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A three-peat this family-owned NASCAR team doesn’t want to have

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Not long ago, Tommy Joe Martins did not sound like someone who wanted to operate his own race team again.

During a 2018 appearance on the NASCAR on NBC podcast, he recalled the struggles his team, Martins Motorsports, faced when it attempted to compete in the Xfinity Series in 2014 and the Truck Series three years later on shoestring budgets.

Each effort ended with the team shutting down.

Two years later, he is days away from attempting to make the Xfinity season opener at Daytona in his own car.

“I can tell you I certainly did not want to go do this again,” Martins says.

For the third time in seven years Tommy Joe Martins and his family-owned team are making an attempt at the NASCAR dream.

What makes him think this time will be any different?

Friday, Jan. 24: 21 Days before Daytona

Tommy Joe Martins answers his phone promptly at 9:30 a.m. ET.

For Martins, it’s even earlier. He answers from Las Vegas before the sun rises on what will be his 14th straight day of work.

Luckily this will be a half-day of work for Martins, who teaches Corvette owners how to drive their cars at the Ron Fellows Racing School.

“It keeps me driving something and I’m actually able to make money rather than just sitting around and working out,” Martins says. “I’m able to have a kind of normal existence over here.”

While earning money in Vegas, he is roughly 2,200 miles from where Martins Motorsports’ resurrection is taking place.

The Martins Motorsports shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Daniel McFadin)

The team is taking form in a shop in the Mooresville Motorsports Center, a complex of buildings that neighbors the Mooresville Dragway and where one can find the homes to multiple racing teams, including Young’s Motorsports’ Truck Series team and JR Motorsports’ late models program.

When asked about his team’s previous demises, even Martins notes the need for a clarification.

“This is probably a bad thing I have to refer to which time we shut the team down,” Martins says.

Of their first Xfinity effort in 2014, Martins recalls “a terrible plan and a rookie driver and rookie people” that waylaid his team.

“I can honestly say we had no idea what we were doing,” Martins says. “That was a group of people that thought they knew something that really didn’t. We had a hauler that was coming apart at the seams. We had these old Turner (Motorsports) cars that were really tough to get some parts for. Dodge at the time had completely stopped making body parts, so we couldn’t even get Dodge body parts.

“The only thing we could get was engines and we thought that was enough. We had some people that had kind of been on the fringes of NASCAR and they just didn’t have the experience in the Nationwide (Series) at the time and we were trying to do it with them because we were running the whole team out of Nashville.”

With the Truck Series effort – which was based out of the Mooresville shop – it came down to money. After the 2017 season the team “kind of got the chair pulled out from under” it when the people writing the checks “backed out all at once.”

Those episodes are part of a racing career that Martins has estimated cost his family “hundreds of thousands of lost dollars.”

After the second closing, Martins had safe harbor due to racing for BJ McLeod in 2017, a gig that would continue in the Xfinity Series into 2019 before he moved to Carl Long’s team.

Which brings us to the how and why of Martins Motorsports’ second rebirth.

FALLBACK OPTION

After a season split between racing for McLeod and Long in Xfinity, Martins had aimed to run full-time for Long in 2020.

But it became apparent to him, his father Craig and co-owner Rodney Riessen that there wouldn’t be room for him at Long’s team in 2020. Martins’ father says Long was “pretty committed” to Chad Finchum and Timmy Hill, who had competed in most of the Xfinity races for Long last year, while Martins only ran nine.

The Martins Motorsports side of the operation had purchased three old JGL Racing cars, one of which was a road course car. While it was fielded with one of Long’s engines, the car was theirs.

“So we essentially had told Carl, ‘Look, one of the reasons we’re doing this is if we can’t work out a deal for next year, we’re going to put together our own team,’” says Martins. “Because we felt we already had the basics of it. We had cars, we had some pit equipment. … We had put a lot of the structure in place as a fallback option.”

Added Martins: “It is with some reluctance that we are doing this.”

Some coaxing from Martins Motorsports’ new co-owner broke that reluctance.

A FRIENDLY PUSH

Rodney Riessen has been a friend and Tommy Joe’s biggest supporter for a decade, ever since he competed in late models near his home in Como, Mississippi.

Riessen and Martin’s father work together in construction in the concrete business, with Riessen serving as a sub-contractor for Craig.

A native of Sioux City, Iowa, Riessen is a long-time fan of racing, specifically dirt racing. But don’t ask him about what goes on underneath the hood.

“I know very little about cars,” Riessen says. “I don’t even work on my own car.”

When it came to being a sponsor of Martins, Riessen was OK with keeping his role simple. On a recent visit to Mooresville, Riessen ran a series of errands for the team, including picking up radios and uniforms.

Rodney Riessen with Tommy Joe Martins in 2009 when Martins climbed into a NASCAR Truck Series vehicle for the first time (Photo via Tommy Joe Martins’ Twitter).

But Riessen wants to help put Martins in the best position possible for his career, and there had been conversations for a few years about Riessen increasing his involvement.

“I believe Tommy Joe is a very good driver,” Riessen says. I think we’ve always done him a disservice by putting him in, at best, mediocre equipment. I’m like, Tommy’s getting up there in the age (33) where he doesn’t have many years left to race, let’s give him his best shot ever.

“My goal with this whole thing, this year and next year, Craig and I just build the company of Martins Motorsports a little bit and then towards the end of next year, transition from Tommy Joe being the driver into Tommy Joe being the driver (and owning) Martins Motorsports, we hand the company over to him and just let him make his dream come true and then all I have to do is show up to the track.”

Craig’s reaction to Rodney’s push to field their own team was understandable given their track record.

“I told him, ‘Man, you gotta be crazy,’” Craig recalls over the phone from his home in Mississippi, later adding, “I fell for it I guess.”

“He really loves it,” Craig says of Rodney. “He’s extremely passionate about it. Probably more so than me. I’ve told people for years, ‘I don’t love racing, I love my son.’ And (Rodney) loves racing. … Here we go again.”

SPONSOR WOES BE GONE

Auto racing requires money and while Craig Martins has his construction company, funding his son’s racing dreams over the years has not been easy, including taking out a full-value loan on his house in 2016 which is still being paid off.

He says his investment in the team has been “substantial.”

“Probably more than we oughta do,” Craig says. “Our family’s been in racing for quite a while now with lots of ups and downs. We’re not like a lot of the people out there in racing that have millions they can just waste on racing, so it’s always been a struggle. … We just know how hard it is.”

The burden the team faced going into 2020 was made easier during a two-day stretch over the Christmas holiday while Tommy Joe visited his family in Mississippi.

He had contacted Ken Gilreath, who sponsored him in races at Bristol over the last few years. Martins called only expecting Gilreath to commit to Bristol again.

“He said basically, ‘How much are you trying to raise? How much are you really needing to do this?’” Martins recalls. “When I told him, he said ‘Ok, well let me get back to you’ and called me back the next day and said ‘Can I just write you a check for this much?'”

The amount offered elicited a response of “Are you kidding me?” from Martins.

Gilreath’s properties, AAN Adjusters and Gilreath Farms Red Angus, will be on Martins’ No. 44 Chevrolet for 25 of the 33 races this year. Another long-time sponsor, Diamond Gusset Jeans, will be on the car for four races.

Inside Martins Motorsports’ shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (By Daniel McFadin).

“It completely changed the outlook of our season and I can say that with extreme confidence,” Martins says. “We were going to have to do this with a shoestring budget, really small, could not withstand a lot of bad luck or anything bad happening to us, especially early going.

“Now we were able to buy more equipment, hire people earlier (four full-time employees), get a hauler (purchased from the defunct TriStar Motorsports) and really dress all of our stuff up to where we really did look professional showing up to our first race. It completely changed the way we’re approaching the season from a competitive standpoint.”

To put it in perspective, before Gilreath came on board, Martins was mapping out a season where he’d ask sponsors for $10,000 per race weekend.

“That was basically going to help us pay for my tires,” Martins says. “Ken didn’t cut me a check for that amount of money, alright? That’s about as close as I can get with it.”

Tommy Joe puts Martins Motorsports’ budget for the year “somewhere around a million bucks.

“That’s to do everything: to pay people, that’s travel, that’s your engines, tires, everything.  “

Thursday, Jan. 30: 13 days before Daytona

 It’s late afternoon and Martins Motorsports’ resurrection continues under the watchful eye of crew chief Danny Johnson.

In the team’s shop – which it rents from L.W. Miller, the director of motorsports at JR Motorsports – five men are at work on four of the team’s five cars. Above their heads hangs a banner from when J.R. Heffner won an Eldora heat race for the team in 2016.

Martins Motorsports’ shop crew. From left: Brad Perez, Jay Lopez, Craig Osborne, Ryan Towels, Dan Pharr and crew chief Danny Johnson. (By Daniel McFadin)

Two of them are interns from the NASCAR Technical Institute who will become full-time employees later in the year.

The group operates in a shop small enough for team members to affectionately refer to it as a “studio shop” or “Hendrick’s parts room.”

A 45-year-old Virginia native, Johnson is preparing for his first full-time season as a crew chief in NASCAR.

A seasoned car chief, Johnson’s first chance to crew chief in the Xfinity Series came last year with Carl Long’s team, including five races with Finchum and one with Tommy Joe.

With the Martins announcing their intentions to field a team in the middle of December, Johnson has only been on the job for a month at this point, working 12-15 hours days, six days a week.

“If you had come last week, the level of intensity and the stress level was probably thru the roof,” Johnson says. “This week not so much. Just fighting a lot of little things.”

That includes getting the right parts and pieces for two of their cars, which were purchased from GMS Racing after it folded its Xfinity operation at the end of last season.

“Some of the parts and pieces that are on our other (cars) don’t fit up to this, so we’ve been changing some odd and ends stuff there,” Johnson says. “But for the most part the stress level is, it’s up there. … If this wasn’t a complete startup deal, it wouldn’t be as bad. But we got a little later start than the rest of our competition.”

While Martins Motorsports is going into 2020 with its best sponsorship deal ever and two relatively new cars in its arsenal, they’re at a disadvantage in two important areas: Points and engines.

Due to their late start, the team was unable to buy points from any other team or lease any engines from top-tier organizations.

Combine NASCAR reducing the Xfinity field to 36 cars and the first few races guaranteeing starting spots based on last year’s points standings, and the No. 44 team can’t afford a mishap.

Martins acknowledges the “stressful time” for him and the team, but it hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for what they’re about to undertake.

“For the first time ever in my life I’m like, ‘You know what? I think we’ve got a pretty good plan here in place,’” he says. “So I am very, very blessed with the sponsors I’ve been able to find, with my dad having a partner in this business with Rodney Riessen, with Danny Johnson having experience in the Xfinity Series coming in as our crew chief. We are in a spot where it’s a better situation than I’ve ever had in my life and it just happens to be a team with my name on it.”

Winners and losers at Indy

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickWins Indy for the second year in a row and third time overall. He’s only one Indy victory behind his hero, Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Stewart-Haas Racing — Placed three cars in the top five for the first time this season and fourth time in team history. Kevin Harvick won, Aric Almirola finished third and rookie Cole Custer was fifth. For Almirola, it was his fifth consecutive top-five finish. For Custer, it was his best Cup finish. Don’t forget about Chase Briscoe. He won the Xfinity race for the organization the day before on Indy’s road course.

Matt KensethWhile he had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish at Indy, it was his best result since returning to the series and driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Also of note, the two oldest drivers in the field finished 1-2.

Brad Keselowski — Finished fourth for his third top-four finish at Indy in the last four years. 

Michael McDowellHis seventh-place finish was his best Indy finish and his second top-10 in the last three Cup races this season.

 

 

LOSERS

All those involved in the pit road crash — Brennan  Poole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Martin Truex Jr., Corey LaJoie and Ryan Preece were all eventually eliminated because of damage they suffered in a crash on pit road early in the race. Poole’s car hit Zach Price, a rear tire changer for Ryan Blaney’s team. The team stated that Price was treated and released from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis but did not disclose any injuries.

Those who suffered tire problems — Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, William Byron, Ryan Newman and Alex Bowman all hit the wall after tires went down. Hamlin crashed while leading with eight laps to go.

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.

Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”