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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.”

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

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What’s next?

In a season of change that has zoomed through NASCAR like history did in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” 100 days remain in the year. That’s plenty of time for more upheaval.

Remember the beginning of the season when talk centered on the championship race moving to Phoenix Raceway this year?

That was back when teams practiced and qualified before races, before drivers chose what lane to restart, before midweek races.

The novel coronavirus pandemic forced NASCAR and all sports to change, but when NASCAR returned after a 10-week break in May to Darlington without spectators, that was only the beginning of a season unlike any other.

Michael Jordan’s entry into the sport Monday night capped a day that started with Chip Ganassi hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 42 car next year and a report that NASCAR would add another road course to the 2021 schedule and move the All-Star Race.

The 2021 schedule has not been released so that is something to look forward to at some point in the next 100 days. The timeline on when it will be revealed continues to change, so let’s just say it will be out by Christmas, if not sooner. Who knows, there still might be more road course races on next year’s schedule. 

This is what we know of 2021: It won’t feature the Next Gen car, which has been delayed to 2022; the Daytona 500 is scheduled to open the season on Valentine’s Day; and Nashville Superspeedway will host Cup cars for the first time in June, the first in a four-year agreement.

Oh, and we also know where Bubba Wallace will be racing in 2021. He’ll drive for a team co-owned by Jordan and Denny Hamlin. JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty says of the three: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The sport’s quiet rock star, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, is watching his final full-time season — don’t worry he hints that he’ll look to run a few Cup races when his IndyCar schedule allows — end with muted fanfare in front of empty stands or socially distanced crowds.

Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce who it will add to its driver lineup with Johnson’s departure. That’s just among the unknowns with 100 days left in the year and 145 days until next year’s Daytona 500. Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez and Matt Kenseth have yet to announce plans for next year. The status of Kyle Larson’s return looms over all of them.

One of the bigger questions on the track is if Kyle Busch can win a Cup race this season. He’s won at least one series race in each of the past 15 years, a streak that ranks tied for sixth on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Tony Stewart.

“It’s really important,” Busch said of the streak. “Think about it, it’s a 16-year investment that we’ve placed on that being able to win a race in 16 consecutive seasons. Hopefully we can keep that going and get it to 17 and then to 18 or however many that I’m here.”

Busch came close last weekend at Bristol, the first time that track hosted a playoff race. It was part of the revamped playoff schedule that has Bristol, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville as elimination races, NASCAR’s way of ramping the intensity as the season comes to a close.

There weren’t fireworks on the track but the 30,000 fans at Bristol saw a spellbinding battle between Harvick and Busch for the win over the final laps. Harvick prevailed for his ninth win of the season. Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 or more races.

Fans are slowly returning to the track, although there won’t be any at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. Charlotte Motor Speedway found out Tuesday that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper will permit outdoor arenas with seating capacity of more than 10,000 to be filled to 7% capacity. Charlotte races in May were run without fans and the All-Star Race was moved to Bristol in July because Bristol could have fans and Charlotte could not.

Social initiatives, including the banning of the Confederate flag at NASCAR races and tracks, were added this summer.

“Ultimately,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in June, “when we get back to full grandstands, everyone who walks through the gates or on to our property or one of our tracks or where our races are being held will understand that they will not see the Confederate flag.”

That was among the key changes that Jordan said drew him to joining Hamlin as an owner of NASCAR’s newest Cup team.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in a statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Jordan’s entrance is significant. But the way this season has gone, a global sports icon joining NASCAR? That’s called Tuesday.

With 100 days left in the year, there’s plenty more change ahead.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” said Daugherty, a teammate to Jordan on the University of North Carolina basketball team. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”