of this year’s race, but the finish will likely remain just as intense.
“I think everybody starts this race pretty chill,” he said. “Everybody wants to make it to the end, everybody is pretty cool, and I think that’s why the last couple years you’ve seen long green flag runs in the first hundred laps. ... Inside the car, 15 laps to go, that last caution, the intensity just goes through the roof. Everybody within a sniffing chance of trying to win a clock is going to go after it. That’s what you see every year.”
Berry, Pollard team up with JR Motorsports
Josh Berry has been driving full time for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports since 2016 but has yet to post a top-5 finish at Martinsville Speedway.
For this year’s race Berry will be joined by Bubba Pollard, a super late model veteran who was running near the front during last year’s VSCU300 before getting knocked out in a late restart and finished 26th.
Pollard said he’ll lean on his new teammate this weekend and is excited by the new opportunity.
“I got a great opportunity this year with JR Motorsports and Josh here,” Pollard said. “These guys go out and win races each and every week and I’ve got to perform as a race car driver. It’ll be fun working with these guys, and we’re looking forward to it.
“We don’t get to run these race cars very much, but it’s fun. I enjoy it so hopefully we’ll have a good weekend.”
“I’m excited to be here,” Berry said. “We’re excited to have Bubba with us this weekend, and we should have two good opportunities to run up front.”
Berry said he hopes the changes to the race format allows for “things to happen a little bit more naturally.”
“I definitely like it. I think it was something that was needed,” Berry said. “I feel like each year it kept getting pushed and pushed closer to the race. ... For us I think it should be a lot of fun.
Here’s a bit more about what drivers had to say about the upcoming weekend:
Pollard: This kind of racing here at Martinsville is kind of next level for me. I race late models and run super late models all over the country, and racing at Martinsville is cool. It’s got a lot of history and hopefully one day we can get us a clock.
Looney: This is probably the biggest late model race in the country that I know of. Having won it in 2016, seeing what that did for my career, if you can do it again that can’t be bad for you. Everybody brings their best piece and all the hard work.
It’s a real showcase of talent and then with about 10 to go it’s not so much a showcase of talent.
I just really enjoy racing at Martinsville. It’s fun. You can run hard for a while, you’ve got to be running conservative. It’s a lot of things that goes into running this race. It makes it fun strategy-wise and just flat out driving-wise.
Lee Pulliam (two-time VSCU300 winner): It would definitely mean a lot to me and the crew (to win). We’ve had a great year all year, raced against some good guys. I think it’s going to be a heck of a show for everybody. Every driver puts a lot of emphasis on this event and it’s going to be a tough one to win.
Cara Cooper is the sports editor of the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach her at (276)638-8801 ext. 241.